Making a Difference with Photography

Marcus Westberg in action; photo by Jiro Ose
Marcus Westberg in action; photo by Jiro Ose

In early 2012 the Gorilla Highlands team faced a photography crisis. We were making an interactive ebook and felt dismay browsing through our photo libraries. We just didn’t have enough decent material. That’s when Marcus Westberg emailed us and presented himself as a Swedish photographer working for National Geographic’s News Watch. With his assistance the ebook ended up winning a global award but more significantly, Marcus kept returning. He has become a prime example of a Gorilla Highlands Specialist Volunteer.

In November 2015 it was your third time in the Gorilla Highlands. Is it common for you to return to certain locations?

Not this often, no. There are places I return to, but mostly in Sweden, and not necessarily for the photography. But Uganda, and the Gorilla Highlands region in particular, is an exciting place. Undeniably beautiful, but also relatively undeveloped as far as tourism goes, other than gorilla tracking. That’s an exciting time to get involved.

What is special about our region for you as a photographer?

What’s not special about it? I have traveled extensively, both in Africa and elsewhere, but the Gorilla Highlands region is truly special. Beautiful and diverse. And it’s unpredictable. The weather changes every day, so you have different light and different subjects, whether photographing landscapes, people around the lake, wildlife, or whatever it might be. I love the volcanoes.
During the Gorilla Highlands Press Trip I hiked Mt Sabinyo for the second time, and that’s somewhere I’d love to go for a third time and finally get that elusive sunrise shot. It’s magical in any weather though. And after seeing what other photographers have captured I’m also motivated to track the golden monkeys again.
The variety and diversity of people is interesting by itself, but the fact that Gorilla Highlands has such a close relationship with them offers opportunities for a photographer that you wouldn’t easily get coming to the region on your own.

Marcus Westberg's first time on Mt Sabinyo; photo by Jessica Magenwirth
Marcus Westberg’s first time on Mt Sabinyo; photo by Jessica Magenwirth

You seem to have special interest in the Batwa?

Marginalised people have always interested me. I enjoy history, both ancient and modern. I’m intrigued by the role of the Batwa within the greater context of the peoples of East Africa, and their life as it used to be. The hunting-gatherer lifestyle fascinates me. Their present situation and immediate future are unfortunately interesting for very different reasons. So being able to spend time with Batwa Today, a project that is approaching cultural tourism from a realistic point of view, is great. It’s certainly the best project of its kind I have come across, far more dignified than dressing people up in fake furs.

Johanna from the Batwa community of Rwamahano; photo by Marcus Westberg
Johanna from the Batwa community of Rwamahano; photo by Marcus Westberg

Aren’t they also really photogenic?

They are. Their faces are different, somehow. Their lives aren’t easy, and this shows very much in the lines on their faces, even at an early age. It is special when they don’t mind being photographed. Sometimes you get yelled at a little bit, but that’s just an opportunity to start a conversation.

Last time you came to the Gorilla Highlands as a Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalist, however, when you first wrote to us in early 2012 you were basically a beginner, weren’t you?

I was. I started photographing in Tasmania in 2008 while getting a degree in in environmental management. I would spend my weekends outdoors with a camera, and actually thought I was quite good. Recently I wrote an article about the island and looked through my old photos to see if there was anything useful from those three years of photography. My pictures were useless (laughs)! I found two pictures I thought were passable. So I wasn’t exactly great.
However, it was good that I thought I was. If I hadn’t I would never have bought so much equipment before moving to Kenya in 2011, where I did my thesis. I spent ten months in the Masai Mara looking at communication between guests and guides, focusing on conservation objectives and park rules. My research required relatively little time, so I devoted much of those months to photography. I had a Landcruiser and free access to the reserve, I was involved in projects monitoring and profiling lions and elephants, and I took photos. Lots of them.

A brother and sister reaffirm their bonds with grooming in Kenya's Masai Mara; photo by Marcus Westberg
A brother and sister reaffirm their bonds with grooming in Kenya’s Masai Mara; photo by Marcus Westberg

Was your plan to go deeper into photography already there at that time?

The desire was there but there was no plan. I was aware that I was photographing at a level that was not quite good enough. The National Geographic connection changed a lot. One of the projects in Kenya, run by the Anne K Taylor Fund, was sponsored by the National Geographic Society and needed help with photos. They don’t pay when they publish your photos online, but it does help to be associated with the National Geographic brand when you travel around.

