21 September 2019
Before he became a nature photographer, Laurent Baheux was a sports journalist and was encouraged to take pictures to go with his stories. Photo: HKEJ
Before he became a nature photographer, Laurent Baheux was a sports journalist and was encouraged to take pictures to go with his stories. Photo: HKEJ

Lessons a French photographer learned in the African wild

French photographer Laurent Baheux has already accomplished something many others could only dream of — building a successful career in journalism out of his interests in sports and photography.

Yet Baheux always finds new things to amaze and inspire him. There are the African plains and the solemn world of its majestic wildlife.

Renowned for his unique high contrast black and white photographs, Baheux is now a prominent nature and wildlife photographer.

“Follow your dreams” is Baheux’s motto. “I cannot set foot in any place lacking dreams or passions,” he says.

Baheux reveals he had barely used a camera before he turned 23. Though majoring in Economics, he has always been a sports enthusiast, and this has led him to pursue a career in sports journalism. 

“At that time I did not think I was ready for the financial world. I wanted a job that would allow me to get around,” he explains.

He was able to get a job in a press agency, but because of its tight budget, Baheux was required to take pictures to go with his write-ups. That prompted him to take up photography.

Baheux gradually got so captivated by photography and its way of expression — a picture is worth a thousand words.

His enthusiasm and outstanding performance made Baheux a full-time sports photojournalist at the finest international press institutions, where he covered the World Cup, the UEFA European Championship, the Olympic Games and many other major international events.

By then more and more people got involved in sports photography as it was made cheaper and easier with the help of digital photography.

Baheux started to think of other possibilities. “I would like to create something more personal. No limitations and not too many sophisticated equipment. I need to get back to the roots where photography is purely done by the essence of patience,” he explains.

Growing up in the countryside 400 kilometers from Paris, Baheux has developed a strong bond with nature since childhood. Unsurprisingly he would yearn for nature after all the years as a city-dweller, “People are estranged from nature in the city.”

In 2002, Baheux paid a visit to Tanzania. “I had always longed to go to African plains since I was a child. While I was looking at the big mammals in the wild, the scenes were so much more magical than I had ever imagined,” he recalls.

“That was a wonderful world and everything kept me in a state of wonder. I decided to stay with the animals in Africa for the next 10 years. It was necessary for me to be an observer.”

Taking photographs of wildlife might even be more demanding than working as a sports photojournalist, as Baheux needs to be on his guard all the time.

“Generally the wild animals are gentle and calm, but they can also become ferocious at times,” he notes.

Baheux once had a close shave in Kenya. While he was angling for a shot of a male hippo in the river, the enormous beast turned around and charged towards him at full speed.

Baheux fled, jumped into his car and was able to escape. After that, he kept reminding himself that he is only a guest in the animal world. “If they really mounted an attack, it would definitely be my own fault because I should have been at the right spot in the first place.”

He quotes Henri Cartier-Bresson, a famous French photographer, as saying that the photograph always offers itself up to the photographer, who should take the decisive moment by pressing the shutter.

In his desire to capture every decisive moment in Africa, he often lives in a tent and spends a lot of time following the lions, zebras, giraffes and herds of big mammals.

There is no better way to take a picture than doing it with respect and concentration. “As long as you are patient, you will have the pictures.”

Baheux’s preference for black and white pictures is not only a throwback to the black and white photojournalism of the 90s, but is also a matter of intuition.

For him, Africa is a land of light and contrast. Black and white is best way to express the solitary emotion and vitality of wildlife. “All I want to present is what they are representing — the abundance of life on Earth.”

The lion is Baheux’s favorite big mammal because of its character and strong personality. “Lions are the strongest predators in the habitat. They are the rulers of the plains.”

Tanzania is still Baheux’s favorite location. “There are very good landscapes and broad plains. I can always get good compositions for wildlife pictures with ease.”

His favorite picture, Lion in The Grass II, features a lion walking through the grass with its eyes gazing right into the camera. “I was only 30 meters away from the lion and I had been waiting for that moment the whole day. The breeze, the light and the grass were all a perfect match.”

Another classic portrait is Dust Explosion, which shows an elephant glimmering in the sunset. Particles of dust are blown onto the elephant’s skin, creating tiny explosions.

“This was quite an ordinary scene, but the light and the pose rarely matched so perfectly. I was lucky,” he says.

Living in the wild for quite a while, Baheux has witnessed how human activity wreaks havoc on the environment.

“We humans reduce the territories of all the other species on Earth. I have visited more than 40 countries and there is no exception. Each of them is overexploiting all kinds of natural resources. I hope that my photographs can draw people’s attention to those suffering animals.”

In order to show the power of nature from another angle, Baheux has started taking landscape pictures in the United States recently. “Taking photographs of magnificent natural landscapes is another dream of mine.”

With his extraordinary achievements in the art of photography, Baheux has been appointed a United Nations Environment Programme goodwill ambassador for its anti-poaching initiative.

His visit to Hong Kong in March was made possible through an invitation by YellowKorner, an art photography gallery.

In Baheux’s opinion, putting wildlife photographs up for sale and having eco-tours to wildlife habitats are not entirely bad ideas as they can serve as a means to arouse people’s interests in conservation.

“Economic incentives for environmental protection are needed in these countries in order to preserve the wildlife territories. In Africa, people and the animals are competing for land, especially in East Africa where [human] population is on the rise and more land is required for agriculture and livestock.

“Eco-tourism may not necessarily cause damage to the environment, but it would create nuisance at times. It is inevitably a double-edged sword.”

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 8.

Translation by Darlie Yiu.

[Chinese version中文版]

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Baheux’s classic portrait titled Dust Explosion, which shows an elephant glimmering in the sunset. Photo: HKEJ

In 2002, Baheux paid a visit to Tanzania and decided to spend a decade there. Photo: HKEJ

Taking photographs of wildlife is demanding as it requires a lot of patience, he says. Photo: HKEJ

The lion is Baheux’s favorite big mammal because of its character and strong personality. Baheux likes to take pictures with fans. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal