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Lorenzo Seneci

Ladies, gentlemen, and all snakeaholics, once again a warm welcome to the Snakeman’s Lair. Joining us today will be a guest whose work I’m sure you are going to love: wildlife photographer Alice Péretié.

Now, only a few words are needed to understand that Alice is special. A “French Londoner” as she likes to call herself, she graduated from University College London in 2018 while establishing herself as a professional photographer in the process. At only 23 years of age, Alice has had some of her photos on display at an exhibition in London and recently announced another one- titled “Hymn to Beauty”- to begin in France in March. On top of that, Alice also had her articles published in prestigious conservation-oriented journals such as The Conservation Journal Magazine and was recently shortlisted as one of the finalists in the Photographer of the Year contest organized by Africa Geographic. Her insights and wisdom when it comes to wildlife conservation and its intrinsic issues immediately convinced me that an interview with her would be a great idea, and I am grateful for getting to know her- albeit at a distance. Without further ado, Alice, the floor is yours!

Hello Alice, and welcome to the Lair! Formalities aside, let’s start things off- how did your passion for (wildlife) photography come to be?

Wildlife is what speaks to me the most. Landscapes also…I see symbols in looks, in textures, in movement, in space. What some would call the “natural” world thus appeals to me in that respect. I’ve always been fascinated by life and particularly under animal and vegetal forms.

Essentially, at a really young age, the idea of freezing moments in time compelled me. It all started with disposable kodak cameras. Now if you’ve ever used them you’ll also remember the exciting rush as you went to collect the prints, the disappointment when the majority were blurry or too dark, and the happiness when a few turned out really well. These emotions stuck with me, even as I progressed from small compacts to DSLRs.

But besides the beautiful mechanical aspect of it, what I find powerful with photography is its use a tool. Art, journalism, information….so many opportunities. From a young age, I enjoyed narrating stories that accompanied the shots my younger self took…even if they were about my grandma’s cats. Never underestimate the ultimate combination of words and their capacity to frame an image with the choice of the frozen moment in time.

One of my favourite French poets, Charles Baudelaire, was part of many literary movements, but all of them were centred around Beauty. The Aesthetic is an absolute concept, something that is not always given to seek or find at first. But when you do have such an opportunity, then I believe we have a duty to uplift by sharing it. What better way to illustrate our beautiful world than through Art – poetry, sculpting, photography…? Humans are quick to attach value to what connects with their innermost self, and Art is powerful for this. It is our way of exploring consciousness, both of the self, and of the world around us (Hegel explores this in the Aesthetic). We value what we love, and for me Love and Beauty are interconnected as absolute concepts. So many talented artists out there who are on a similar mission to share even the smallest fraction of Beauty to those who do not yet know it’s all around them, or to those who already seek it. I love projects that bring such minded people together, and if I can participate towards that, then I’ve won

What do you look for in a subject that instantly makes you think “This would be a great picture”?

Well firstly, I don’t really believe every scene should be photographed – the number of times I don’t pick up my camera are countless. Not necessarily for aesthetic reasons, but just because a moment can be so pure that one should just enjoy it. So much serenity, it feels almost inappropriate to snap it.

Re the Kodak cameras – actually, the process is similar in digital photography. You don’t get hero shots all the time, and you get a lot of disposables. One of my guides once tell me, if you’ve got just one shot that makes you think ‘YES’ then you’ve won. Though I won’t lie, I’m very expectant with my work, and usually look for something particular when approaching a scene. A ‘shot in my head’ I’d like to achieve.

I suppose what attracts me the most are details that arise with light – strong contrasts, silhouettes, lines and shapes, flares, backlit subjects; textures and narrative in a frame as well. But you can have all of those elements together, movement and intent are also essential. Without forgetting the backdrop …it’s not always the case that you have a gorgeous setting for the subject. So then you consider: do you just enjoy this scene? Do you play around with details? What stands out when you look at it? What hidden symbols can you uncover?

