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. With his assistance the ebook ended up winning a global award but more significantly, Marcus kept returning.
Almost a full decade later, Marcus will be the guest of the Live Q&A held for our members on 16 May 2021. To prepare for the occasion, we have pulled an interview out from our archives and thoroughly updated it to better represent Marcus Westberg of 2021. The discussion will continue live this Saturday, but if you prefer to express yourself in writing, please leave your questions in the comments …
Marcus, you have been to our region numerous times so far, to all the three countries. Is it common for you to return to certain locations?
There are certainly places I return to more often than others, though perhaps none as many times as the Gorilla Highlands region. I enjoy discovering new places, but there is something deeply gratifying with re-visiting places you have seen before. That’s perhaps a benefit of being a photographer: a new image doesn’t require a new country, just a new perspective.
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 unpredictable. The weather changes every day, so you have different light and different subjects, whether photographing landscapes, people or wildlife. I love the volcanoes, hiking them as well as seeing them from a distance. The lakes. The wildlife, big and small. Not to mention the amazing diversity of people and cultures across the three countries, and the fact that Gorilla Highlands team has such a close relationship with them… It offers opportunities for a photographer that you wouldn’t easily get coming to the region on your own.
You seem to have special interest in the Batwa?
Absolutely. 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 has always fascinated me. Their present situation and immediate future are unfortunately interesting for very different reasons, marginalised as they are.
You also met your wife here, didn’t you?
Yes, we first met working with Gorilla Doctors, which certainly doesn’t make this region less special to me. I’ve also brought my entire family here, as a surprise trip for my father’s 60th birthday. So it is somewhere familiar to all of us by now!
Today you are a photographer of international renown, having won multiple awards with your work published all over the world. However, when you first wrote to us in early 2012 you were basically a beginner, weren’t you?
I was. I started photographing while living in Tasmania between 2008 and 2010 while obtaining a degree in in environmental management. I would spend my weekends outdoors with a camera, and actually thought I was quite good. Years later I would write an article about the island and look through my old photos to see if there was anything useful from those three years of photography. There really wasn’t (laughs)! I found two pictures I thought were passable. So I wasn’t exactly great.
Luckily I didn’t realise that at the time, and so I invested half of my savings in camera 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. And I improved
.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. I was willing to give it some time, but I knew I had to be realistic about my prospects, too. Fortunately it worked out pretty well in the end. My focus early on was very much on minimising costs rather than making money, and on finding ways to make myself useful. Photography — and many other media-related professions — are in a state of constant flux, so flexibility is important, as are relationships.
Was the push to invest so much of yourself into photography internal or external? It was a risky step…
Absolutely. I went all in, but with a time limit. I figured I’d at least get a few decent adventures out of it even if the career didn’t work out as I had hoped. And, look, many things in life feel like risky steps. I’m sure people told me I had talent, though in hindsight they probably weren’t the best judges of such things. Or they were just being polite. Either way the decision was very much my own, not influenced by anyone else.
Do you have any estimate of how much you have invested in your gear?
I’d rather not think about it, haha, though Sony making me an ambassador has been helpful in that regard.
As a professional photographer you clearly make money, but the motivation must be somewhere else. If you invest so much money into your equipment, where is this leading to? Is that a way to a stable life?
Well, who wants a stable life (laughs)? Well, we are trying to build one of those, actually. You are right, though: I could easily have made more money with a slightly different focus, so that’s not the motivation. Corny as it may sound, it’s quite simple: this is a way to make a difference, and to do so through a medium that I happen to love as well as be pretty good at.
Are there many photographers globally who are actually making a decent living?
That’s a pretty difficult question. There are ever-more photographers, but fewer and fewer are true professionals, by which I mean that they earn the majority of their income from photography. I’m talking about photojournalism, travel and wildlife, not things like news and fashion. Unless you are employed by a newspaper or some other publication able to cover costs and pay a decent salary, it’s not easy. Many wildlife or travel photographers end up guiding trips and running workshops rather than spending their time in the field actually photographing. Others might take on well-paying jobs at home — wedding photography, for example — in order to finance their own trips. Each to their own, but flexibility is definitely important.
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 around. 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 ways you may not 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, and understandably so. It’s a dream job, right? And of course it is a dream job in many ways, but that doesn’t necessarily 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 and late into the night, if not behind the camera then on the computer. In addition to photo editing and sorting, there are also texts to be written, posts to be made, emails to be answered, upcoming trips to be organised, 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 30-50 kilos of gear, a lot of which comes along up volcanoes or when tracking gorillas. Yesterday I spent the day with a group of South African rangers in a live simulation, which meant half walking, half running through the bush for almost four hours with three cameras and a backpack, keeping track of my own feet, nearby wildlife as well as the photos I needed to take.
And let’s not underestimate the pressure that comes with photographing for an assignment. Not getting good photos of a variety of subjects isn’t really an option. So it can be 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. In that, I am certainly fortunate.
It must have been very frustrating for you to be stuck in Europe due to the pandemic? Has your current assignment in South Africa gotten longer because you missed the action that much? What else do you have scheduled for 2021?
In part, yes, though it is also a matter of having an unusually open schedule — that has allowed me to extend and add more projects during my stay here. 2020 was frustrating, sure, but also a valuable lesson. I tend not to worry about things I can’t change. So, instead of worrying about not being able to travel, I spent much of last year documenting unsustainable forestry practices in my native Sweden, which is now having quite an impact [see Marcus’s article in the Guardian]. Still, I’m definitely happy to be back. The rest of the year, provided I get my vaccine, will include Kenya, Slovenia, the Azores, South Sudan, and — of course — the Gorilla Highlands MegaTrek.
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. Then there is the natural beauty and diversity, of course: the megafauna, the incredible landscapes. The variety, even within a small area, can be quite mind-blowing.
For the sake of those who are scared of Africa – do you feel safe here?
We did suspect that there was a male lion sniffing around in the dark where I was taking some night photographs last night. Other than that: no more and no less than anywhere else in the world. Common sense goes a long way, wherever you are.
What are the biggest frustrations during your travels?
I try not to get frustrated — it doesn’t help much. If I end up in a situation I am uncomfortable with I will make a decision: try to change it, ignore it, or leave. Sometimes, things don’t go as planned, and you end up the worse for it. Other times, good things happen unexpectedly. It’s best to focus on the latter.
When you hosted our responsible tourism panel recently you became more than just a photographer supporting our work. You very clearly are one of the Gorilla Highlands Experts. What is your take on what we have put together thus far, and where do you see yourself in it outside of photography?
I don’t actually see myself as a photographer — or a writer — first. We are all human before we are our professions, and I actually think our most important contributions are in how we treat one another: with kindness, compassion and understanding, hopefully. Clearly I am useful as a photographer, but I would like to think my experience of people, places and projects all over the world can provide some valuable insights in discussions on almost any topic.
Just as those discussions are an opportunity for me to learn from others, and to get new ideas, Gorilla Highlands Experts is incredibly exciting to be a part of. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns into a prototype for similar initiatives in many other places in the coming years. It’s a chance for learning and interaction as well as for local voices — alongside the occasional outsider — to be heard.