When the Camera Speaks

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Leading photographers share their thoughts about their craft.

Uncovering Madagascar's Uniqueness

Interview: August 18, 2015;
Posted: December 2, 2015

A visit to the Galapagos in 1970 gave Mitsuaki Iwago a close-up encounter with the grandeur of nature that inspired him to embark on a career in wildlife photography. Iwago's photographs, which never fail to excite the imagination, have earned him global recognition, including the accolade of being the first Japanese photographer to have his work featured twice on the cover of National Geographic. Iwago is the author of several photographic collections including Animals on Earth and Ikimono no okite (The Natural Order of the African Plain). More recently, his collections of cat photographs have proved a popular addition to his many publications.

An animal treasure trove found only on Madagascar

Wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago visited the island of Madagascar, 400 km (250 miles) off the African coast. In this interview he tells us about its unusual fauna and about an elderly guide who seemed to have magical powers; as well as how to get the most out of animal photography.

Q: You visited the island of Madagascar in October last year and went back again this May. What made you want to go back so soon?

Iwago: If a place has rainy and dry seasons, I want to experience them both, and that's true of anywhere I visit. There's such a contrast between the seasons when everything is green and when everything is bone dry. Although now, with climate change, Madagascar's rainy and dry seasons are no longer as clearly differentiated as they once were.

Q: What is so special about Madagascar's fauna?

Iwago: Madagascar has so many unique species, but most famously its prosimians (*1). Ring-tailed lemurs are the best-known members of this group, but there are all sorts of other lemurs, including sifakas and indris. Few people in Japan have any idea that these creatures even exist. There are also many birds, frogs, tortoises, and chameleons that are only found on the island (*2).

1 When compared to simians, such as monkeys and apes, prosimians retain many primitive features. They are mainly rainforest-canopy dwellers.

2 The 2016 Olympus/WWF calendar "Madagascar—Land of the Lemurs" will be available from the WWF Japan's online store (http://shop.wwf.or.jp/) from late October. All profits go to the WWF's conservation activities.

The sad reality revealed by sifaka behavior

Q: How easy is it to get close to Madagascar's unique wildlife, like its lemurs, for example?

Iwago: It's not difficult at all. The Malagasy understand that their natural environment is a valuable asset. Their nature reserves are among their most popular tourist attractions. Take Berenty Reserve, for example. In Japanese terms, it's the Malagasy equivalent of Tokyo's Ginza quarter: Every eco-tourist has to go there. It is a dry part of the island, but with forest cover as well. Much of that precious forest has been cleared to grow commercial crops, the remaining area of natural forest made into a nature reserve, and a hotel built for visitors. So the situation is really contradictory: With one hand they've destroyed their natural environment, and with the other, they're trying to preserve it.

This is a photo of a sifaka I took at the reserve. This kind of shot of a sifaka bounding along the ground is so commonplace that I'm sure that many of your readers will have seen one. But when I visited Madagascar forty years ago, I wouldn't have been able to take a shot like this. The sifaka is a canopy dweller, so it should never be found on the ground. Back in the day, there was enough forest so they didn't ever have to travel at ground level. When I took this photograph, it made me sad to think how much sifaka behavior has had changed in the past few decades.

I won't take photos of animals from underneath

Q: Which are the rarest among the island's prosimians?

Iwago: That would be the indris. When I visited during the rainy season, I photographed indris at a nature reserve a little far from the capital. Years ago there was no reserve there, and I remember making my way through the forest, talking to local villagers as I looked for indris. But everything is so different now. In a word, you could say everything is more "organized." Because indris are a big tourist draw, the mountain track has been paved, and now when the tourists arrive, the guides lead them to the indris.

Q: They're very strange looking creatures. Were they hard to photograph?