But put simply, what is your objective? Simply document? Or transcend viewers to another time and place? Produce art? Inspire? The possibilities are endless, and it mostly comes down to gut feeling on the moment, but also having a more or less precise (or vague) idea of a shot in mind.

Just out of curiosity, what are your favourite and least favourite species to photograph and why?

Interesting question. From a non photographic point of view, I have a fascination for cats, specifically leopards. I love their stealth, their solitary nature, their spots, but also their facial structure – that for me gives them character and individuality. I love the slight curl of their tail as they walk, the feline svelteness of their body…could describe them for ages haha. They’re fascinating subjects to photograph as well, though I don’t know if I have a particular favourite to photograph. To witness, yes, but photographing…it really depends on the scene and overall mood.

A least favourite species to photograph…Can I cheat and say humans? I don’t feel as inspired, and comfortable – it’s an intimate process and both photographer and subject need to be on the same page. It’s an entirely different art, because of the different levels of consciousness, and stories that are much more tangible, because they can tell you theirs. Now that I think of it, portraiture is a domain I’d be happy to explore, but it will never be a print I’d feel comfortable selling. It is someone’s identity, after all.

On your website, you offer prints of your photographs for sale to raise funds for conservation. Would you please tell us more about it?

Yes! I love photography but I have a need to do something “more” with it. To take it somewhere, and especially, to give back. So many photographers out there don’t acknowledge their guides and the rangers or people who made the shot possible, from those who drive conservation and enable wildlife populations to flourish, to those who help spot the animals. Communities who participate in the wellbeing of their environment. Try going on a game drive with no guide, see how much wildlife you spot. I find it really difficult to take pictures just for the sake of it, and found myself at a bit of a loss when I got back from a recent trip to Zambia – so much Beauty that I didn’t want to keep to myself, and that I wanted to use for a purpose.

But photography, accompanied with words, holds much power to raise awareness. So my mission is twofold: proceeds from print sales are donated back to conservation, thus supporting and raising awareness through talks, story telling and funding (a project usually associated with the picture, so for example print order of leopards from the South Luangwa equates a donation to Conservation South Luangwa).

Conservation is widely misunderstood, sometimes discredited by its somewhat elitist reputation. This is driven by a number of factors, historical, political but also epistemological – “wildlife conservation” as a name excludes humans and thus the social aspect of it. I enjoy deconstructing it as a concept and challenging people’s opinions on it – my second objective. For the majority, conservation is “saving rhinos” – how does one prioritise between a rhino and a sick child needing immediate medical care, and on what moral grounds can make such a choice? We can get more philosophical – do we have a moral duty as a species to put human life first?

So what if we can achieve both – though socio-ecological development, aka wildlife conservation’s new paradigm. It’s really all about education, and that’s something crucial in my eyes. Bringing people to their own conclusions based on a technique you may be familiar with – Socrates’ maieutic, from the Greek “maieutikos”, the art of spiritual midwifery whereby one helps another to bring a latent idea into consciousness.

Nowadays, wildlife photography is nearly everywhere- social media, TV, you name it. However, we laypeople only see the final product. What does it take to obtain such amazing pictures in terms of fieldwork and editing?

Love. For the bush, for the art of photography and storytelling, and for everything that goes with the process. Waiting patiently sometimes for hours for an animal to come down a tree. Hiking in dense jungle to reach the top of a volcano crater. Laughing with your guide during the long hours in a safari jeep. It takes interest and drive to create, and I don’t think there’s much of a point in doing it for the likes or for the reputation…can quickly get tedious without passion. Wildlife photography is not always as romantic as it sounds – but for those who are passionate, all of the ‘hardships’ (considered as such by non wildlife photographers perhaps) are worth it a hundred times over. It is a type of art that is as much (if not more so) about the experience and people met along the way, as it is about the final product.

