Carlton Ward uses photography to share Gabon's biodiversity with the world
By Ibarionex R. Perello
Working In The Field Along with his film cameras and digital SLRs, Ward's equipment included lenses ranging from 20mm to 600mm. He also used 60mm, 105mm and 200mm AF Micro-Nikkor lenses for creating high-magnification images in his "studio," which consisted of a black velvet background and two to four diffused electronic strobes. To maintain flexibility, he configured varied power supplies that used 110/240-volt current, AA batteries or a 12-volt car battery charged with solar panels.
"Controlling the setting allowed me to systematically document the wide variety of animals that researchers were recording across the varied landscape," he says. "I was able to make pictures of many species never before photographed alive, including some completely new to science. The resulting library is the largest of its type for Central Africa."
However, even with such technology, the photographs were rarely achieved without some difficulty. "Many forest animals are elusive or nocturnal, making them extremely difficult to photograph by traditional means," explains Ward. For this purpose, he used remotely triggered cameras. Although infrared beam triggers had been commonly used by scientists, their photographs were less than aesthetically pleasing. In such photographs, even an underexposed photograph was considered successful if it provided enough information to identify the animal.
"To produce high-quality results, I reconfigured TrailMaster camera trap systems to my Nikon cameras and strobes," explains Ward. "Working with custom-built camera traps is tedious, labor-intensive and filled with risk. I had setups drowned by floodwaters, smashed by fallen branches and bashed by gorillas. But in the end, they produced photographs that otherwise wouldn't be possible."
Lighting in the field also was a challenge, as the sun in Gabon shines just one out of three days. Good lighting is a blessing when it comes, but the weather changes rapidly and is difficult to predict. The typical dim lighting requires the use of heavy tripods and fast lenses. In additional, the rain forest animals are very elusive—even enormous hippos and elephants are difficult to locate. And when that's mixed in with high humidity, constant rainfall, salt air and wind-driven sand, it makes getting a good photograph difficult, if not near impossible. Says Ward, "Patience becomes a necessity."
Creating The Book The production of the book also provided its share of obstacles. Produced in only seven months, The Edge of Africa wasn't meant to be just another coffee-table book.
Says Ward, "The Edge of Africa was designed as more than just a showcase. It was designed as a tool to celebrate Gabon's biodiversity. We could have waited an additional year to publish the book, but we wanted to influence perceptions of Gabon at a pivotal time in the nation's development. The first problem was the focus of the book itself. The publisher at first wanted something generic, which didn't focus on the place. This to me would have been a major mistake. The reason for making the book was the place, to celebrate the unseen biodiversity of Gabon and promote its protection."
The publisher was concerned with the risk of limiting the potential audience by making Gabon the focus, however. Ward wrote them a letter sharing his vision for the book, which helped. But it wasn't until they obtained outside funding from Shell in the form of advance sales that they were able to move forward.
All the work was accomplished in a total digital space with text contributions sent from New York and London to his workspace in Washington, D.C. Says Ward, "It was a real challenge editing, digitally preparing and color-calibrating all the images. I worked with picture editor Marnie Brigg, who brought a second set of eyes and a lot of experience of how to structure a book. Michelle Lee did an amazing job of pulling together the text and managing the translation with little time. The workload was enormous."
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"The book was a publishing experiment for me, combining digital originals with drum scans and desktop scans made from film. In the end, you can't tell the original medium. I love shooting slides and I'm somewhat loyal to film, but now I find it difficult to make the rational argument in its favor."
The release of the book was greeted enthusiastically not only by the scientific community, but especially by the people of Gabon. "With the help of our book, the country's biodiversity is being celebrated at the highest levels of Gabonese government." says Ward. "We had a wonderful exhibition for the book release in Libreville, with the highest levels of government in attendance.
"In September, Jean Ping of Gabon became president of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and during the opening reception, 40 of my framed photographs were on display. As President Bongo greeted visitors, I saw several heads of African nations looking at my pictures and through the book. One young woman walked up to me and told me the book made her proud to be Gabonese. That's all I could ever ask."