Remembering Wildlife: Interview with Margot Raggett

Marianne Stenger
15th August 2018

At a time when elephants, rhinos and many other remarkable species are tottering on the brink of extinction, leading British wildlife photographer and conservationist Margot Raggett is raising awareness through her acclaimed book series “Remembering Wildlife.”

Raggett says the idea was born after she encountered a poached elephant while on a safari in northern Kenya. The experience left her deeply angry but also spurred her into action. She decided she wanted to create a book that would not only highlight the plight of elephants, but also celebrate their lives in the wild.

Through Kickstarter, she was able to fund her first tribute book “Remembering Elephants,” which features photographs from some of the best wildlife photographers working today. The book was such a runaway success that she realised there was potential for a series.  

Raggett has since released the second book “Remembering Rhinos” and together the books have helped raise £315,000, which has gone directly towards protecting vulnerable species in Africa. The third instalment “Remembering Great Apes” is in the works and set to be released in October.

Here are her insights on how she got the project started and why it’s so important for each of us to take action in whatever way we can.

How did you get started as a wildlife photographer?

In 2009 I saw a trip advertised to see the great migration with Jonathan and Angela Scott. Obviously I’d heard of Jonathan Scott because he was a presenter on Big Cat Diaries, but I didn’t really appreciate that it was going to be a photographic safari.

I bought the cheapest kit I could find on my way out there, and then realised that everyone around me had these huge lenses. Jonathan and Angela would do presentations every night about their work and how to take good wildlife pictures, so I was really inspired by them. I also realised how terrible my wildlife photos were and that I needed to improve.

So I came back to London and did a class to learn the basics and I bought a better camera and started going on photographic safaris as often as possible.

I also negotiated a relationship with a camp in the Maasai Mara called Entim Camp, which I still work with today. They took me on as their photographer in residence, and I would offer photography coaching to the guests coming through the camp in return for being able spend more time there. So that really helped me gain some experience and also build up my portfolio.

Where did the idea for the “Remembering Wildlife” series come from?

One morning while staying at a place in Northern Kenya called Laikipia Wilderness Camp, we came across an elephant that had been poached. He had an arrow stuck in him, but he still had his tusks. They speculated that poachers had shot him but he’d managed to run away and they hadn’t been able to keep up with him, which means it took a few days for him to die.

It was such a horrific and shocking thing for me; it was so gory and I can still remember the smell of it today. After that I just felt a kind of impotent rage, so I started thinking about what could do to turn that anger into something positive.

Initially I was thinking of just doing an exhibition, but then I realised that a photo book together with an exhibition would make more sense.

At the time I was spending a lot of time out in the field in Kenya, so I was meeting a lot of wildlife photographers. So I started asking the photographers I knew if they would contribute an image or two towards a book to raise money for elephants. Everyone I asked said yes, and then I would ask them if they knew any other photographers they could introduce me to.  

After a while we had some really big names signed up like Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting, and other photographers started approaching me wanting to be in the book. So eventually we had enough big names on board that we knew we were going to be able to make a really good book.

How did you go about getting funding for the project?

A photographer I knew had recently run a Kickstarter to fund his own book, so I saw how that went for him and thought it could possibly work for us as well. So we launched our Kickstarter campaign in September 2015, and I asked for £20,000 pounds as our minimum, because I figured that that would be enough to print 1000 books.

I had no idea whether we would be able to reach it or not and I just thought to myself “Well if we don’t hit that number, then it’s just not meant to be.” But we actually hit it in 12 hours, which was just amazing. Then for the second book “Remembering Rhinos,” we hit the minimum within three hours, and for the upcoming book “Remembering Great Apes,” we hit it within 30 minutes.  

But obviously in that first year, everyone was just basing it on faith and trust that I’d be able to make a book that would live up to expectations. It turned out really well, so that gave everyone a lot more confidence in the series going forward.

In terms of how the proceeds were spent, I was very aware of how much corruption there is in Africa and how easily money can go astray. I didn’t want to put my heart and soul and a year’s work into raising money that then went into the wrong person’s pockets and didn’t have any impact.

Since I knew the Born Free Foundation and its CEO Will Travers, I went to them and I said “I’ve got this book. Would you like to be a partner and help me decide where the money will go?” and they said they’d love to.

Why do you think photography is so effective in raising awareness about the issues facing certain species today?

I think there are two different approaches, and I talk a little bit about it in my introduction to the new book “Remembering Great Apes.”