These days your trips are sponsored but how was it in the beginning?

The first big trip was driving around Eastern and Southern Africa for ten months, and already having a car meant that it was only a matter of paying for fuel, and repairs. There were a lot of exchanges with lodges, photographing rooms and sharing photos from the experiences. In most cases that also included activities and meals, so my first focus was not to make money but to minimise costs. And when that was done I started looking for opportunities to earn.

A Himba girl in northern Namibia, her skin covered with a mixture of ochre and butter fat; photo by Marcus Westberg
A Himba girl in northern Namibia, her skin covered with a mixture of ochre and butter fat; photo by Marcus Westberg

Was the push to invest so much of yourself into photography internal or external? Did people tell you you had talent? It’s quite a risky step.

Absolutely. Risky in more ways than one. A lot depends on your confidence. If you lose belief in yourself then it doesn’t really matter if you are good or not, because you have no ground to stand on. You lose the base that is essential to keep your goals in sight. Photography is a lot about being able to sell yourself, and that’s hard to do without self belief.
Right from the beginning I directed a lot of my efforts towards projects and organisations; I didn’t want to be just taking pretty pictures. Pretty pictures are nice to have as they motivate travel magazines to help pay for the camera gear and they provide opportunities to travel, but at the end of the day you want to make a difference. I saw photography as a way of doing that.

Do you have any estimate of how much you have invested into your 30-40 kilos of gear?

Better not (laughs). It is a significant amount, maybe around 50,000 euros. Maybe more. Probably more. Oh dear.

Marcus Westberg and a small part of his gear; photo by Ashton Juma
Marcus Westberg and a small part of his gear; photo by Ashton Juma

That sounds like something that can’t be repaid easily. As a professional photographer you make money but the motivation must be somewhere else. If you invest so much money into your gadgets, where is this leading to? Is that a way to a stable life?

Well, who wants a stable life (laughs)? I have a few advantages: I practically travel all the time, so I don’t pay rent, I don’t have bills, I don’t have a car that needs to be paid. Of course there is a vision of financial stability and some semblance of a stable life in the future, but I knew from the very beginning that there would be an investment in time and money to get to where I want to be. Different people would approach that in different ways; for me it was always a matter of going all in.

Are there many photographers globally who are actually making a decent living?

Certainly not as a percentage of the total. Most of the photographers I know have another profession as well, or they work with commercial photography, perhaps weddings or advertising. But of course they also have houses they have to pay for, whereas I don’t. There are a number of travel and wildlife photographers who are very successful, of course, but we all work in different ways. Most of my Scandinavian colleagues go on a trip for two weeks and they will do perhaps three to five stories in that time. I don’t. I like to take my time, spend time in places. I like to take it slow to have extra days to ensure I give myself a decent chance to get the photos I want. That’s a lifestyle choice. If you do five stories in ten days and you want to get back home as soon as possible, that is not quality of life, not to me. I would rather make less money and travel slower.

A thunderstorm rolls in over the normally arid Karoo, South Africa; photo by Marcus Westberg
A thunderstorm rolls in over the normally arid Karoo, South Africa; photo by Marcus Westberg

What has changed for you as you have gotten deeper into photography?

As a photographer you have to learn to see the world in pictures rather than simply trying to capture what you see, if that makes sense. There are times I don’t take the camera out even if I am in a very beautiful place, because I don’t see the photos. Likewise, there are times where you can get beautiful photographs in what might at first glance appear to be a wholly uninspiring place. A lot of people say it is good to put the camera down and not always see the world through the lens, but for me it is often the other way round. I see a lot more and pay attention to details in a different way when I am out photographing. It means seeing light, color and patterns in a way that doesn’t matter that much when you are just enjoying a view.

Can you give our readers an idea of how a travel photographer’s day looks like?

Many people have a romanticized view of it. They imagine you go around to beautiful places and take a few snaps, and that’s the dream job. And of course it is a dream job in many ways, but that doesn’t make it an easy one. I very rarely sleep beyond dawn, and while early and late in the day is often the best time to photograph, being out on an assignment often means working throughout the day, if not behind the camera then on the computer. In addition to photo editing and sorting, there’s also texts to be written, emails, organisation of upcoming trips, website work, and so on.
And it’s hard work, physically. Some photographers travel with minimal gear. I don’t. Photographing everything from landscapes and wildlife to portraits and interiors, I probably have 30 kilos of gear, a lot of which comes along up volcanoes or when gorilla tracking. And let’s not underestimate the pressure that comes with photographing for an assignment rather than for yourself. Not getting good photos of a variety of subjects isn’t really an option. So it’s hectic, but it’s certainly worthwhile. I get to experience incredible things. I basically choose what I want to see and do, and where in the world – usually I can make it happen. That is an incredible privilege.

