ART GENERATES AWARENESS OF ZEBRAS’ PLIGHT
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (email@example.com)
Zebra People: Guardians of the Grevys’ is one of the most stunning photography exhibitions I have seen in Kenya. The main body of the work is by the Kenya-born professional photographer Mia Collis who was having her first vacation in a year in Vancouver, Canada when she received an email from another Kenya-born woman/female, conservationist Belinda Low MacKey, requesting that she shoot photos of the launch of the new Grevy Zebra Trust base camp last July.
“I knew immediately I had to be part of that occasion,” said Mia, who’s as passionate about endangered Kenyan wildlife and conservation as she is about her photography. She flew straight back to Nairobi, then up to Buffalo Springs in Samburu (the closest landing strip to the camp) where she went right to work shooting powerful black and white portraits of all 72 Samburu and Rendille staff members who’d joined the Trust since 2007 when Belinda formed the Trust with two other conservationists committed to saving the endangered Grevy Zebra whose population has diminished from 15,000 in the late 1970s to around 2,800 today.
But Mia’s exquisite photos of the men and women who work with the GZT on the ground either as warriors, scouts or so-called ‘ambassadors’ (comparable to KWS security forces) are not the only ones included in the ‘Zebra People’ show.
All 12 ‘warriors’ whose task is to watch over and protect the remaining Grevy zebra were part of a photography project designed by Princeton University professor, Dan Rubenstein, who’s been working and researching wildlife conservation in northern Kenya since the 1990s. Through both Princeton and the St. Louis Zoo, (where the Trust’s cofounder Dr. Martha Fischer is based), over a hundred high quality Canon zoom cameras were bought and shared with the warriors whose additional task was now to shoot memorable images of both the Grevys and their habitat as they traveled on foot all around the northern counties where the once-plentiful Grevy Zebras can still be found, (namely Samburu, Isiolo, Kaijado and Marsabit).
The warriors’ images are obviously by amateurs, but they are also graphic, spontaneous, revealing, surprisingly thoughtful and often well composed. The men, all in their 20s and all unschooled former herdsmen, attended photo workshops organized by Dr Rubenstein. Nonetheless, their cameras were not meant to distract the warriors from performing their primary task, which is to ‘preach’ the conservation ethic to their communities in order to raise awareness of the imperative need to help keep the wildlife, especially the Grevy zebras, alive.
Meanwhile, Mia had multiple challenges to her photo shoots the zebra people. There was the time factor since Belinda insisted she had only two days to shoot all 72 portraits since most of them were needed back in their respective communities where their job was protecting the zebras from poachers but also from environmental hazards, like disease, diminished water and food supplies or sundry injuries.
Mia also couldn’t carry some of her essential equipment (like lights) as electricity was unlikely at the camp. Lighting was also a problem since the sun kept shifting, so the only solution was to borrow one of the Trust’s storage containers, create a pitch black backdrop and use a hand-held reflector to draw light from the sun into what was then a controlled setting.
“I worked with one of the warriors who instantly understood how to capture the [shifting] sunlight and send it exactly where it was needed,” said Mia who also shot a series of portraits of the women ‘scouts’ with their babies. Only one of those images is in the current Museum show, but both Mia and Belinda hope to take the exhibition abroad, especially to the States where much of the support for the Trust has come from. One donor in particular has already expressed her interest to mount an exhibition in New Mexico of the young mothers who work with the Trust.
“The St. Louis Zoo has been incredibly generous but we have also received support from other American zoos,” said Belinda who has been instrumental in growing the community-based conservation project from one warrior-scout in 2007 to over 70 up to now. She is also the brains behind the recent Grevy Zebra rally which had 118 cars tracking the Grevy’s over two full days.
“The data collected during the rally will enable us to determine the current Grevy population,” Belinda said who, with Mia hopes that besides taking The Zebra People on tour around the world, they can get Mia’s and possibly also the warriors’ photographs published as a book that can both raise public awareness of the Grevys’ plight as well as help strengthen the Trust’s community-based conservation program.