First, there are obviously the shocking pictures, which make people turn away in horror. In these books I’ve been very selective in illustrating the problem and the vast majority of what we have in the books are the beautiful pictures of the animals in the wild, because that’s what I believe people want to buy. But I called the books “Remembering…” and there are a couple of reasons for this.

Around the time I was thinking about doing the book I saw an interview with Jane Goodall on the BBC and she was talking about the elephant poaching crisis. She was quoting some statistics showing that elephants were being wiped out quicker than they were being born and were on a path to disappearing. I just thought how shocking it was that it could happen on our watch and that our generation could be the last to see elephants in the wild.

Obviously I’m fighting with everything I can to prevent that, but I thought suppose it did happen, then this book could be the most amazing tribute to what this species was like in the wild by the best wildlife photographers at the time.

So the book was like a tribute to celebrate their beauty. Of course I also realised that this was a provocative thought. There’s a quote from Sir David Attenborough that he let me use in the book, where he says “The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?”

Each book does have a few pictures that cover the issues, because I think we’ve come to the point where we can’t look away anymore.  But equally, I understand that just being immersed in that is too depressing and if a book is filled with horror pictures, then most people won’t want to buy it. The aim is obviously to sell these books, because then we can raise awareness and money to try to save these animals.

I also think it’s important to show people the good side, because many people don’t have the opportunity or funds to travel to the places where these animals are still wild. So through wildlife photography, we’re able to show them what we stand to lose if we don’t do something about it.

Was your decision to cover rhinos in the second book influenced by the fact that the last male northern white rhino died earlier this year?

In terms of the timing, as soon as we launched the first book, people were saying “Oh this is such a good idea, what’s next?” So through the success and momentum of the first one I realised that we had potential for a collectable series.

Around that time I went out to Kenya to see one of the projects we were supporting in Meru for elephants, because I think it’s important to make sure the money is being spent wisely. I self-fund these trips, because I think it’s equally important to be able to say that none of the money that’s being raised is being used to pay for my trips.

Anyway, just up the road from where I was staying is the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where at the time the last three northern white rhinos were. So I went to meet Sudan, who was the male rhino.

He was getting quite old at that point, and you could actually get pretty close to him and kind of stroke him. So while I was sitting with him I realised that he was going to die at some point soon and that he was the last male of his species.

This provoked some of those same feelings in me that I had when I saw that poached elephant and I looked at Sudan there and thought “Okay, I’m going to do a book on rhinos in Sudan’s honour.” So he was very intrinsic in my decision to cover rhinos for the next book.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while putting these books together?

I think it was probably just the volume of work. I’m pretty much the head of sales, marketing, PR, finance, and just about everything. So I was and still am dealing with all of that personally.

Obviously I need to turn out a book that’s accurate and well-written, and also curate the exhibition and liaise with all the photographers and deal with enquiries from journalists, so just the volume of work has been pretty overwhelming.

Of course now I’ve got a bit more of a rhythm because this is year three, so I kind of know what to expect and what jobs I have to do. But in that first year it was just far bigger than I expected.

It’s taken over my life in a way I hadn’t anticipated. These days I’m more desk-bound in London than I am out in the field taking pictures of wildlife, which sometimes I feel resentment at. But when I see the good that we are able to achieve I feel better about it.

 

Do you have any advice for photographers who want to use their work to help combat issues like poaching, habitat destruction or climate change?

Well I think there are so many different ways that people can make a difference. Someone else asked me this question saying “Well not everyone is a famous photographer and can be in a book like this, so what can they do?”

My opinion is that social media is an incredibly powerful tool. These books would be nothing without social media behind them, because we didn’t pay to advertise anywhere and it’s all been word-of-mouth. So I think if you’ve got a powerful story to tell, start sharing it through social media.

Equally, I know photographers who have just sold a picture and then donated the money to a wildlife charity. So it can be quite basic, and you don’t necessarily have to be out there getting “the shot” to raise funds to support the cause.

Jane Goodall and Margot Raggett

Margot Raggett’s third book “Remembering Great Apes” will be released on the 14th of October, 2018 followed by a two-week exhibition at La Galleria Pall Mall in London.

There will also be a book launch at the Royal Geographical Society on the 18th of October, where former Wildlife Photographer of the Year Tim Laman will be the keynote speaker. All profits from the “Remembering Wildlife” book sales go to the Born Free Foundation, which funds worthy wildlife projects all over the world. Go to the Remembering Wildlife website to purchase tickets to the book launch event and to purchase any copy of the "Remembering Wildlife" Books.

If you want to find out more about Margot Raggett’s work or see her photographs, you can visit her website or follow her on Instagram and Facebook.