The power of the picture
John Varty interview with Sizie Modise:
SM: JV, Tiger Canyons is now rated as
the best place to photograph wild tigers. How have you achieved
JV: I believe the light at Tiger Canyons
is one of the factors. The light especially in the afternoon is some
of the best I have ever filmed and photographed in. Also the landscape
is so diverse. One can photograph a tiger posing on the rocks,
stalking through golden grass or swimming in a river. This is
special. The ability to shoot high angle and low angle is a big
SM: You have filmed and photographed all
the big cats, which photographs the best?
JV: You can't really compare them. A
cheetah running at full speed should be shot on movie at 100 frames
per second. A tiger glowing in the golden afternoon light is a
better still shot. The advantage with the tiger is it is a very
diverse cat. It will swim for fun, it will hide kills in water, it
will take kills into trees like a leopard and it will quite happily
stroll across a plain in the open like a cheetah. Tigers have
varying personalities, so they do a variety of things which provides
diverse opportunities for photography.
SM: You describe some tigers as
ambassador tigers. What is an ambassador tiger?
JV: An ambassador tiger is one that
instinctively knows that it's survival and future is tied somehow to
the camera. Julie was the ultimate Ambassador Tiger. Many times she
would bring her cubs out of the dense reeds into the open to be
photographed. Ussuri is another Ambassador Tigress. Ussuri goes out
of her way to share her cubs with the photograpers.
SM: Give an example of a non-ambassador
JV: Sariska doesn't like being
photographed. He will often move away or simply turn his head away
from the lens. His sister Panna also moves into tall grass or heavy
bush when the photographic jeeps arrive. You must remember that a
black lens represents a large round dark eye, this is a very
aggressive object in the tiger world.
SM: How important is the behaviour of
the photographer to getting good pictures?
JV: It's very important. The tiger will
pick up the energy and the mood of the people in the jeep. Loud,
aggressive demanding photographers generally don't get good
I always tell the photographers, "be patient
let the pictures come to you".
I always greet the tiger when I find it, to calm
them and reassure them and I always thank them for the sighting when I
leave. I encourage the photographers to do the same.
SM: Do some photographers demand to see
tigers & to get good photos?
JV: It is not a right to see tigers at
Tiger Canyons, it is a privilege. The tigers are not obliged to give
up their time and their space for human beings to take pictures.
Photographers should rather see themselves as joining a giant
experiment which documents the lives of wild tigers.
SM: How big a photographic attraction
is Tibo, the white tigress?
JV: She is a very big attraction. People
are fascinated with any animal that is different. Her blue eyes make
for some riveting photos.
SM: How often can you find her?
JV: Mostly we can find her, but recently
we did a safari with people from the USA and in 5 game drives, we were
unable to find her once.
Tibo can be quite moody, if she feels like being
photographed, she will pose. If she doesn't, she goes into reeds and
thick bush and remains hidden.
SM: When will she produce her first
litter of cubs and will they be white?
JV: I am hoping to mate Tibo with a normal
male so that all the cubs will be normal coloured carriers. Our
objective is wild born, wild raised, normal coloured tigers. We
would like to preserve the rarity of the white tiger.
SM: When your 3 areas become one large
area, won't it become more difficult to find and photograph tigers?
JV: It will be more difficult to find
tigers, but not necessarily lesser photos. The new area is big and
SM: How will the tigers cope in the big
area as far as hunting goes?
JV: I think initially, they will find it
more difficult to hunt. On the other hand, with more land we can
stock more prey and a wider diversity of prey. There is no doubt, to
capture high action hunting sequences will remain a big challenge
for the filmmakers and photographers.
SM: There seems to be many
international film crews visiting Tiger Canyons recently, why is
JV: I think the demise of the tiger in
Asia and the bureaucratic attitude towards tourists and filmmakers in
Indian parks means that filmmakers that previously went to India and
Nepal are coming to us. Also we have been researching the tiger for
14 years and much new behaviour has been filmed and documented at
Tiger Canyons. Film producers want this new information to give
their film an advantage in the marketplace.
SM: Do you photograph and film everyday?
JV: The good, the bad and the ugly is filmed
and photographed every single day at Tiger Canyons.
SM: The good photographers and filmmakers
that visit Tiger Canyons, what are they like as individuals?
JV: Generally skillful, tenacious,
creative, inventive, patient, sharing and knowledgeable...a pleasure
to be with.
I have learnt a huge amount from the
photographers and filmmakers and the best pictures circling around the
world are not taken by me, they are taken by visiting
SM: You have described digital
photography as a major step forward in the conservation of the
tiger. How so?
JV: It's not just the conservation of the
tiger, it is by extension, survival of all cats, all wild animals
wild places. Any person today with a digital camera can capture a
unique picture. So their interest in photography leads them to an
interest in the subject of photography, which leads them to the
Should the wild tiger become extinct, the
photographers would have lost a major opportunity for photography.
Therefore the photographers join the fight to save wild places and
wild tigers and photography is the catalyst which brought them there.
SM: Which is the better camera - Nikon
JV: I have no idea. In truth I know almost
nothing about cameras. I get other photographers to set my cameras
for me. The challenge for me is the ability of the picture to
communicate. Before a government could destroy a tiger's forest, now
they can still destroy that forest but I can film and photograph that
destruction. In addition, I can communicate that destruction
instantly around the world. This for me is the power of
SM: Where is the future for wild life
JV: Photographers must not compete, they
must complement. They must expose their pictures to a global
audience. The photographers are the cog in the global brain, the
gears that drive the communication revolution forward. We are
already seeing photography as a powerful tool in the war against
rhino poaching, the tiger body-parts trade, cruelty to animals,
pressure on wild animals in circuses. We are the first generation of
photographers to have Facebook and YouTube at our disposal, we must
use it to our full advantage. Pictures can embarrass governments,
change attitudes, influence decisions. Gone are the days when your
pictures collect dust in some cupboard. They must work to influence
for a better world.
Our failure to use our images will result in a
world with no wild places and no wild tigers and nothing wild to
photograph. A world of man-made concrete and steel overrun by one
species... human beings.
Tread Lightly on the Earth
Tiger Ice Break
In the coldest winter ever at Tiger Canyons, Ussuri's
cubs try to break the ice on la Vea Dam to reach the water
underneath. Ussuri teach the cubs how to do this.