Photographer Wendy Van Welie isn’t exactly Dr. Doolittle. She has, however, had encounters with wild animals that the good doctor himself might’ve envied. And listening to her talk about her photographic safaris, you realize that it’s really not about being able to speak to the animals – it’s about the animals being able to speak to us in their own “words” and their own way. About our being sensitive enough to listen.
Which Van Welie is. Right now, she’s telling me the story behind the large cheetah photograph hanging in her Indigo Images Photography Studio & Gallery in Granby, Connecticut. In that photo, a mother cheetah relaxes with her cubs, her amber eyes thoughtful, utterly serene…a Madonna in a spotted fur suit. “She was that calm,” the photographer remembers. “She was watchful, though: she was keeping an eye on the babies, she wasn’t moving, she was making sure they were close at hand. But very gentle, very peaceful. She allowed us in. She could have easily taken them and moved off. But she allowed us to just sit with her while she was feeding them.”
The safaris started for Van Welie when she was young – “My dad took us on safari every year. You know, living in South Africa, it was easy” – but she didn’t actually take photography courses until she came to this country years later. “My kids were little, and I struggled with that,” she explains. “I was always a better mom working than not. I needed to build an identity of my own. What I was given was a special skill that made it possible to go back to school.” She enrolled at Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota, earning an associates degree in commercial photography while doing work in fashion photography and photojournalism as well.
Flash forward to the present, and you find Van Welie doing many of the gigs you’d expect any commercial photographer to be doing: weddings, graduation photos, and family portraits. But she brings her photojournalistic training to bear on them, drawing out the story or expression that other eyes might have missed. “I love, love, love working with people,” she says. “I have an absolute passion for the craft.”
She’s a traditionalist when it comes to that craft, loving the smell of chemicals and “darkroom stuff.” And while Van Welie appreciates that digital photography enables us to “get those shots we never could’ve anticipated in the past,” she also believes that it makes it “too easy for us to shoot quickly and not anticipate and wait.” She has some concerns about Photoshop as well: “I struggled ethically with that because I just feel that it’s no longer the craft and the art of giving that beautiful shot….those moments that no amount of Photoshop could change. You could extract it – you could do a lot to it – but it’s about catching that moment in space. As soon as you start changing it, it’s no longer that moment.”
Catching the moment…that phrase and variations on it show up a lot in Van Welie’s conversation. It's something that she’s always acutely aware of, especially when she’s on photographic safari with her husband Gordon. For her, “the charm of any experience is the joy of not being able to do it again – [of] knowing that that encounter, no matter how long or how fleeting, is gone, you will never get it again. You may get a different one – you may encounter a different lion, you may encounter a different cheetah, you may encounter a different elephant – but that moment is gone forever, never to be recreated.” The animals are un-posable and inevitably dictate the situation. “They’re going to tell you when they want the camera in and when they don’t. And it’s learning how to step back, give them two minutes, step back in, and get the camera comfortable between you and them.” Otherwise, she cautions, you can kill the moment and the animals’ trust.
Then, too, there’s the matter of having the right equipment and really knowing the animal you’re working with. Otters, for instance, “move quickly – elephants don’t. So, when I’m shooting elephants, I can miss a couple and be patient. You move very slowly with cheetahs. When I’m shooting flying cheetahs, I can’t shoot on schedule. It’s very different.”
Ask Van Welie to name one safari experience that stands out above all the rest in her mind, and she won’t. “When you go on safari,” she insists, “every session is a treasure, an absolute treasure. So I don’t know if I can choose one. Obviously my cheetahs – I just loved, loved the mom and her babies, that was such a perfect environment to just sit and visit….The lions are fantastic to shoot because they’re so lovable. They lick your hand. They’re not as anxious or as high-strung as the cheetah. They linger, so you can get a long session with a lion and be very satisfied with what you get….The zebras are beautiful. I have a passion for the zebra, hence my zebra logo.” Even the elephants, whom she feels “a little wary” around, are fascinating to her.
“We came across a herd of elephants once,” she recalls. “Elephants herd as females, and they bring the little ones in the middle. So, as they move, they have this nursery of babies that are protected by their mums and the grandmums. We got a bit close, and one of the grammies, she came right up to the Land Rover. She was waving her ears, and she was just…she was angry: ‘Do not come any closer because these are our babies. Yeah, these are our babies.’ And they let us stay. We could shoot, but we had to stay far.”
Moments like these -- the times that the elephants, the lions, and the cheetahs allow her into their world-- are always a gift, says Van Welie. Perhaps she might view it differently were she shooting them in a zoo where “there isn’t a place for them to escape to.” But photographing these animals in the wild as she does, she really does feel as though she's on “a treasure hunt – it’s finding them and knowing that you’ll be able to walk away satisfied, even if it was just a glimpse.”
She sometimes thinks of putting together a book of wildlife photos. “It’s ultimately the time involved of just giving the treasure,” Van Welie reflects. “In fact, if I had to choose here and now, I would love to do a book on flowers. I love color, and flowers give that to me. And, again, it’s a little bit like shooting wildlife: every picture is different.” The challenge is trying to capture the way we see a rose, for instance, in our minds, “the feeling of the flower…the essence, the symmetry, and the perfection you get. There is such a wonder in shooting, whether it’s wild animals or wildflowers. And it’s that fleeting moment that is, for me, the treasure.” Her voice becomes more matter-of-fact as she returns to this particular moment. “Yes, I would love to do a book. But I think that the first one would have to be on the flowers.”