Sami Fayed: A Vision for Preserving the Natural Environment


Sami Fayed has an abiding passion for preserving the natural world and he uses the skills he acquired in the demanding arena of commercial photography to articulate his vision. Fayed conducts workshops worldwide to bring his urgent message and considerable skills to the next generation of environmentalist nature photographers. “I now focus on my own photography without the constraints of advertising agencies,” he says with a smile. Here he shares the story of his recent experience leading a workshop in Kenya with his images and video. They show Kenya is a place of breathtaking beauty and immense environmental challenges to endangered species.

Q: Where and when was this Kenya portfolio of images taken? What equipment did you use?

A: The images were taken in December 2012 in reserves and national parks in Kenya during a photography workshop. I used a Leica V-Lux 4.

Q: Why did you choose the Leica V-Lux 4? How did this camera fit the needs of this project?

A: This camera is my constant buddy. It’s small, lightweight and able to do almost anything an SLR can do. It has a long focal length range, good speed, and captures very good quality photos and videos. It’s sturdy and unobtrusive, quiet, quick to handle, and ideal for wildlife photography if you don’t want to carry larger equipment.

Q: Are there features or characteristics of the Leica V-Lux 4 that make it particularly suitable for your kind of work? Have you noticed any performance difference between the V-Lux 4 and cameras with larger sensors such as APS-C-format or full-frame?

A: I am not a camera expert, but I think the V-Lux 4 is ideal for wildlife photography. It has a very good lens, provides very long focal lengths, and has super macro capabilities. What’s especially important is that it’s quiet, fast and really tough. The only deficit I can find compared with larger-sensor cameras is that images shot in low light at the highest ISO settings show a little more noise. However, given the price and what you get for the money, it almost borders on being a small miracle.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with these photos?

A: My basic aim is to show the beauty of our world, to show how important it is to conserve and protect nature. In Africa there are big problems with nature conservation. If this doesn’t change, my photos will soon become a rarity. I hope the photos will be seen by future participants in our workshop and motivate them to attend. My goal is to allow the participants to capture impressive photos and also to sensitize them to the problems of conservation in Africa, specifically in Kenya. Those that have been out in the field with us realize our sense of urgency to a much greater degree. Indirectly, our workshop also supports local operators and nature reserves, thus contributing to the protection of nature. Through the workshop, many local people get work, the cycle of poverty is broken, and the natural environment is recognized as something of lasting value that must be protected.

Q: The commentary in your short video states that these images and videos are from your “Secrets of Kenya” workshop. Can you tell us more about this workshop?

A: The workshop I run with my friend and partner Reinhard Mink brings the participants, with the help of Rhino Watch Safaris, to locations that are not typically accessible to the average tourist. Sometimes they’re simply unknown to us, or they’re far away from the usual tourist trails. This is the special point—experiencing the variety of unique habitats in Kenya without the usual restless tourist business. Most of the time we are alone on the spot to explore the secrets of Kenya together, from the savannahs of the north to the lakes of the Rift or the moors and cloud forests of Abarders.

Q: Some of these shots seem “up close and personal.” Did you get extremely close to the animals at times? What was it like to be so close to wild animals?

A: When we’re in the field, we are patient and take a lot of time at each location. We take the time to see what will happen, and it happens quite often that animals are interested in us and come quite close to us. They don’t feel disturbed by our presence. It is in these moments that we take the best shots. We work without pressure and can adapt to the circumstances and this really pays off. It is through this tranquility that we are able to get this close to the animals. It’s exciting and thrilling when the animals come toward us. To have elephants sniffing at our vehicle is truly a unique experience and it often brings a deep respect for nature. In our industrial world, it is difficult to experience moments like this. Many animals have learned that there is no danger from our vehicles and don’t feel stressed. This allows us to observe the animals in their natural state and to observe their fascinating behaviors.

Q: While many of your Kenya images show wildlife in its natural habitat, these two breathtaking scenic images are simply exquisite African landscapes. Do you think they perform an essential function in your portfolio, and can you comment about why you shot them and decided to include them?

A: Kenya consists not only of animals but also of incredible landscapes, unique, and breathtakingly beautiful. I just wanted to take some landscape shots without animals. Unfortunately, it is not easy to take such pictures while leading a workshop since we’re always busy with the participants and concentrating on venues involving animals, not landscapes. For landscapes you have to be at the right place, at the right time and this is often not possible. Still, I concede that the two images offer conclusive proof to the viewer that Kenya is an exquisitely beautiful country even without animals in the picture.

Q: This image of a green snake peering out from behind a small tree, with some of the leaves in the foreground very blurred, evidently by shooting at a wide aperture, is a great shot. It’s a masterfully framed picture—can you tell us how you composed and shot it?

A: We found this relatively small snake in the Ol Pejeta reserve as we took our lunch break. A park employee discovered the little tree snake in the grass and we were able to determine very quickly that it was a non-poisonous snake. She retreated into a bush and I approached the snake calmly and cautiously. I really wanted a picture in which I faced the snake directly, with lots of blue sky in the background and blurred leaves in the foreground. It took an hour to get what I wanted, but finally the snake cooperated. It all happened very, very quickly, but I managed to get the shot I wanted. 
Without the speed of the V-Lux 4 and super macro properties of the lens, this picture would never have succeeded. I’m convinced that this picture would have been impossible to capture with a typical DSLR.

