Amongst Trees by Charles Bryant

The beautiful words of the Nobel peace prize winner archbishop Desmond Tutu are an extract from the foreword he wrote for our recently published book “African Trees“. The book co- authored with Brita Lomba took us on an incredible adventure through Africa. The photographs in this article represent a couple of my favourites and I have selected them from thousands to try to give a feel of the African bush. The journey covered seventeen destinations in Africa, a part time exercise over the period
of a year. It began in the South Arican bush setting up tripods and cameras well before dawn, waiting for the first hint of horizontal light to bring life to these beautiful indigenous trees of Africa. Tripods certainly remove some of the flexibility of the creative but at f22 in near darkness we experimented with shutter speeds of between 1 and 15 seconds. The medium formats produced the best results in terms of quality, but there had to be a trusty Nikon 35mm at hand to capture those moments when a rhino arrived in front of our subjects or a vulture took off without warning. In the freezing dawn, we drank coffee and spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for the right light. By 7-30 am we were usually packing up into the Landover while the warm African sun put paid to the chilly nights and it’s fierceness necessitated polarizing filters or a hasty retreat to breakfast in the shade.

“We who are Africans live in an astonishingly beautiful part of the world. The colonialization of Africa blinded so many of us to the countless natural wonders that our ancestors in their freedom appreciated. The trees of southern and eastern Africa, so intimately tied to so many inspiring African stories and myths, have presided for hundreds of years over African history. In them we see the steadfastness and the patience of nature. From them we draw inspiration to live more sensitively within our environment, to strive all the harder to protect it, and to work tirelessly to share it with all who live in the shelter and shadows of the great trees of Africa. God bless Africa, her wonderful natural beauty and all her people.”
-Desmond M. Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus

We flew to Namibia and spent time tracking down the majestic camel thorns (acacia erioloba) and the phantom trees (moringas) of the desert, before moving into central  Africa where we spent a lot of time in the great Serengeti plains and then onto the Masai Mara. These are the well known reserves of the Rift Valley of Africa, but we were fortunate too, to spend time in the lesser known reserves of Ruaha and the great Selous on the Rufiji River. People say how easy it is to photograph trees that remain a lot more stationary than the game that teems in these areas. They are probably right, yet we felt that there were too many books covering the animals of Africa, and too few books covering our passion – trees. What we didn’t bargain for was the weather! As we arrived in East Africa, the camps were all closing down for two months ahead of the summer rain storms. Many of the roads became impossible to use as the rain had softened up the black cotton soils, leaving landrovers stuck up to their axles in the absorbing mud. But the real problem was the light – or lack of it as we chased the sun where it appeared in the very greyness of skies at that time of year.

It certainly proved that photography is all about light. At times we had before us the most stunning specimens of Baobab (Adonsonia digitata), far from civilization, but no light to bring them to life. They are sometimes over  2000 years old, but we just encountered them in the wrong time of their long lives. Sometimes after frustrating days of poor light we would take out a spot-light and with a 1 minute exposure we would paint the tree with light as we knew it would be a long time before we could return to these magical destinations. We then tracked
south to cover the trees of Zimbabwe and then further south into Botswana and the Okavango delta with its surrounding wildlife reserves. The delta had been in flood and one of our means of transport was in a mokoro, a dugout type of canoe, hand made with axes from the trunks of the Jackal berry (Diospyros mespiliformis). This is one of the best ways of seeing the Okavango delta, but one of the more difficult ways of photographing it. The poler uses his pole to steady the craft, with the camera on a small tripod between my legs, and at the right moment of gentle sideways swaying, I would squeeze the shutter. You have no idea of many blurred images appeared in the contacts.
The journey resulted in many friendships along the way and without the knowledge and in-site of the rangers, trackers and local inhabitants, we wouldn’t have reached half the places and trees we got to. I struck up a great friendship with a Mamiya 7 and a Mamiya 645 as I got to grips with these medium format cameras. On our return, and after the book was complete, I took a major decision to abandon medium format film cameras, and through a Nikon D70 began a personal discovery into digital.

I yearn to return to the African bush, this time armed with the wisdom of having done it before, and perhaps a new approach using digital formats.



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