Sami Fayed has a passion for preserving the natural world, and he uses the skills he acquired in the demanding arena of commercial photography to articulate his vision. Working with Wilderness International of Canada on environmental projects as well as on personal nature and wilderness projects in Africa, Europe, North America and The Azores, Fayed also conducts workshops worldwide to bring his urgent message and considerable skills to the next generation of environmentalist nature photographers. Using the Leica V-Lux 3 for this photographic series, Fayed was able to capture the details needed when shooting nature images. Born in 1965 in Odenwald, Germany where he spent a happy childhood, Fayed served 2 years as a navigator in the German Navy, and later decided he was not cut out to be a biologist. After switching to Professional Communications Design, he took a position as photo intern, moved up to assistant photographer, and eventually became a successful commercial and advertising photographer. “I now focus on my own photography without advertising agencies,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Here in his own insightful words is his remarkable story.
Q: How did you become involved in Wilderness International (WI)?
A: I first became aware of WI at an outdoor fair in Cologne, and I was immediately excited about the concept of wilderness preservation. At that time, I also worked as a canoe instructor and we thought about collaborating in Canada, since that’s where WI is based, and they work with First Nation people that use long canoes. That was 3 years ago and nothing really came of it. This past March I called Kai Andersch from WI, and an hour later we were sitting together on the terrace. I explained that I was no longer involved with canoes, but that I might come as a photographer for WI to Canada. The rest, as they say, is history.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I shoot honestly.
Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?
A: I’m a full-time photographer. Although I do from time to time do other things, such as helping my wife with upholstery or helping out my best friend with his business. Changing my fields of activity like that helps me maintain a clear head and ground the beautiful spirit within.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?
A: As a teenager, my best friend’s brother was a Photographer DPA in Frankfurt and his images blew me away. My first camera as well as the first advice and expertise on photography all came from him. Nevertheless, I really became serious about photography only when I was immersed in my studies in biology and realized I was probably destined for a job as a biologist. At that point I threw away everything I had been studying for, took the qualifying examination for professional communication design students, and started all over. Afterward I took an internship at an advertising photographer, mutated from intern to assistant, and ended up behind the camera.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: No, I didn’t have any formal education in photography but I did earn an official Navigation Assistant Certificate that I received during my time in the army/navy. My big photographic hero and inspiration is Ansel Adams and I was never much interested in other great photographers. The only exception is Vincent Munier, a contemporary photographer whose work evokes a similar feeling of dignity.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: I have a conservative attitude that is reflected in my approach to the subject, and my goal is to capture the special moment and with the appropriate technical skills. For me, the images occur in front of the camera and not behind it.
Q: Evidently you prefer working with wide-angle lenses, which fits in with your motto (in literal English translation) “always close, just ran no blinders.” We assume this to mean that you generally move in close to the subject and don’t impose any restrictive blinders on your vision. Is that a good interpretation of your motto, and can you tell us in your own words why you prefer shooting with wide-angle lenses?
A: Yes, that’s right; I favor wide-angle lenses because they can capture the proper relationship between the foreground and the background in an image. The photo subject is not isolated and is always shown in its environment. For me it is important to represent these relationships, not isolated motifs. A living being, whether plant or animal cannot be truly known by itself but only in context and that is the way to present it to the best effect. Furthermore, the proximity you get with wide-angle lenses allows you to capture more details than with other lenses. Most important, the close proximity to the object allows a direct interaction not possible at greater shooting distances. At least with animals, this creates a direct line to me viewers also get the impression that they are looking at it directly. I want this intimate contact, where the viewer feels addressed and personally involved. That’s important to me.
Q: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist photographer whose mission is to document endangered wild areas and thereby encourage their preservation? Do you have a sense that this is your lifelong mission?
A: I would not necessarily call myself a purely environmental photographer, but the environment is very important to me and I live and act accordingly. Part of my work will always be dedicated to the environment, but many other images I capture have nothing to do with environmental protection. Of course I want my photos to draw attention and to be protective. Whether I see the beauty or the destruction is not really important because both types of images lead to the same goal.
Q: How does your approach to shooting pictures for WI differ from the few years you spent in the field of commercial photography? Do you think you learned anything useful in the commercial arena that you are now able to bring to your current work with WI or are the techniques you now use quite different?
A: The main difference between the two types of photography is that in my work for WI I determine what the pictures look like; no one critiques my work or makes specific demands. I can fully concentrate on the subjects and themes. In the commercial milieu there is always someone telling you to do it this way or do this differently please. Much energy is lost because you have to pay attention to the needs of others and that can be harmful to the result. However, most of it my technical expertise comes from my commercial background— the use of light, which I learned then, today, is worth a pot of gold to me today. Without the knowledge I acquired working for clients, I would not make the images I shoot today. In short, commercial photography was and is an important building block in my career.
Q: How do you go about showcasing biodiversity in the virgin forests known as the “Canadian Amazonia?” Did you have to study the ecology of the area to determine what to shoot or are you accompanied on your shoots by trained observers and scientists?
A: Of course we had to prepare for this project, and we have researched and talked a lot with professionals. Although our knowledge of nature is already quite large, good preparation is absolutely essential. Of course as photographers we are not scientists, but the collaboration the photographers and the scientists on location is very important. Some things that we thought were important to the scientific community are not so important, and vice versa. So during the trip having an ongoing dialogue was of great benefit to all of us. We were a great team and everyone learned a lot from one another.
Q. There is a beautiful bird picture in your WI portfolio that has a dramatic sky in the background—it is a dramatic close-up of what looks like a young bird of prey in an oblique composition.. Can you tell us where you took these artful pictures, and what your purpose was?
A: The eagle picture isn’t a part of my time at WI, actually. The eagle photo was taken in a wildlife park. These Steppe Eagle females had no fear of me. After providing a little “air show,” one of them landed in front of me on a post and was clearly interested in me. This gave me the unique opportunity to photograph this bird. I always say that the animals have to give me an audience. Only then can I make contact, or vice versa. It happens because they want to, and only then may these images arise. If I get no audience, the images are nothing. Mostly I don’t “try” to take pictures. In this case, of course I had the advantage that people knew the eagle. In the wild, these images are extremely difficult and rare but not totally out of the question, as the other picture shows.
Q. Can you tell us something about how your photography fits into the mission of Wilderness International?
A. WI endeavors, through the strategic acquisition of land worth protecting, to create islands that can be returned to an original state of biodiversity. Only 25% of the coastal rainforests of western Canada are still close to their natural state and many are threatened by deforestation. Daily trees are cut down and the forests shrink, with catastrophic consequences. By logging not only is the forest destroyed forever with its incredible biodiversity, but due to soil erosion and silting of the rivers, salmon can not spawn properly and this has far-reaching consequences to the ocean itself. The sea-grass beds of the shallow coastal regions are the breeding grounds and nurseries for 80% of the fish consumed by humans. The entire food chain of the West Coast of Canada is threatened and has already been severely damaged. If the damage does not stop, our planet will lose one of its most productive ecosystems. That’s why I’ve tried with my pictures to support WI successfully and will continue to do so.
Q. What is it about your current work that gives you the most personal satisfaction, and how do you generally see the role of photography in energizing the environmentalist movement worldwide?
A: When I think about how my images move people who see them to make positive changes, I’m happy, and that happens quite often. The role of photography is extremely important in environmental protection. Without photography, we could not move very much. We show in straightforward an honest way what’s going on. We encourage people to think about the environment and to motivate them to action. We photographers can only move people with our images but that can be a powerful force. I wish more photographers would address environmental protection. Skillfully used, photography is like a weapon that can motivate people to literally save the world.
Q: How do you see your work evolving over, say, the next 3-5 years, and do you have any other locations or projects on your immediate agenda?
A: Yes indeed. This winter I already have two trips to Norway a on my itinerary. I will accompany a German musher on two long-range sled dog runs. Later on I’ll be documenting a trip to the Atlas in Morocco at the local rediscovered clay constructions and artifacts. In the summer, I’ll be compiling a sperm whale photo gallery from the Azores, and next winter there’s another trip to Canada in the winter followed by a photo trip to Africa.
In between, I will always be photographing our own nature subjects in Germany, especially in protected areas. Going forward I would like to do even more photographic coverage dealing with environmental protection. Further projects are in the works with WI and I will continue to address some specific issues that I do not wish to reveal now.
Thank you for your time, Sami!
– Leica Internet Team