There’s also the build up…I’m not at a stage where I get paid for trips, or my gear, and so I spend a good part of the year saving up, hustling, and sometimes being under financial stress. There are days where I want to throw everything down the drain and work stable hours through a “normal” job …but very common sense takes over aha again aha.

Many people don’t realise that editing is also a big part of it – I personally share a love hate relationship with it, if I’m honest. I love taking pictures and being in the bush…but that’s the data collection. Then you need to treat it, analyse it, organise it and draw your conclusions – the portfolio. I have by no means an organised workflow and sometimes need to go back ten times to a photo or an article to be happy with it. What shots will get the spotlight and why, the choice for a certain type of edit, etc. The thought process behind it can be fabulously overwhelming. The amazing thing is, whatever we create individually can only be unique, thus it then falls down to each photographer to decide how to navigate the noise, the intimidating amount of content out there. How can you be different ? What position can you adopt that hasn’t already been done, done and redone? I strongly believe in authenticity and I’ve found people adopt your work when they adopt you as a photographer and as a person.

The vast majority of your photos recount your travels and work throughout Africa. What made you fall in love with the continent, and how do you think conservation in an African setting (as simplistic as such a term is) could improve based on your experience?

Africa (and I mean as a continent – what I’m about to describe really applies to every single place in Africa I’ve been fortunate to travel to) has something about it. Maybe an ancient feeling, if we were to romanticise it. Many travellers will describe the similar sentiment one gets as they instantly fall in love with Africa – the whole clap of thunder scenario.

It was a sensually holistic experience that took place during my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa in 2011, at the ripe age of 13. I remember stepping out of the plane at Hosea Kuto International Airport in Namibia, at 4am, and being hit by fresh air, with an earthy smell. The olfactory sense was the first to be captivated, as it was pitch black outside. But that smell got under my skin. And then as we stepped out of the airport – the light. I’ll always remember that first African sunrise, we were on the road and driving to our first stop, and did not get a clear view of the sun, but the sky was coloured by all sorts of pinks and reds, and the light was powerfully seeping through Namibia’s rocky hills, through the orange and brown- tainted boulders. Golden light and warm, rocky hues…vision was also lost to Africa now. As the sun rose, the refreshing air turned into a warm embrace, and thus touch was enamoured. The sounds of the bush quickly took over, insects in the heat, birds singing to one another…

I came across wildlife conservation for the first time before travelling to Africa, through Natgeo documentaries. But like most people, I understood it as “saving and protecting animals”. Namibia was the first African country to integrate wildlife conservation in its constitution in 1997 (which I learnt after coming back from that trip). It is a pretty innovative country in terms of sustainable development, and has managed to try conservation with more socially just components in mind. Essentially, people driven conservation. Mike Watson, Lewa Wildlife’s CEO (Kenyan organisation) often says “Managing wildlife is easy, you just need to give it the opportunity to thrive…so you actually need to manage stakeholders and their expectations”. Thus, we need more socially just conservation practices – that reinvest back into communities. Now the problem will always be trying to find that balance, and achieving conflict resolution with that in mind. People want the biggest share of the cake, and sometimes the cake is really tiny and can crumble at any time. I do think the more communities are involved, and the more they benefit from conservation (which itself also runs the risk of commodifying wildlife and nature…but then one could argue it’s also a matter of perspective and the world mainly functions like this today…debates are endless), the more they may develop ecologically mindful habits, linked to well being rather than just economic satisfaction. NB: This applies everywhere, not just in Africa.

Interestingly, a friend of mine, Maasai from Northern Kenya, once told me he now preferred watching over elephants living on his homelands rather than grazing his cows. This is huge because it shows a tremendous cultural shift directly linked to conservation – he used to chase those elephants away, if not worse. The Maasai are not known wildlife protectors. If anything they hunted them, to show their bravery, as well as for protecting their tribe and cattle. This has changed with Wildlife Protection Acts in Kenya and Tanzania, but it was not in their tradition to protect wildlife – they are mainly nomadic cattle and goat herders. I find it fascinating to see how cultural traditions are adapting to the XXI st century and finding that a survival strategy is to work hand in hand with something else that is on the fragile side of things – their environment.