Q: This picture of a group of giraffes reclining with their legs under them on an expanse of grassland is certainly not your typical giraffe picture, and it’s quite engaging. It seems that your primary objective in creating many of these is to show things as they are in the natural environment and that compositional niceties are a secondary consideration. Do you agree, and can you comment on your picture-taking priorities?

A: The giraffe image is certainly unusual and shows the animals in a rare group dormancy. It is all the more unusual because there are so many giraffes—we don’t know why. Images in the media typically show only small groups of giraffes, but in Kenya there are herds as they originally occurred before human habitation. This also holds true for rhinos. This picture was taken when we were on the way to one of the big rhinoceros groups, almost in transit, and we did not have much time. It’s not a good shot in terms of the angle or that many of the bushes have been disturbed, but getting the shot was the most important thing. The subtleties of composition fell by the wayside. In short, you don’t always get what you want, but for me it was more important at this moment to document the animals in their environment, in this resting phase, than to get a high-end image.

Q:  This is a beautiful picture of a group of rhinos arrayed in front of a scrubby tree and a gorgeous blue background suggesting mountains. All the animals look quite contented without the least sign of aggression. Is this usual, and where was this picture taken?

A: Yes, normally it’s common for the animals to act peacefully and without aggression toward us, because we don’t harass the animals in any way—we subordinate ourselves. This photo was taken in the Solio Game Reserve, our home park , nearby the Rhino Watch Lodge. The Solio is one of the most important parks in terms of rhinos. Here the black rhino is free to roam, and due to the ideal living conditions, they reproduce very well. Rhinos are regularly relocated from here to other protected areas in order to keep the stock of rhinos in Kenya stable. But even here, a rhino dies every month, either by poachers or natural enemies.

Q: Your frame-filling close-up of an elephant gives a really wonderful sense of the animal’s being. The lighting is simply gorgeous and defines the textures of its skin very effectively. The fact that its trunk is curled at the front somehow conveys a visceral sense of being there. How far were you from this animal when you took the shot and what does this picture say to you personally?

A: We were not very far from the young elephant, perhaps 10-20m. We waited in the evening for a while and the herd passed us at the exact spot where we stationed ourselves. There were many animals everywhere and they had no fear of us. Some babies even sniffed the car and the mothers did not mind. It was a very peaceful situation. Towards the end, this young elephant was standing in the bushes and looked at the branches. He seemed tired and for me it felt like he was playing with the branches. In any case, this elephant was coming from a place of extreme peace and tranquility. That all of us had this encounter with these majestic animals was one of the highlights of the trip. We perceived, though the calm and serenity of the animals, a sense of what it must have been once before, when there were not all of today’s problems.

Q: What do you think you accomplished with your Kenya coverage, do you plan to return to the country, and what is the next project on your ongoing nature conservation mission?

A: Yes, Reinhard Mink and I plan to hold another workshop in Kenya in December 2013. I hope the situation of the rhino has not further deteriorated. Our next project is a documentary about sperm whales and blue sharks off the Azores in the Atlantic. The population of sperm whales is relatively stable since the fishing ban, but the larger population of blue sharks is decreasing rapidly. We want to highlight the current situation of both species more accurately.

Q: You recently went to Norway with the D-Lux 6 and had to deal with very cold temperatures. Can you tell us how cold it was? How did the D-Lux 6 work in those tough conditions?

A: In the northern part of Norway, the Finnmark, we had temperatures down to -37°C (one night -45°C, but we were inside). The D-Lux 6 worked without any problems and the camera is still working well. Understandably the battery capacity was slightly reduced, but this is normal in frigid temperatures. Otherwise it performed perfectly.

Q: Did you find any difference with the camera in shooting in a warm climate, like Africa, and a cold climate like Norway?

A: Yes, there are some notable differences. In Africa you often have to deal with dust and sometimes problems caused by overheating. In Norway you have the problem of moisture condensation when coming indoors from the cold into (mostly) very warm houses. If you don’t protect the camera, it will get very wet. Another problem is the cold metal camera body. You have to handle the camera with gloves when shooting outdoors, and you have to be careful when pressing the small buttons, which is not always easy. Materials like aluminum and plastic became very brittle when it is so cold so you have to handle your equipment with care. On this trip I broke one aluminum tripod and three lenses (thankfully nothing Leica).

Q: Do you have any advice for young photographers in other countries and around the world who want to help preserve natural habitats, species diversity, and, in general, raise peoples’ consciousness about sustaining the natural environment?

A: Yes. The most important advice is to have an abiding respect for nature and people. Don’t just trust your eyes, but always look outside the box and ask questions. 
Show the world as it is and draw attention to the beauty of nature. But also focus on the problems. Use the medium of photography to promote environmental protection, preferably by joining an organization devoted to this goal. Don’t just take, but also give something back. Do your best to think and act sustainably—this starts with the little things of everyday life at home. It need not always be the major steps that make a difference; even small steps help to align you with something that makes attaining the larger goal possible.

Thank you for your time, Sami!

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Sami’s website and Facebook page to see more of his work.