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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dr. Browning’s Birds

A passion for saving lives

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For a lot of wildlife photographers, living full time in Africa would be the fulfillment of a dream. And it's no different for Australian surgeon and photographer Dr. Andrew Browning, now living in Tanzania. But it wasn't the animals that first lured the good doctor to Africa, but the need for doctors. "I always wanted to be a missionary doctor," Browning says, "and it was a posting on the Rwanda/Tanzanian border in 1993 during medical school that first brought me here, and I soon found myself living and working in Ethiopia."

Browning is one of only about a dozen surgeons on the entire continent who specializes in the repair and treatment of obstetric fistula, an injury that can occur during labor, and one that affects an estimated two million women in Africa and the developing world, especially in areas where there's little prenatal and intrapartum care. It's a heartbreaking condition that results not only in physical damage to young mothers, but because of the side effects, usually also results in the women becoming social outcasts, and shunned by their families and their communities.

Dr. Andrew Browning got started in photography as a means of documenting a debilitating condition, but that quickly blossomed into a love for capturing the exotic birds of Africa. His passion for avian photography has become a much needed creative release, as he wrestles the demands of surgery and keeping hospital services running in chronically resource-poor areas.
Because of the overwhelming need for more trained fistula surgeons, Browning first picked up a camera to try to spread the word in talks, papers and presentations. "I was doing speaking engagements to raise money for the work we were doing, and knowing that a picture can speak a thousand words, I started using photography to present the medical conditions, the patients and their living conditions," he says. "But being in Ethiopia, with its amazing wildlife, people and landscapes, I naturally began to take those type of photos, as well."

When most of us think "wildlife photography in Africa," we think "big game." But with a patient-doctor ratio of two million to 12, Browning had little time for safaris. But he found birds everywhere.

"Ethiopia is full of beautiful birds, and they're everywhere—on the hospital grounds, in our garden, wherever we walked in the countryside. There are over 300 species of birds right in the town where I used to live," Browning recalls. He first started observing and photographing the birds right out the window of the operating room between procedures, and soon was hooked. But it wasn't easy.

"You have to be quick and have a keen eye, but if you can observe the habits of the birds, you raise your level of success," Browning says. "For instance, if you know that bee-eaters always come back to the same perch when they're feeding, that makes it easier to get an incoming picture of them in flight."

Between the demands on his time and the money needed to maintain and operate the clinics he runs in Ethiopia and Tanzania, there's little of each left over for trips to game areas to photograph bigger prey. But, occasionally, he does have encounters with bigger animals.


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