It’s a chilly and dreary morning, with heavy rain just abating at the gates of the Nairobi National Park. Murphy’s Law came in strong this morning. It’s only 7am but it seems like everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.
“Don’t worry, as soon as we get into the park, all that will melt away,” Clement Kiragu says, in high spirits. I relax a little, and as soon as we begin the game drive, it turns out that he is right. We came to the park because that is where he is most in his element, and it is beautifully therapeutic, as if there is an unwritten sign saying, “You have now entered a worry-free zone,” that you instinctively understand.
It helps that it’s also the only place on earth where you can do that - get off the city tarmac and into the tranquility of the Savannah in one motion because the park is right next to the city, unlike anywhere else.
Kiragu is one of the best photographers in the world and the wild is the home of the magic that he produces. He is a Canon ambassador, and has now joined an extraordinary group of exceptional individuals who are out in the world illuminating and protecting our world through science, exploration, education and storytelling – The National Geographic Explorer community. The community has included greats such as Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau and Kenya’s Paula Kahumbu.
“Are you always up that early?” I ask him, as we were to catch the sunrise at the park at 6am. Turns out that yes, he is. Documenting wildlife is no walk in the park. If you are in the same camp with him, he will always be the first to leave and the last to arrive.
It’s what you have to do if you are going to get anywhere in this career.
“The reason we do that is because when we’re documenting wildlife, I’m looking for a few things. I’m looking for good light and a good subject. So it’s always a good idea to get out and find the subject and then wait for the sun, as opposed to leaving at 6, looking for a lion, wondering what you are going to photograph. Once that light goes up, that’s it. You’ll lose a whole morning,” he says. In Kenya, he is practically a lone ranger in his work, because wildlife photography and filmmaking is an extremely expensive venture. The gear alone costs millions of shillings, yet there little to no market for the images here in Africa. This is the first time he has gotten funding for his work.
For nine years, he has funded himself, doing other genres of photography and sometimes advertising work in order to fund his true passion. The results of that kind of work ethic are extraordinary.
He gives me a little snippet into what his world can be like. The shot he narrates here happened in 2018. “I was doing my first photo safari. We were at the Mara River and it was the migration season, so we were waiting for the grazers to cross the river. You have to be observant if you’re documenting nature. I saw some movement in some bushes and I told them, ‘There is a predator here. Leave the zebras alone. Focus on this lioness and see what she does’,” he says.
Not many people were paying attention, everyone was just waiting relatively idly for the eighth-wonder-of-the-world action to begin. “We waited and waited. It was a very cloudy day, I was praying for some sun just to peep in there and we’ll get our golden light, and just when the zebras started crossing the river, the sun just broke from the clouds with beautiful golden light, and the lioness struck at that moment. We got this beautiful, stunning, dramatic image,” he says.
The story isn’t going where I think it is. The hunt failed. “We got two very dramatic images of the lion hunting, zebras running away, and there was this cloud of dust and light because it was backlit by the sun. It was just one of those moments where everything aligns. And then the lioness failed. It produced a very powerful image,” he says.
He shows me the image, pictured above, and I let out an audible gasp. I am absolutely blown away. “That was the scene after the fail, which tells a very powerful story because a very huge percentage of lion hunts end up in failure. You can feel the failure in the lioness. It’s backlit and there is a lot of drama in the shot. I’ll never forget that scene,” he says.
That’s what he wants to do, tell impactful stories that make a difference in the world. He is not only a photographer, he is also a conservationist, as he sees firsthand the dangers that the animals face, including the threat of extinction.
Kiragu has knocked on every door he could think of, locally and abroad. One of the people who he gives a lot of credit to is veteran wildlife conservationist Dr Paula Kahumbu. They are now working together to make wildlife photography and filmmaking more accessible to Kenyans and Africans in general.
Kahumbu also introduced him to Emmy-award-winning cinematographer Bob Poole and his wife Gina Poole, who gave him his first shot at filmmaking. They spent a 64 days in the Maasai Mara, shooting a documentary that will air on PBS nature in America later this year.
Now that this grant has opened a big door, he considers it the first step in a long journey of what he intends to achieve. “Part of what I want to do long-term is that I want to document Africa’s predators. I want to put a lot of effort into documenting African predators and get the views of our community because I want them to take part in the story telling process. It’s getting people to care about wildlife,” he says.
This grant will enable him to shoot his first short film but he continues to look for funding, not just from international organisations, but Kenyan organisations in the wildlife industry as well.
“I will start here in Kenya - Maasai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo, Meru then I’ll start expanding to other countries.
His journey to this point has been an unlikely and a long one, and as he says, it took him 35 years to discover his actual passion, having come from the advertising world, is self-taught and has been self-funded. He wants storytellers who come after him to have a much easier time in than he did.