Wildopeneye talks with Ann and Steve Toon, founders of Project African Rhino about what makes them ‘click’.
Images are all copyright Ann and Steve Toon.
Wildopeneye first heard of the enterprising husband and wife photographic team via a promising news release on their Project African Rhino website and was immediately impressed by the Toons’ use of multimedia photojournalism to raise the profile of African Rhino conservation work.
You may well have seen and admired their work yourselves over recent years as their outstanding nature photographs have appeared in a variety of prestigious and influential magazines and other news media in service of environmental education. The award-winning pair sell images directly from their online data-base and via specialist agencies and are running The Ultimate African Wildlife Photographic Safari – a two-centred photographic safari tour in Chobe, Botswana and Zhinanga, Zululand.
The couple have now produced three conventional books and an ebook, one on Rhinos (Rhinos, Ecology and conservation of an African icon by Steve and Ann Toon ISBN 1841071196) and one focusing on improving wildlife photography techniques called Success With Wildlife Photography (ISBN 1861085540). Their ebook, written for iPad, called Giraffe is available on Amazon.
Their first book, ‘Wildlife Photography Workshops’ (2033, ISBN 1861083602) is out of print now but you can attend their Wildlife Photography Workshops for real. At the Raptors Workshop Jun 26, Jul 31, Aug 7 in the Eden Valley, Cumbria the Toons team up with Silverband Falconry for what’s got to be an amazing day of hawk and owl photography including Tawny , Barn , Snowy , European Eagle and Little Owls, also Kestrel, Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon and others, all for £120*.
In the winter they run a WInter Wildlife Weekend at Caerlaverock WWT Reserve for £165*.
Check out their Background to Rhino Poaching, probably the best explanation of the problem that we’ve seen.
“Project African Rhino came about because we’ve been passionate about rhinos since the first time we saw them in the wild. A dozen years or so ago we wrote a small book about them. At that time their conservation story was largely a successful one.
When the poaching started again, and really began to escalate, we felt we had to respond. We could see there was a knowledge gap, and that many issues surrounding the problem weren’t getting the in-depth exposure needed outside Africa. We decided we’d put a big focus on rhinos in our editorial work to raise awareness and we set up a companion blog to further promote their cause on social media.
It’s a tiny drop in the ocean, but from the feedback we’ve had from all over the globe it’s been more successful than we thought. Originally we intended to run it for three years, but we can’t just stop now with all that’s still going on.”
That is just as well because 2014 has been the worst year for rhino poaching yet.
Ann explained how the couple evolved as conservation photographers.”We both have a background as journalists and editors; the day jobs before we embarked on wildlife photography as a second career. Finding stories and communicating them to a range of different readers is what we’re trained to do. Although we worked on magazines and papers in the professional, business sector – about as far from wildlife and conservation as you can get – the skills are the same whatever the subject. When we began in wildlife photography we thought ‘brilliant’, it’s goodbye to tight deadlines and demanding editors, but we soon realised that it made commercial sense to utilise our journalistic expertise and make it part of our ‘USP’.
The Toons run their impressive photographic gallery www.toonphoto.com as a husband-and-wife photographic team based near Kielder in Northumberland, where they conduct wildlife photography along with some workshops with Raptors in the Eden Valley and with migratory and resident birds in Dumfries and Galloway.
As photographers the Toons work as a couple and have developed a similar working style. “Although we can be quite competitive we’ve learned that things work best by operating as a team. Because we work closely together we know pretty much what we want or need to achieve from any given situation. It would be nice to have the time for personal projects where we could develop more of an individual style perhaps, but we’re just too busy. We have influenced each other to an extent over the years by suggesting ideas for compositions, different approaches to a subject and so on to each other so that our styles have merged as our career’s evolved. It’s a case of two heads being better than one. The great thing on occasions where we’re both shooting the same subjects at the same time is that, being two of us, we can cover more of the angles.”
When asked about the rewards and challenges of their photography they said,
“We started out with our eyes wide open. We knew we were never going to be rich doing this job. We came on the scene just as the returns people were seeing from stock agencies started dropping so we never had any expectations that cheques would simply drop onto the mat. But we were happy to give up the healthy, regular pay-checks we received in London for something more precarious, because we were looking for a vocation rather than a job, and also a better quality of life.
The upside of what we do is huge – we see and experience amazing wildlife and wild places, meet amazing people, are always learning something new, we live in a national park and no two days are the same. If we have an idea, we can make it our own and the challenge of seeing our projects through from start to finish is immensely satisfying. Furthermore we can try to make a small difference about the things care passionately about.
The downside is that it’s a full-time commitment, we’re working more often than we’re not and there’s a lot of boring ‘bread and butter’ stuff required to help fund the overseas trips. The office-based time spent on admin, organisation and marketing means we don’t get to do any where near as much photography as we’d like.
In today’s tough market our time is increasingly spent simply fighting for a fair return for our work. To do this job properly demands a big investment of time and cash which is barely recognised by many end users of our images.”