Iwago: Getting good shots in these kinds of conditions depends on how well you get along with your guide. On this visit, while talking with my guide before the shoot, I told him the kind of shots I was aiming for. Indris live up in the trees, which meant I could have been taking a lot of shots from below, but that doesn't make for very interesting photographs. I told him I was looking to take photographs at eye level with the indris.

Going around with a group of tourists would have seriously restricted my freedom of movement, so I set out every morning at dawn. Indris communicate by calling to one another. But merely hearing a call doesn't mean we immediately headed in that direction. To get the shots I wanted, I needed the indris to be in a tree growing on a slope, which would put me at the same level to photograph them. So when we heard the indris calling, the guide would think about the terrain in that area and tell me whether it was suitable for the kind of shot I wanted.

Impressed by an elderly guide who knew everything about birds

Q: Is that a kestrel? What an extraordinary place—all those pointy rocks!

Iwago: This is the Tsingy Nature Reserve, which was totally unknown when I first visited the area forty years ago. The rock needles are about 100 m (320 feet) high.

In this shot, I'm on top of one of the needles. There are pitons hammered into the rock to make a climbing route, and you use carabiners to go up, which takes about an hour. The temperature soars to around 40℃ (100℉) during the day, and you find yourself puffing and panting as you climb. I was on location there for about a week, and by the end of the shoot, I could do the climb in about thirty minutes. The shoot coordinator almost had heart failure when he saw me leaping from one rocky peak to another (laughs).

Q: The birdlife in these photographs looks particularly unusual and colorful. Could you tell us something about that shoot?

Iwago: They were taken mainly at the Ankarafantsika National Park. The guide I met there was absolutely amazing. He had been in the job for a very long time. At first he seemed to have very little to say, but as it transpired he was incredible; he almost seemed to know what the birds were going to do next.

One day, when we were walking along a forest track, he suddenly signaled me to stop. I was about to ask him why, when he said, "I just heard a call." Following him silently into the undergrowth, a bird came fluttering down, just as if he'd summoned it. I could only take a couple of shots before it flew away, but he said, "If you have a tripod, set it up now, because I guarantee it will land on this branch." And sure enough, it did... Unbelievable!

That particular guide works for film crews from leading broadcasters, including the BBC. It was a huge thrill to have someone like him as my personal guide. It struck me that here in Japan as well, rather than just putting in place some kind of formal guiding organization, we should find people who have a real gift for teaching people about nature and who can really help them enjoy it to the max.

Preserved pristine natural habitats

Q: Is that bird in the rain a kingfisher?

Iwago: Yes. I think it's the same species we have in Japan. When it rains, it seeks shelter under vegetation, so it's hard to get good shots of them when it's pouring with rain. But I find that photos of birds taken in good weather, with their feathers all glossy and shiny, are not the only ones I like.

Q: It seems to be lost in thought, gazing at the rain.

Iwago: That's the thing about photography: It sets our imaginations free. This picture makes you think: "What if I went there? I suppose I'd think that... I'd be looking at the rain, too..." And just because an animal is doing something doesn't mean it's always that interesting. It took me quite a long time to realize that. It's something I've only really become aware of since I've been shooting in Africa.

Q: This photo of two tortoises nose to nose is very special. Could you tell us how you came to take it?

Iwago: This was taken at a reserve with a particularly large area of pristine natural forest. The forest floor is the natural habitat of the radiated tortoise. Behind the two tortoises in shot there was a large baobab tree; a bit along and up, there was a ring-tailed lemur, jumping from one cactus-like plant to another; and to one side, a chameleon. This is a long way from any accommodation, which means not many tourists get here. I was told this is the only place left like this on the whole of Madagascar.

But when you think about it, if children looked at a pristine forest like this, and compared it to a neatly planted one, which one do you think would they find more attractive? I imagine most children would choose the man-made forest, but personally, I'd like them to pick this one as the more beautiful. The way I see it, in order to cultivate this kind of sensibility to the natural world, we need to make sure children get the opportunity to visit as many places like this as possible.

Interview and text: Koji Okano