Interview By Christine Thompson
AMFM: As a creative, what inspires you to pick up the camera and decide to go to work?
CHRIS DEI: I always have a camera with me even when I’m not officially working. Going to work as such, is not something I consciously do because there’s a type of awareness in how I experience life, and things just seem to manifest. When they do, I’m there to record them – I’m just a vehicle with the engine always running…
When I’m on location in Africa it’s basically the same. I remember reading a quote somewhere “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”. That’s so true. In that sense, I never really decide to go to work. I’m just available and the work happens.
AMFM: Is it a fluid dynamic for wildlife photography? That is, do you just show up where you think the animals can be found and wait or– is there a major planning session beforehand?
Chris Dei: It’s a combination of both really. There’s a lot of planning involved as far as mapping out the logistics of what part of the country I want to be shooting in during that trip, and then putting together a plan with my team. But I’ve worked with the same crew year after year so that is usually just a matter of meeting for an afternoon.
If I’m there specifically to shoot elephants for example, I’ll head for Amobselli or Tsavo. If I’m there for the wildebeest migration, I’ll head for the Mara. So in that sense, there is a basic plan. But once we arrive at the location for the planned shoot, I just stay open. Sometimes I will imagine a shot – envision it – but I don’t go looking for it unless the potential arises on its own. It’s best to just stay open to whatever the day brings. I’m working out of a tent for weeks at a time, sunup until past sundown, so there’s plenty of time to wait….it’s not like we have to be back to camp or we’ll miss dinner :}
AMFM: What types of precautions do you take when photographing wild animals?
CHRIS DEI: I’m generally very cautious around mothers with babies. Mothers with babies have a heightened sense of awareness and can often be unpredictable. Also, every species has a different circle of comfort. That’s the area that safely separates where you are from where they are. You instinctively come to know what that is for each species, and have to be aware that if you cross that line you’re definitely going to be at risk. Most animals have signs that will tell their degree of discomfort with your proximity. An elephant for example, will begin to flap its ears as a warning. If you ignore that it may stomp it’s foot. Then it will charge. It’s your job to be familiar with the signs and pay close attention when they occur. That’s not always easy because when you’re looking through the lens, you don’t always have an accurate sense of perception as to how close an animal really is. That’s when it becomes critical to have a highly competent wilderness guide with you who’s watching your back. I have worked with the same guide for a very long time; he is critical to my peace of mind while I work – and has prevented potential disaster on more than one occasion.
AMFM: Can you give us a description of a particularly exciting shoot? Exciting either because something during the shoot itself was amazing and unexpected or because you knew as you photographed that something special what’s happening?
CHRIS DEI: There are so many of those that come to mind. Every image in the gallery collections has a story behind it. There are times when the object of a particular shot is to show a personality trait of an individual or species. I remember coming upon a small group of rhinos basking under a tree. Rhinos can be fierce and are much faster then you might think, but these things are very difficult to portray in an image because they’re also lazy! I knew if I got close enough the biggest one would get up, but it would be risky. I really wanted the shot so I set up for it inside the vehicle, and then directed my driver to approach. On risky shots like that we usually have the engine running so we can leave quickly, but much to the dismay of my driver, since the camera was on a tripod, the engine had to be turned off because of the vibration. As soon as he turned off the engine, the rhino got up, put his head down low, and came right for us. I got one frame but I knew I nailed it. By the grace of God the ignition worked on the first try –also an extraordinary stroke of luck in an African landrover- and we just made it. (You can see that shot on the website in the collection called Spirits of the Serengeti Chapter 1. The title is “The Mighty Rhino”).
AMFM: What do you hope people experience/ feel as they view your photos?
CHRIS DEI: For me, there is a sense of timelessness– an eternal rhythm that one feels very powerfully in the heart of Africa. You can see the whole universe in the eye of an elephant, and feel the connection with all things. I have always experienced a tremendous sense of peace in the wilderness. If my work brings a little of that to the viewer–feeling awe and respect for the majestic beauty of the planet we live on, and the desire to protect the right of all living things to live in peace on this earth, then it has fulfilled its purpose.
AMFM: Art can be expressed in many ways through many mediums. What did your training as a musician bring to your experience as a photographer? Are there any parallels in the creation of music and the creation of a moment caught in time?
CHRIS DEI: I think that achieving excellence in any field has very similar requirements. But the similarities in the evolution of a musician and a visual artist are striking. First and foremost: Discipline, Patience, and the ability to focus for long periods of time. One also has to be comfortable with the isolation that comes from working alone–being alone. But these are just the pragmatic things. On a deeper level, both fields require one to be able to lose the Self. That is, to become like a hollow bamboo – through which the art manifests, rather than the artist “making” the art. That is when the magic happens. If you listen to Glenn Gould play Bach or stand in front of a Rembrandt painting, it is the same. It’s a transcendence. You must be able to transcend the little Self, to get lost, to become a vehicle for something much bigger than your little self. It’s almost like you disappear. And when you come back, something has happened through you, not because of you.
AMFM: What advice can you give aspiring creators who would like to follow in your footsteps?
CHRIS DEI: Don’t give up your day job :}
But if you do, be ready to give up everything for it. Everything. Art is a harsh mistress…
AMFM: How important is it to find a pathway between the creative and business sides of art? Any advice?
CHRIS DEI: I’m definitely not the one to be giving advice on this subject! It is critically important to find a pathway between the creative and business sides of art. Unfortunately, for most artists, it is a difficult combination to achieve.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is a key component of success as an artist. If there is an area in running the business side that you are particularly averse to, either bite the bullet and learn how to do it, or hire someone who does it well. Ignoring it in the hopes that it will resolve itself– doesn’t work.
Also, having reputable and conscientious agents who believe in and represent you, and are willing to go the extra mile on your behalf, is invaluable.
AMFM: What art do you go to for inspiration, be it music, words, paintings, or any other form?
CHRIS DEI: Much of my inspiration in visual art has come from studying the paintings of the great Masters – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Maas. I particularly love the Dutch Masters.
In photography, great artists of the 19th and 20th centuries– the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Andre Kertesz who were absolute Masters of design and composition, and Irving Penn for intimate portraiture. Ernst Haas for his painterly compositions and mastery of form, and of course Ansell Adams who set the standard in landscape photography.
Classical music was my first exposure to the arts and it is still a very large part of my life . I am inspired by so many kinds of music from Gregorian Chant to Chopin and Beethoven. But I love Bach. If I could only have the music of one composer to hear and play for the rest of my life it would be Bach. When I am in New York, I try to attend as many live performances as possible.
Excellence in any field inspires me. I am inspired watching an Olympic skater, hearing a world-class musician play, reading the poetry of Robert Frost, or standing in front of a great work of art. There is something that manifests at that level, that goes beyond what discipline alone produces–something greater than the individual self. That transcendence that happens at the level of excellence in any field…that inspires me.
For more information, examples of photography, or to purchase a piece visit Chris Dei’s website.