“People don’t really care about wildlife, but if I can make one person out of ten thousand care, it’s already a victory.”
At a very young age, self-taught Lebanese businessman-turned-photographer Michel Zoghzoghi’s love for predators, especially feline animals led him on quest to photograph, document and shed light on the significance of preserving and protecting the wild.In a conversation with wildlife photographer Zoghzoghi we discussed his incredible photographic journey of beauty, awareness and fragility that started about thirteen years ago. He was on his way to London to watch a polo tournament organized by his friend and bought his first camera at the airport.“The rest was history” he said.
Mostly self educated, Michel honed his skills as a photographer by reading books, visiting exhibitions, joining seminars and reading the camera manual from cover to cover in order to gain insight on the the mechanics of the device he is using.
He also had a mentor, Johnathan Scott, an internationally renowned wildlife photographer who lives in Kenya and spends his time between the beautiful suburbs of Nairobi and Africa’s leading wildlife area Masai Mara home to many TV series that he hosted for the BBC, Animal Planet, and Discovery Channel to name a few. Scott taught Zoghzoghi everything about animal behavior, photo composition and observation. Elements that are essential in wildlife photography.
Starting out with wildlife photography is not easy. Unlike commercial or fashion photography where you have a steady income. Wildlife photography can be very unstable. For instance, Zoghzoghi had two of his pictures published in National Geographic. One of them was a full page. “They paid me € 75 for it.” He said. Although most of the prominent wildlife photographers earn their income by taking tourists on safaris, and share there experience with others through talks and seminars. More and more photographers are seeking refuge in galleries that appreciate their work and are ready to promote it but not many are presented this opportunity.
A lot of preparation, dedication and patience, and discipline are required in this genre of photography. Zoghzoghi’s next trip to shoot snow leopards in January will follow a specific schedule.
The first three or four days of the trip Michel will need to get used to the altitude of 3,500 meters, where his camp will be set. He will then seek the snow leopards on altitudes between 4,000 and 5,000 meters. Waking up at 4 am is a requirement. In order to spot the leopards and try to photograph them around 8 am. If the leopards were spotted at a later time Zoghzoghi will have to wait until the afternoon for better light. Sometimes animals like snow leopards might not be found because they are some of the most elusive. There are times when these photographers come back with no images.
One of the most difficult trips Zoghzoghi had to endure was his latest trip to South Africa to document the great white sharks. Eleven days of photography and yet he was unable get any cooperation from these animals. Battling horrific weather and rough seas, Michel left empty handed but learned to appreciate the good photographs he creates.
Choosing the right time to shoot your subject is important, but if you are not equipped with the necessary gear, you might miss the opportunity of creating a powerful image. Zoghzoghi’s go- to lens is the Canon EF 500mm f/4L, a lens that is favored by many photographers because it is light in weight and produces sharp images with reduced chromatic aberration due to the reconstructed Fluorite optics. Another lens that he uses is Canon’s longest telephoto lens. The EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM is light in weight and weather-resistant. It also has a two-mode Image Stabilizer function that enables the use of shutter speeds up to four times slower with no perceivable increase in image blur. A third lens that he uses is the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens, which delivers high quality images once an extender is mounted to it. Zoghzoghi’s choice of lens depends on the many aspects including the distance between him and the animal, as well as the environment he is in.
You have to be mentally ready and physically fit to go on a trip to the wild. Photographers get vaccinated against everything one might think of, Zoghzoghi is no exception. “I glow in the dark now.” He said. Enduring harsh weather, and carrying heavy gear may be detrimental if one is not fit enough to tolerate these trips.
Michel faced danger a few times, and these incidents all stem from human mistakes. Walking in harsh weather, against strong winds in Alaska, to shoot grizzly bears. He encountered a mother bear with her cub that were unaware of his presence. Once spotted, the mother nervous, agitated and protective over her cub. On another trip to Kenya, while shooting two lionesses and ten of their cubs, tourists on his trip got excited and let their daughter climb on the hood of the Jeep. Oblivious to this creature’s behavior, the lionesses saw the little girl as as threat.To avoid such situations, one must always follow the rules of their guides. Experts that have mastered their knowledge on the behavior of these wild creatures.
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Zoghzoghi is not one to shy away from his mistakes. In hope of spreading awareness on the delicate lives of the wild, he admittedly shares his regret of shooting the rare and almost extinct Siberian snow leopards in semi-captivity, and using elephants who have been mistreated and abused as a mode of transportation on one of his expeditions. “Never do this. Never!” He said. One must never interfere with the course of nature, modify the animals behavior or put it’s life in danger.
An advocate for the preservation of wildlife, Michel is an active member of BETA, and Animals Lebanon, non-profit organizations that work on improving the welfare of animals in the region. With his photography, he aims to shed light on the the rarity and beauty of the wild. With only 500 Siberian tigers and only 7,000 cheetahs left in the world, Zoghzoghi tries to show people something that is not part of their daily life, and the beauty of what they are losing.
“People don’t really care about wildlife, but if I can make one person out of ten thousand care, its already a victory.”