An old Moroccan man finds being photographed at such close range a fairly amusing experience; photo by Marcus Westberg
An old Moroccan man finds being photographed at such close range a fairly amusing experience; photo by Marcus Westberg

What about a travel photographer’s month? What have you done since leaving us?

I spent December and the early part of January in Uganda and Rwanda, traveling to the north (Karamoja, Kidepo, Murchison) and taking photos for Matoke Tours and then leading a guided trip from Sweden – including a visit back to Lake Bunyonyi and to our Batwa friends. I went back to Sweden for two or three days, then flew to Morocco, where I spent seven weeks. I’m working on a project with the Moroccan National Tourism Organisation, photographing the country’s diverse regions and people. I just got back to Sweden for another short break, but the work in Morocco will continue throughout much of this year. Next up is the Nomads Festival in the Sahara, probably followed by a short trip to Palestine. After that, a month or so in and around Morocco’s High Atlas mountains. And then? Tunisia, I think, and I’d really like to get back to Kenya…

You didn’t mention many Non-African countries. Is that a coincidence or an expression of your dominant interest?

Africa is absolutely a dominant interest, although not my only one. There are other parts of the world that I am very keen to see. I did spend half a year in Southeastern Asia last year. It was nice, but just not my cup of tea. It doesn’t hold the same meaning for me as Africa does.

What’s special about Africa for you?

It’s a combination of many things. There is a certain sense of familiarity. Although I am not a particularly spiritual person, I do recognise spiritual importance of this being the continent where we evolved as a species. That interests me greatly, and gives being here a whole other importance and meaning. Normally I am not much for hot humid tropical climates, so there are parts of Africa I would not enjoy working in. I like open spaces, drier climates, mountains – so much of Eastern Africa suits me. I like African people, if you will forgive my generalisation. They are definitely photogenic, and at least outside of cities easily approachable. There is just so much here, so many places I would like to go back to, and new places to explore.

Marcus Westberg taking portraits in Rwanda; photo by Miha Logar
Marcus Westberg taking portraits in Rwanda; photo by Miha Logar

Only for the sake of those who are scared of Africa – do you feel safe here?

I get that question a lot but, after driving around Africa for a year I don’t remember a single situation where I didn’t feel safe enough. I would feel less safe in cities, but that goes for any city in the world, including Europe. In the countryside I really haven’t ever been worried about anything or anybody. I have never found myself in any threatening situation.

What are the biggest frustrations during your travels?

It is not normally a single event. If things go wrong over a long period of time, or the weather doesn’t cooperate, or you are dealing with people who are not particularly easy to work with, or you end up having to deal with something back home on a non-existent internet connection, that can make it difficult to enjoy the work and experience. You don’t have family around you. You might not even be able to call anyone to talk. But you learn to let that go. The next day you will meet someone that is a lot nicer, restoring your mood and belief in what you are doing.

Balloons float silently above the thousands of ancient temples of Bagan, Myanmar; photo by Marcus Westberg
Balloons float silently above the thousands of ancient temples of Bagan, Myanmar; photo by Marcus Westberg

Do you often get tired of it all?

It does get exhausting. I am looking at cutting down on these six-month long trips, as I recognise that it is necessary to recharge my energy levels from time to time, to touch base with my roots. It is actually always really nice to come back to Edirisa on Lake Bunyonyi, because it does feel like home. Not because there is less work to do here, just because it is familiar.
At the end of the day, the key is storytelling. I think traveling for the sake of traveling would not interest me that much. Photography gives me purpose. There are important messages in travel photography, the ability to influence how people travel, and where. Which is why I will be back to the Gorilla Highlands region again. There are stories to tell. Since every story is different, finding the necessary energy to discover and tell the next one is never that difficult.

Marcus Westberg feeling at home at Lake Bunyonyi; photo by Jessica Magenwirth
Marcus Westberg feeling at home at Lake Bunyonyi; photo by Jessica Magenwirth

interview: Miha Logar, Katharina Lahner, Jane Mulungi; transcript: Katharina Lahner

Read more about:
Volunteering | Press Trip in November 2015