There is another issue with this however. The same tribe from which the Maasai friend I quote is a perfect example to illustrate it. They fought conservation long and hard at first because of its unjust and colonialist reputation…and because it is generally led by Western development practitioners. In other words, locals do not want to be schooled by foreigners, particularly considering the fairly recent colonial histories and traumas. I will not directly cite conservancies, but many of them face criticism – either because the profits generated from tourism are held by foreigners, so the share given to communities in exchange for their land and cooperation is much smaller than they expect, or because conservancies take up such a crucial role in bringing development that it creates dependencies – the organisations take up the role of the government. And when they are managed or chaired by foreigners…it can be frustrating for locals, to say the least. The ideal objective would be to achieve a point where community conservancies do not depend on foreign intervention for the management aspect. This may well slowly arise as conservation education taught in local schools and universities start to produce the next generation of conservationists. They are already emerging, but it will hopefully be more frequent over the next decade.

Many professional photographers have been criticized for making use of pictures of people without their consent and/or without sharing the ensuing benefits with them. This extends to wildlife photography too, as local communities are rarely taken into account when photos shot on their land are commercialized. As a photographer yourself, what could be done to acknowledge artists and empower indigenous people at the same time?

It is a big topic, and it’s something that I’m particularly sensitive to. I’ll start with a little intro of the current debate/ ethical issues – essentially, today, many locals will demand payment for a photo of them. 

An extreme example of this is Ethiopia, it can get pretty expensive to visit the tribes as they require payment per number of images taken. It’s become one of their only means to subsist, and however sad or debatable the situation seems, you can get into big trouble if you’re caught ’stealing’ someone’s portrait. On the one hand, yes, it could be seen as ’selling’ oneself for money, but on the other it sends a message – you can’t take an image without someone’s consent, and it also suggests a portrait is worth more than a quick snap for the sake of wanting to document cultural difference. 

Being camera shy myself, it makes me uncomfortable to even ask people for a photo of them – especially as a self-proclaimed wildlife photographer, I don’t want people I ask to photograph to think I consider them to be at the same level as wildlife. In my eyes, a photo is legitimate when you and the subject are on the same level of respect, and of mutual trust. It’s such an intimate process! 

Now for the second part of your question, it is so rare to see local guides with cameras in their hands – apart from maybe in some lodges in South Africa. You do get some here and there, but overall it’s not common. Yes, there is a matter of budget and not necessarily being able to afford a camera, but as photographers we travel with so much equipment, I find it a little cruel sometimes to have it all there and not offer to share or work with the guide. To anyone who goes on a safari or a trip, who takes pictures (even with a phone) and who will have a guide or driver – lend them your gear for a bit. It makes a difference, it’s a nice thing to do, and it reaffirms the bond between your guide/ ranger and yourself. If as a plus you can give them the pictures they choose (dropbox works well), I think you’ve won. 

The repercussions of this can be pretty big – they go back to their local village with pictures of wildlife they took for example, and because it’s such a rare situation where members of local communities have a tangible access to photography, they’re usually acclaims as heroes.  I believe it benefits wildlife conservation – you asked me why I take I pictures, and in one sentence I would say because we protect what we value, and the Aesthetic is something humans value in general, as well as a general sense of wellbeing and pride. Well the same process happens here. It situates wildlife and humans alike, it also gives a sense of appropriation and familiarity with the wildlife, and is an incentive to protect.

Thus I think that whenever we can, taking the time to sit down with guides, rangers, locals, etc – people you meet and spend time with for any reason – will give such  individuals a voice. We very seldom hear that our shots are earned on behalf of the rangers protecting the wildlife, the guides who spot them, the communities who engage in conservation. Giving them a chance to express themselves artistically, and to share it, is huge in my eyes from an empowering perspective. So always showing gratitude, but also not hesitating to share knowledge. As you know – I profoundly believe in collaboration and mobilising networks to support one another. 

Alongside photography, it is clear by looking at your website and the articles you published for acclaimed science communication journals that you have a passion for writing- and reading, I might add. Could you describe the link you see between literature/philosophy and conservation, and how you are trying to convey it in your written pieces?

This is going to be difficult to keep short. Links are everywhere. Philosophy is the love for wisdom and learning, hence philosophical interrogations are linked to happiness, social balance, justice…similarly, literature is not just reading. I teach French Literature and Philosophy to teenagers aged 16-18 – both are compulsory subjects for French pupils. The majority work with me because of low grades, mainly due to lack of interest…the number of times I’ve heard “I hate French [literature], reading bores me and I don’t find the subject interesting”. The problem with that is that literature is so broad that it’s almost impossible to be completely insensitive to it. Literature is a reflection of who were are as individuals, as humans, as a society, the roles we play (mothers, fathers, citizens, children, siblings, leaders, workers….). Literature from other times do not only tell stories of past epochs, they reflect the mindset of authors, of creators, and of their societies. The style used, the words, the forms of literature…they reveal our history, our identities. Have you ever felt uncomfortable reading a book? Reading is like holding a mirror – we learn more about the world around us yes, but especially about ourselves.

I always ask my pupils to read Camus, amongst others. Baudelaire as well, one of the most celebrated French poets – and for good reason. They considered Beauty as an Ideal, a concept linked to happiness yet quick to be overlooked. For Baudelaire, certainly with a strike of arrogance, the “commoners” aka non poets, were not as apt as the latter to decrypt the Beauty surrounding us. Thus the poet elevates himself by conveying its symbols under the form of verses – that is the mark of Symbolism, an artistic movement of the XIX th century. His verses are both powerful and musical, but with a deep sensitivity and understanding of the world. Beauty cannot exist without Spleen – its darker counterpart. That holds very true in the Natural world. We must appreciate the Beauty produced by our societies as well, as I do not think we can succeed as conservationists if we advocate radical ecology against humans and current societies. People get scared and political when it comes to that.

Hymn to Beauty

                                                “ […]

Whether you come from heaven or from

hell, who cares.

O Beauty! Huge, fearful, ingenuous

monster!

If your regard, your smile, your foot,

open for me

An Infinite I love but have not ever

known?

From God or Satan, who cares? Angel or

Siren,

Who cares if you make, — fay with the

velvet eyes,

Rhythm,  perfume, glimmer; my one and only

queen!

The world less hideous, the minutes less

leaden?”

Charles Baudelaire – The Flowers of Evil (Translation William Aggeler,, 1954).

Camus wrote numerous texts (novels, plays and essays) and depicted three phases of ‘realisation’ in our human lives. The Absurd – we live a life that is effectively meaningless, almost like robotic objects rather than conscious subjects. The Rebellion – a trigger leads to the realisation of three things: our mortality; that the world does not care much about us and thus our insignificance; and that we are effectively living an absurd life – leading us to ask ourselves, what is the point? Finally, the Passion: our Rebellion is Camus’ answer to leading a meaningful life, living in the moment and reconciling ourselves with our environment (natural and spiritual). The Rebellion, should we chose to accept it, is the beginning of an awakening whereby we are painfully conscious of the world around us, as well as of ourselves and our own issues. Yet we can either choose to give up (suicide), or, like Sisyphus (nb – Greek king condemned to eternal punishment for defying the Gods, had to roll a heavy rock up a hill, it would roll back down just as he reached the top), keep rolling the stone up the hill, knowing we will have to start again, but this time doing it by choice. As Camus writes in The Plague – “we must fight, and can win the battles knowing we can never beat the war of the plague”. The plague is a metaphor here for a similar concept to the Spleen. It can be a personal darkness, our own demons, or a societal one, like nazism in Camus’ time…or environmental destruction. Whatever we chose to fight, when we Rebel, we say yes to the battle and yes to our pledge, refusing to give up. This then gives meaning to our life, and means we can live with Passion.

What is particularly meaningful in my eyes, in regards to Camus, is his close affiliation with the natural world. The sun, the sea, the sand, the wind, the starry sky…all of these are a source of sensual existence for Camus and indeed for his characters. The sun and salt sting Meursault’s eyes and burn him, forcing him to feel and begin his awakening from his absurd and apathetic life (The Outsider). The fresh night and starry sky comfort him and bring him peace as he finally finds serenity. The refreshing sea brings solace to Dr Rieux and his friend as they desperately battle the terrible plague destroying Oran (The Plague) – nature is source of appeasement to them.  Numerous today are the links emerging between mental health, physical welding and a healthy environment – it’s nothing new.

Rebellion in the Camusian sense of the word applies to conservation in so many respects. In all honesty, I don’t know to what extent we can win the fight as we slowly embark on the road towards mass extinction. But we have to try, and we have to applaud the successes and the progress made over the last decade in this respect. He was a firm believer in humanity, in culture, and that’s where literature is so important. We have produced beautiful things as human beings, and we are capable of so much, art is a reflection of this. Bridging the nature-culture divide has never been so important, as it goes back to protecting what we value. We are both natural and cultural beings, and nature is all around us, it is a matter of seeking it out. Conservation shouldn’t happen just in Africa or wilderness areas. Hybrid cities are a solution I find truly fascinating, and look forward to see where and how they expand.

As per usual, we conclude with a look towards the future: what are your long-term goals and wishes for your work and development as a conservationist and photographer?

Such a difficult question. Overwhelmingly, there are many ideas, desires, hopes buzzing around in my heart and head. I know what I want to do and where I want to go – building smarter, more efficient tools for conservation and bringing people together, rather than the linear current trend. I believe we have much to learn from local conservationists, and that our knowledge and skills can complement one another, rather than working within exclusive and exclusionary circles.

But the “how” is figuring itself out – not the easiest thing. It’s hard to have a voice with all the noise produced out there.  But passion is a true driving force. I said this in a recent interview –  it’s annoying that egos take up so much space conservation and in wildlife photography (two separate domains, so a lot of egos to navigate if you combine both fields) because we could achieve so much more by working together. So I’m slowly finding my own way for now, funding everything alone, and building a portfolio, and network. I’d love to organise conservation driven safaris for example. Taking it back to appreciating simplicity, learning about others, tracking wildlife on foot, camping…

Photography will always be by my side as a tool to raise awareness and bring art, sensuality and interpretation to an otherwise harsh world. It’s up to us to look for Beauty. I’d absolutely love to do more shows, more talks, write more articles, help sponsor really beautiful projects, and that’s exactly what I plan on doing!

Correspondences

In Nature’s temple, living pillars rise,

Speaking sometimes in words of abstruse sense;

Man walks through woods of symbols, dark and dense,

Which gaze at him with fond familiar eyes.

Like distant echoes blent in the beyond

In unity, in a deep darksome way,

Vast as black night and vast as splendent day,

Perfumes and sounds and colours correspond.

Some scents are cool as children’s flesh is cool,

Sweet as are oboes, green as meadowlands,

And others rich, corrupt, triumphant, full,

Expanding as infinity expands:

Benzoin or musk or amber that incenses,

Hymning the ecstasy of soul and senses.

Charles Baudelaire – Flowers of Evil (Translation: Jacques LeClercq 1958)

Alice, thank you so much for this interview- and of course, best of luck for your upcoming projects!

As for you readers, if Alice’s words and photos got you hooked on her work as they did to me, I highly recommend checking out her website and Instagram to see more of her conservation-centered content. The Snakeman’s Lair will be back soon with another amazing guest- stay tuned!

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