Adrian Steirn is an award-winning Australian photographer, film-maker and conservationist based in South Africa. For this series shot with the Leica S, he spent time with the pangolin men of Zimbabwe, who care for the mammals rescued from poachers. In spite of a global ban on their trade, pangolins continue to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, sold for their meat and scales. As with any conservation story, the situation is highly complex, with embedded cultural beliefs fueling the black market trade. The pangolins’ minders were cautious about Adrian’s presence. The animals are shy and it had taken the carers many moments of patience and round-the-clock care to gain their trust. Respecting this bond and the pangolins’ rehabilitation, Adrian worked carefully to create this intimate and compelling portrait. A selection of these images were featured among the finalists for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards 2017.
Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and your route into photography?
I was fortunate as a child to be taken to Africa on holiday, and there began my love of wildlife and interest in conservation. I went back as often as I could on holidays and my father gave me my first camera – from then on all I wanted to do was shoot images. Africa remained my passion and I moved to Cape Town from Sydney, where I had started out as a commercial photographer. I focused my energies on capturing Africa’s stories and that passion developed first into fine art wildlife photography and later into multimedia photojournalism. My first major multimedia project, 21 Icons, documented the incredible individuals who had taken South Africa into democracy, led by Nelson Mandela. I was incredibly lucky to meet and photograph Madiba, on numerous occasions, which was obviously both a privilege and a career highlight.
Was there a particular story behind your series? What did you hope to achieve or express with these photographs?
I wanted to shine a light on the plight of the pangolin and raise awareness about the scale of the threat to the species. My idea was to take portraits using a creative direction that would be arresting and impactful enough to command attention, and that would provide insight into the beauty and behavior of these little-known creatures.
Which camera and equipment did you shoot with?
The images were shot on Leica S (Typ 007) with an Elmarit-S 30mm f/2.8 and a Profoto flash.
How did you go about capturing such an intimate series and what do you consider the advantages of shooting with your particular set-up?
I spent time with Lisa Hywood and the pangolin carers to learn how they work to rehabilitate the animals in their care. The shoot was incredibly intimate as our first priority was to ensure the animals were comfortable, and I was also sensitive to the carers, who are not used to attention and didn’t initially understand why I would want to take their portrait. Working with such a tight set up allows me to fully engage with the subject and build trust and a shared understanding of purpose – to create images that could have real impact around the world and generate support for the species.
The Leica S and SL are often considered as studio cameras. How did you find shooting with them in the field?
We shouldn’t see these cameras as made for the studio, they are dual purpose cameras and offer a unique opportunity to capture the best possible imagery in the field. The fact that the images were awarded in Wildlife Photographer of the Year this year shows how adaptable they are as field cameras.
How did you approach the Pangolin men and how did your relationship to them develop?
I worked with the Tikki Hywood Trust and its brilliant founder, Lisa Hywood, who has dedicated her life to the protection of pangolin. We shared a belief that the world needed to understand how endangered these creatures are – the pangolin is the world’s most poached mammal yet most people have never heard of the species let alone seen one. We knew we needed to create images with real impact to cut through and command attention. Lisa placed her trust in us to capture the images and tell the story of the pangolin and their carers as part of a campaign to raise awareness of their plight and funds for the vital work that her foundation does.
The pangolin is an incredibly rarely sighted creature, yet your series portrays the animals in an intimate and emotional light. How did you manage to achieve this?
I used lighting and creative direction more common to studio portraiture in order to capture the bond between carer and pangolin at close quarters. The composition of each portrait was deliberately unique and arresting because we knew we had to achieve cut through by creating images that have never been seen before.
How much of a role does editing play in your photographic process and what advice can you offer to your fellow photographers?
I have always kept post-production to a minimum. My advice is to focus on the narrative that you are trying to develop through the images and keep it simple.
The relationship between the carers and their pangolins seems to resemble that of a parent and baby. How did they manage to build such a strong bond to their animals?
Pangolin rehabilitation is a highly complex process. Their recovery is an incredibly labor intensive process and requires 24-hour care. The carers do everything for their charges – carry them around, feed them, sleep beside them. It requires enormous dedication. I was in awe of their commitment to their work.
How long have you been shooting with Leica cameras and how has your relationship to the brand evolved over time?
I have been shooting with Leica cameras for 10 years for my reportage work. I started with film and I’m now using the digital cameras. Over time I have found that the Leica cameras offer me the best opportunity to capture portraits of unique quality in the field that are medium format quality whilst also durable enough for life on the road.
Your work covers an array of topics including animal conservation and poaching to name but a few. Why were you drawn to these issues and what are you currently working on?
I have always been passionate about wildlife and conservation and this will always be the place I return to. I believe that unless we understand the issues facing our planet we cannot hope to protect it for future generations, and photojournalism is a powerful weapon to engage people around the world and encourage them to care. Outside of conservation work, last year I launched Beautiful News, a platform that shares positive and inspiration stories, initially in South Africa. I am now working to take Beautiful News to other regions.
What advice can you offer to fellow photographers looking to improve their own work?
Shoot as much as possible, stay always curious and try to find a different angle on every subject or story. Find photographers you admire and follow their work. Be prepared to take risks and experiment.