I returned to the Mahouts Elephant Foundation's Thailand project to camp out with their newest arrival, baby Sunti, who was born in the forest just a few months before.
Here's how trying to get a single photo at night led to one of the most scary (and rewarding) experiences of my career.
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Some of the favorite photos I have taken are of elephants under the stars, which you may have seen previously with Boon Thong and Naamfon, two elephants rescued by BLES in Thailand. These photos seem to capture something about the nature of elephants and the new peacefulness and freedom of being rescued. To understand the story I'm about to tell you, you'll need to know a bit about how these photos are taken.
In reality, most photos of starry skies over a foreground that you will see have been photoshopped. They are actually two (or usually more) photos, one of the foreground (sometimes taken in the daytime) photoshopped onto the star photo.
There's nothing wrong with this but I choose not to use Photoshop, so my 'elephants under the stars' photos are taken with some difficulty. Unless there's a fire nearby, I shine a torch on the elephant and other foreground elements I want for a couple of seconds (hope the elephant doesn't move too much) and then expose for a further 10-30 seconds in pitch darkness (and usually silence too) to capture the stars.
As you can imagine, taking these photos can be as peaceful as they look.
Hiking to the project outside of Chiang Mai in Thailand, I had these 'elephants under the stars' photos in mind.
Mahouts have helped a Karen village start to bring their elephants home from earning money in the tourism camps to the forest surrounding the village, where they belong.
These elephants are the most 'free' rescued elephants that I have ever worked with, and I would consider them 'semi-wild'. Animal sanctuaries are always limited for land, rescuing as many animals as they can with the space available to them. The forest available to these elephants is huge and they are generally left to roam night and day, with the village mahouts sometimes tracking them in the forest to make sure they are healthy and not too close to any farmland or human areas.
When we reached our campsite we headed off to find them. Mahouts aims to help the village replace the income from the camps with income from eco-tourism. When there are people in the forest, the mahouts are always guiding them, so as wild an experience as this is, while we are there we are never in danger. The mahouts have a very deep relationship with these elephants and in some respects the term 'mahout' is tarnished by many of the people who are paid to look after the elephants at tourist or logging camps.
As I have said before (and even been criticised for!) I will always choose the safety and welfare of the animals and people over 'getting the shot'. I'm there to help these animals not cause them stress, and if I got injured it could only be a bad thing for every animal and person involved: my job is to be invisible.
Working with animals always has some risk, however, and during the week there were a couple of times that showed how much trust there is between the mahouts and elephants. I found myself being able to trust Thong Kam, the matriarch of this little group, as well.
We followed Thong Kam and her months-old baby boy Sunti toward the river one afternoon. Sunti couldn't make it down a particularly steep step and started to panic a little. He turned tail and ran back the way he had came, which was now occupied by me. I wasn't able to move up the hill to safety, but I was able to let him past by moving onto a ledge, as even a tiny elephant can easily knock you down. Now, though, I had to cross in between a baby and his mother, who was now moving at pace to comfort her boy. One thing you should not do with animals or humans, is come between a mother and child.
When she reached me she calmy slowed right down and I took it as a sign to move across her path to safety before she caught up with Sunti (who was quite happy now that he didn't have to go down to the river!). It was obvious to me this was a deliberate action by Thong Kam. Despite working with elephants for five years, their situational awareness and consideration still amazes me and I learn more about them every time I meet them.
That night the stars were out in force. I took a few test shots and spent a bit of time with another youngster, Mario, and his mahout.
Then we heard Thong Kam in the thick bushes and trees nearby and we went to investigate. It was a much more enclosed space without much room to move between the trees and only one route through the thick six-foot high bushes. They were nearer the treeline too so the composition wasn't what I wanted, but I had a few seconds to grab a shot. A few seconds shining the torch followed by 20 seconds of pitch black waiting for the click of the camera to tell us the photo was taken. By then, Mum and baby decided to stomp up the hill to leave, perhaps they wanted to be alone, so we didn't follow them and chatted for a minute.
Then we heard them crashing back into the small clearing.
They paused by a tree for a moment, and I took what could be my only chance to get another shot at it. As I shone the torch for a couple of seconds, they had already started to move towards me, with the mahout to my right and Sarah to my left.
The last thing we saw as I turned off the torch was Thong Kam and Sunti moving directly towards us at a decent rate of knots.
It's a bit of an understatement to say if the last thing you see before sudden and total darkness are two elephants charging towards you, you'll be a bit scared.
It's human nature to be scared, but a few thoughts crossed my mind. Thong Kam's mahout was next to me and having seen their relationship I knew that she wouldn't bump into him, and he would never let anyone be put in danger around the elephants. That relaxed me.
I thought about the encounters I had that week and how considered Thong Kam had been. While I had only spent 4 or 5 days with her in the past year, I trusted her much more than many other elephants.
I held onto the tripod with one hand, and although it was pitch black, I also closed my eyes.
20 seconds passed which felt like 20 minutes. We were all silent wondering what would happen next.
I felt and heard an enormous blast of cold air at my feet and Thong Kam sniffed what was going on. I opened my eyes again but still couldn't see anything, it's amazing how dark it gets away from the cities.
After a few more seconds we heard the click of the camera shutter. I turned on the light again and we all jumped back a little!
Thong Kam was an arms length from me, having stopped just before the camera. Sunti was actually standing between the legs of the tripod without having touched it at all! We got out of their way and they disappeared into the night.
That was my last chance to get the shot, and I didn't manage it. As you can see, the worst offender being the highlights from the torch are overexposed and blurred as the elephants moved closer.
But however imperfect this photo is, it means an incredible amount to me. The unbelievable trust that animals and humans put in each other, played out in this moment that I will never forget. And in the end, isn't that what photography is about?