When they lived in London, and, long before they ever picked up cameras the Toons used to go to the Natural History Museum to see the winning images in the BBC Wildlife competition each year and attended the seminars held there in conjunction with the exhibition. Ann says “Listening to the photographers’ stories and seeing their work was inspiring. It must have sown a seed somewhere because around the same time we got itchy feet and took a sabbatical from work to go travelling. We spent the first six months in Namibia and South Africa, mainly in game parks, and got completely bowled over by the wildlife and the bush. We knew that we had to make this world a big part of our life. We’d met some photographers on our travels, and one night, after a beer or two round our campfire in the Kalahari we rather naively (or drunkenly) resolved to become wildlife photographers and return to the bush as often as we could – despite the fact that we had no kit to speak of and no experience. We’ve spent the rest of our time since then discovering the hard way how to make this happen…”
Their perseverance has paid off, for sure. Why the Kalahari? we asked, “It’s one of those remote places you read and wonder about as a child,” they explain. ” It intrigued us. At the time of our first visit, just to get there you faced 150 km+ of very rough, dirt road after an endlessly long stretch of tarred road in the middle of nowhere. We wanted to know what was at the end of that long dusty journey, so we set off. Our reward was a vast, hauntingly beautiful reserve unlike any other we’ve visited, before or since. Pictures don’t come easily there so you definitely appreciate the reward for your effort.”
“There’s a real sense of place, of the way the wildlife has adapted to the harsh conditions and is in thrall to its rhythms. We’re still being surprised by the new things it has to show us even after nearly 20 years of visiting.”
Is it possible to pick out some favourite photographic experiences we asked?
“We’ve been lucky to have had lots of brilliant encounters and photo opportunities. Some of the fantastically intimate encounters we’ve had with the Kalahari’s desert-adapted creatures would qualify. Spending hours observing and photographing the intimate behaviour of a family of silver fox cubs in the denning season springs to mind. At the other extreme it’s not every day you get to witness and photograph keyhole surgery being performed in the middle of the bush on a wild elephant bull by a team of crack US vet surgeons in full scrubs and with elephant-size surgical instruments. That was fascinating. And last year we were very lucky to see and photograph a huge herd of buffalo swimming across the Chobe river which is not an everyday sight. Photographing them up close from the water was pretty special. But we can get just as enthused photographing the adders and lizards down the road near home in Northumberland when they emerge after the winter – although our results mightn’t be so exotic!”
When asked about what they enjoy best about their photographic work, the Toons answer, “In Africa it’s got to be the anticipation, and excitement, of going out each day and not being being able to predict in any way what, if anything you’ll find. That and then seeing some special, exciting bit of behaviour unfold – even if you don’t come away with a decent picture out of it.”
When it comes to decent pictures, they have captured a wonderful variety of African wildlife, people and wild places, check out the Toons’ on-line gallery http://toonphoto.photoshelter.com/gallery-list .
While pre-envisioning images is important to a certain extent and the Toons say that they have a wish-list to capture, “but more often than not we end up ripping this up and starting again – responding to what’s out there when we’re on the ground. Nature has a wonderful way of messing with your best-laid plans.”
The Toons have seen and photographed some amazing things in some very wild places around the world, wildopeneye asked them to share a few interesting anecdotes with our readers.
“We did once get stuck in an elephant sandwich, whilst photographing in one southern African reserve, which was a bit hairy. We were busy photographing and didn’t see the danger until almost too late. Two large bulls in musth were fighting in the veld and suddenly they were right upon us, right behind our vehicle. We couldn’t go forward because a breeding herd of elephants was blocking our escape so we had to stay put.
It got worse when one of the bulls backed off and his opponent, still in the mood for a battle, decided to take his frustration out on our vehicle by leaning on it. There was nothing we could do but cross our fingers he’d go away.
Eventually, and thankfully before doing any real damage, he got fed up and ambled off leaving us more than a little shaken and feeling extremely vulnerable and small.
Mother and child reunion
On another memorable occasion in the Kalahari we found a lone lioness feeding a very small cub not too far from the track. She was partly obscured by bushes so we couldn’t see very well, but we knew from experience she must have been concealing the cub close by so we took a gamble on her being there again the next morning for another feed. We pitched up and all was quiet. Just as we were about to give up we caught sight of her walking down the dry riverbed towards us making a low growl. She was calling to her little one.
No-one else was around. Suddenly we heard a little cry coming from the bush right next to us. It was the tiny cub answering her.
We watched as mum and offspring were re-united and we were able to quietly photograph and enjoy the moment as the two socialised together after a night apart.”
UK Wildlife Photography
“We don’t have time to photograph at home as much as we’d like, but we’re trying to do more. We live in the Northumberland National Park so there’s tons of great stuff close to home, although the weather and light isn’t always ideal! We love the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s Caerlaverock reserve in Dumfries and Galloway in the winter months when the Barnacle Geese are there in their thousands and the Farne Islands, off our stunning north-east coastline are a real haven for seabirds and seabird photography, in the summer.
Dramatic wildlife pictures can be taken in UK too. When asked what photographers come away with from Toon nature photography workshops? They answer mischievously,”Mucky trousers! We like to encourage guests on our hawk and owl workshops to photograph lying prone on the Cumbrian fells where feasible, exploring the possibility for great wide angle shots of the birds in the sweep of the natural upland landscape. Seriously though we hope they come away from the sessions tired and happy having had a great time with like-minded people, learning a few techniques, trying out a few new things and getting some great shots from the day’s varied opportunities.”
Sounds good to us. We wondered what else might be on the Toon’s horizon? “We’ve just launched our new two-centre photographic safari to southern Africa and we’re really excited about the possibilities with that at the moment.
We also would like to increase the conservation work we do if possible over the next few years as it’s clear that the threats to Africa’s wildlife – poaching and the illegal trade, climate change and human/wildlife conflict – aren’t just going to go away.
This will probably mean us doing more video down the line – another challenge and steep learning curve. We’re pretty sure we’ll be popping back to the Kalahari as often as we can manage too.
That one’s very much a lifelong project!”
For more on this remarkable photographic team, visit their:
Project African Rhino blog: