Capturing the wild

Wildlife photographer Johan Siggesson’s exhibition, Africa: Land of Icons, unveils the continent’s untamed beauty.
Elephants walking through the grass in a single file. A very common behaviour when elephants are going from one place to another. Photos: Johan Siggesson

In 2012, Johan Siggesson and his wife went on a safari holiday that would change the course of Johan’s career. Up till that point, the couple had been co-owners of a web design company, but upon returning home from the safari, Johan announced that he wanted to spend his time photographing animals in far-flung countries. It might seem like Johan’s decision came out of nowhere, but his whole life had been gently guiding him to that decision.

“My earliest memory is of me sitting on the floor of my grandma’s flat in Gothenburg where she had a huge bookcase, and my favourite book was one about wildlife from around the world. I always sat down with it whenever I visited her,” he reminisces.

“Growing up in Sweden, I was surrounded by nature all the time, so my love for it has always been there.” Marrying his love of nature to photography came much later, however. By 2012, he had married his Maltese girlfriend and moved to Malta, where they started their company. Although he had done some amateur photography while still at university, it was that fateful safari holiday that reignited his love for the art form. 

“By then, web design had lost its spark, even though I loved that job. There is little room for creativity when your clients want you to deliver exactly what they have in mind,” he confesses in a half-Maltese, half-Swedish accent.

“So I picked up my cameras again and entered the most competitive wildlife photography competition I could find, where I reached the final round. That gave me the push I needed to head in that direction.” Since then, he has been the recipient of several accolades that cemented his name as a respected wildlife photographer.

Nowadays, he leads photography safaris and tours, guiding groups of photographers that range from complete beginners to professionals, anywhere from Madagascar to Kenya to Japan and the Shetland Islands. This is also when he takes most of the photos he has become known for, many of which can be found hanging on the walls of homes all around the globe, and some of which will be exhibited at his upcoming exhibition at Christine X Art Gallery in Sliema. 

“Last October, I went to Kenya on my own to photograph elephants, particularly a 52-year-old one named Craig,” he shares. “When elephants see humans, they normally either run away or attack, but not Craig. He’s one of only 20 super-tuskers left, with each tusk weighing at least 50 kg, and he’s constantly guarded by the Maasai Warriors because of the risk of poaching.”

Apart from photos of Craig, one of Johan’s goals was to take a particular photo of a herd of elephants, which will now be part of his exhibition. “I always go with a list of photos I want to take. I am very particular about each photo and can see them clearly in my mind, to the tiniest detail,” he explains. “It took nine days for everything to come together. I had to wait for the right conditions, for the elephants to be in a line, equally spaced out, for the front elephant to have intact tusks and for its ears to be flared out.”

Johan’s aim is not to document the animals’ daily movements in the same way a National Geographic photographer might. His aim is, rather, to create art that will be treasured by people wishing to get a glimpse into a part of the world they might never get to see in person. and this level of patience and attention to detail are what set his work apart. The more I heard Johan speak about his work, the more evident his love and respect for the animals became.

The cheetah known as ‘Malaika’ meaning angel in Swahili is surveying the landscape in search of danger or food. Malaika is arguably the world’s most famous cheetah after taking part in the nature documentary series on BBC called Big Cat Diary.

“There is such a thing as fieldcraft — simple rules to follow in order to survive while out in the wild” he explains. “It is important to respect the environment and the animals you are taking pictures of. I’ve seen people being attacked by monkeys because they turned their back to them and went too close to get a selfie,” he says. “The animals usually ignore us humans, unless they feel threatened. Getting too close and not respecting them is not wise.”

Of course, working in an African desert or the icy mountains of Northern Greece comes with its own set of challenges. “We are usually in the middle of nowhere, so it can be tricky if you are unwell. Once I got a toothache while in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana,” he recalls.

“The closest town with decent health care facilities was a two days’ drive away and I couldn’t leave my clients. I tried to grin and bear it, having paracetamol the first day. By the second day, I resorted to a strong anti-inflammatory and painkiller, but it was still not enough. Some people working at our camp in the Botswana dunes offered to pull out my tooth, but I politely declined after seeing a huge pair of pliers hanging there. Then I remembered that there were three veterinarians in the group who said that, considering my weight, they reckoned I could double the dose, which I did. Luckily, my body could take it and I made it through the rest of the trip.” 

As the curtain rises on Johan’s upcoming exhibition, his work is a powerful reminder that the preservation of his photos’ subjects and of their natural habitat is in our hands.

Africa: Land of Icons opens tomorrow and runs at Christine X Art Gallery in Sliema until February 29.

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