Karine Aigner is a wildlife photographer and former Senior Photo Editor for National Geographic Kids magazine. Her series White Lions features these animals which exhibit a rare color mutation of the Kruger subspecies of lion.
Where were the shots taken? If it is a zoo or game farm, you do a great job of making it feel wild. Is that something you try to do, and if so, how do you accomplish that?
‘The shots were taken at a wildlife park in South Africa. I shoot a lot in captive situations. Most of the time, the idea is to make it feel as wild as possible — given that it’s not.
‘The challenge for me is to attempt to capture the wild spirit of the animal if possible, and to give them the dignity that they might have had if they had been born and bred in the wild.
‘I try and wait for a look, a pose, a behaviour, something I know that is innate, that resonates where these animals are supposed to be. In this particular situation, these lions were born and bred for a captive existence.’
‘As a photographer, trying to tell a story, your decisions become very important. Do you include a pole? Or exclude it? Do you shoot at 2.8 to blur the background as much as possible? Or is there something behind the subject that is more important than the background and requires more aperture? How do you capture a true and natural behaviour when there is nothing natural about the situation? Are you shooting through a fence?
‘With most all of my captive work, my main goal is to make the picture with the end usage in mind. In this situation, there were two goals: the idea was to try as much as possible to make the lions look as they would in the wild, as well as to give each animal a character, so the audience could identify with them and care about them.’
Were there trainers with you while you were shooting, and if so, do you just observe or do you ask them to try to initiate certain behaviors?
‘These lions are all captive born and bred. They are born in the park, taken away from their mothers, and hand raised.
‘Since the animals are hand raised, they are accustomed to people. The handlers acted as a barrier between me and them, but ultimately they are wild animals, and I was taking a chance being on the ground with them. They were curious about me and the cameras. They grouped together when the handlers stood between us and finally sat down. Almost like a wild pride of lions.
‘I just observed. That’s the best way to capture any behaviour that looks natural. These images were taken over a period of several days, and each situation was different. Some images were shot from a vehicle, some not.’
Were the white lions harder to shoot than other large cats?
‘An animal is an animal and each animal has its own personality. Once you learn to read behaviour, it helps your photography and you might be able to anticipate what will happen next and be ready for it.
‘But in the end, any animal can be unpredictable. Photographing white lions in captivity is no different than shooting leopards in captivity. In the wild, the two cats are a bit different in behaviour. In captivity, some behaviours change. But sometimes a cat is a cat. A big lion has many of the same qualities as your small housecat.’
I don’t think most people think about the fact that most of the images they are seeing of the big cats are actually in captivity. What do you think is the future of big cats in the wild?
‘The big cats of the world, from lions in Africa to Snow Leopards in the Himalayas, need help. Their numbers are dwindling due to habitat loss and conflict with humans. This is a very serious problem.
‘There are more tigers in captivity than there are tigers left in the wild. This is a sad, but very real situation. I urge you to take a look into some of the conservation efforts happening around the world. I make a shout out to National Geographic’s BIG CAT Initiative.
‘It won’t be long before the only pictures of these fantastic animals are ones of captive animals. And while I take pride in making beautiful portraits of the creatures in captivity, it would make me very happy to never again see a big cat in an enclosure and only be able to see them in the wild, where they belong.’
This post was contributed by photographer Laura Barisonzi.
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