They say life is about finding the work that brings out the best in you, and doing it with all that you are. While many of us would agree, it’s a wonder so few of us truly live up to this aspiration.
Heinrich van den Berg has done just that. He has pursued his passion, and turned it into something he was afraid it would never have the potential of becoming. A renowned wildlife photographer, van den Berg has published over 21 highly acclaimed photographic books. He has won numerous awards, ranging from an Eric Hoskings Award of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year (the first photographer to win it two years running), to the international Fuji Getaway photographer of the Year (2005). His photographs have graced numerous books, calendars, magazine portfolios and photographic products worldwide. He is known for his boundary-crossing images, and for his depiction of the natural world in a fresh and evocative way.
Sublime: I read in your biography that you left your profession as a civil engineer to become a full-time photographer; what made you change career, and what triggered your passion for nature photography?
Heinrich van den Berg: I have always been interested in photography, and as a young boy I used to go on holiday with my family to all the great nature reserves in southern Africa and take photographs. Photography has always been my first love. I studied civil engineering because I didn’t believe that it was possible to make a living from photography. But I was a pathetic engineer; I didn’t have any passion for it. All I wanted was to photograph wildlife. In a way it was a blessing that I disliked engineering so much; if I had liked it just a bit more, I would still be an engineer, and not as happy as I am today. I have learned that I cannot do anything well if I am not passionate about it.
S: What inspires, or drives you to go to all these different places, and work in some very tough conditions, to get a photograph?
HvdB: One of the advantages of being a wildlife photographer is that you see some incredible wild places. And sometimes you get paid to go there. The danger pales in comparison to the opportunity to get a great photograph – and it is not that dangerous. It is much more dangerous to get into your car and drive down the road than to face a silverback mountain gorilla. I would much rather be attacked by a silverback than by a human. I feel at peace in the wild, and have rarely felt in any real danger.
S: What has been your most challenging project or experience so far?
HvdB: The most challenging experience was getting malaria during a trip to Kruger National Park. For me, it is proof that the mosquito is by far the most dangerous animal in Africa. But the most scary experience was being attacked by a hippo while paddling down the Zambezi river on an assignment. I was in a two-man canoe with an experienced guide when a hippo picked our canoe up from below. My guide started screaming like a girl, and that was really scary: when your guide loses it, it means that you need to start panicking. But it was the high-pitched scream that made the hippo drop us.
S: How long can it take, on average, to get a precise image? Most of your photographs have been taken from amazing angles.
HvdB: I probably only use one image in a thousand that I take. You have to keep on shooting in case something special happens. You have to start by photographing all the clichés – taking shots from the expected angles and directions. You have to get the clichés out of your system before you can get to the really good stuff. It’s a process. Sometimes you’re lucky, and everything comes together without you having to think about it. But mostly you have to work on a subject for a long time to get that amazing image.
S: What was the first photograph you took? Do you have any memories of that moment?
HvdB: I was surrounded by photography as I grew up, so I can’t remember the first image. But I remember the first image that won me a prize as a young boy. It was of a bee on a flower. My uncle taught me the trick of putting some honey onto a flower if you wanted to get a photograph of a bee on it. I filled this one flower with honey and waited for the bees. It took a while, but when a bee finally arrived it spent a really long time on the flower. It probably got stuck in all the honey, and gave me ample opportunity to photograph it.
S: Is there a nature photographer who inspires you, or whom you might consider to be your mentor? How has that helped you in your journey as a nature photographer?
HvdB: My father has been the biggest inspiration. He really appreciates nature and wildlife photography, and that rubbed off on me as youngster. Other photographers that have inspired me are Jim Brandenburg and Frans Lanting.
S: What has been your most rewarding image or experience since you started this journey?
HvdB: It’s not really an external experience, but more the internal personal journey that has been so rewarding. I have experienced incredible sightings, from mountain gorillas to indris in Madagascar. All of these experiences add up to a really honest appreciation of how lucky I am to be able to live this kind of life. Travelling through Africa, one sees terrible poverty and bravery and that puts everything into context. The same applies to animals. The habitats of many animals are in real danger, and I am fortunate enough to be able to photograph some of these animals and hope that it will have an influence on the future of their species. It’s rewarding to be able to convey an animal in an original way.
S: Are there images that you are yet to capture that you would consider as groundbreaking? What and where would they be?
HvdB: There are many. A photographer never gets that perfect image – we will forever be chasing the dragon. But we always believe it is out there. There are a few images that have been subconsciously created in my mind that just need to be photographed. But if I tell you about them, then they will lose their power.
S: What message do you intend to put across with your images?
HvdB: I want to show the beauty that is out there. Then if people know about it, they might think twice before destroying it.