Last year Nicolai Frederick Bonnen Rossen traveled to a Botswana lion habitat on assignment for Borsen, a financial daily in Denmark. The story produced this series of unforgettable images seen below and would nearly cost Rossen his right hand. The Sifter recently interviewed the photographer to learn more about his close encounter with lions of the Kalahari and how he almost lost his hand.
QUESTION: What made you decide to go to Botswana and document this story?
These guys (MODISA) were originally introduced to me via a mutual friend from South Africa. I was instantly fascinated with their story. I knew they wouldn’t be able to afford a publicist, so I decided to call up some connections of mine at the Danish financial daily, Borsen, and document the story myself. They commissioned it right away.
QUESTION: How was living in the ‘bush’? How long was the assignment?
ANSWER: Spent 12 days in a tent at their Modisa-camp in the bush, 30 clicks off Central Kalahari Game Reserve, 280 clicks south of Maun, nearest city around. It’s basically +35 Celsius in the day (95F), goes down to -10 in the night and not a soul within miles to see. Only thing you hear in the night is the lions roaring. Country’s the size of France, population’s the size of Copenhagen. Pretty much one of the most deserted, yet unspoiled places I’ve ever visited.
MODISA was started in 2011 by Mikkel Legarth and Valentin Gruener. They are currently set up at the Grassland Safari Lodge, about 30 km west of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Their vision is to ‘become a leading player in the conservation and preservation of the Kalahari eco-system’, through three main objectives: mitigation of existing human wildlife conflicts, scientific research, and outreach.
Mitigation: Boundary conflicts between farmers and wildlife is an ongoing issue, with predators being killed by farmers protecting their livestock. MODISA is working to establish a conservation area for lions by fencing off the 10,000 hectare reserve from neighboring farms. They also attempt to relocate captured lions to alternate game reserves around the continent.
Scientific research: In collaboration with Dr. Kelley Crew-Meyer and Thoralf Meyer from the University of Texas at Austin, MODISA will start a research project aimed at establishing a long-term program to monitor the Kalahari ecosystem.
Outreach: In the future, MODISA wants to establish an outreach center and program to raise awareness of issues related to nature conservation in the region. They believe educating the public about environmental issues is key to sustainable development in the region.
QUESTION: Okay, so what happened to your hand?
Was out gathering firewood, tried to pull off a branch of a tree manually with a towing-rope and broke my hand doing so – caught a double spiral-fracture. Quite agonizing and embarrassing at the same time, two whole days passed before I could come to a hospital, had to finish the interview with my left hand.
QUESTION: What were some photography challenges on this assignment?
One thing I didn’t have to worry about was the lighting; simply amazing during sunset and (especially) sunrise. Overcoming your fear though is really difficult and that inhibits you. Shooting the lioness Sirga, at the time she weighed-in appx. 200 pounds (now 300). That’s a pretty big adolescent, so it really puts the fear into you knowing that she at any point of time could bash you unconscious or kill you. It’s difficult shots to take, with her being curious all the time, wanting to sniff and size you up; you can’t help but freeze and pray. Also, watching her jump the guys constantly, putting them to the ground, it kind of gets you, that if she suddenly decides to do the same to you, maybe your camera is least of worries. Thus, I was out patrolling the bushes with her and the boys many times to get the right shots.
QUESTION: Were you scared to be so close to the lions? Valentin and Mikkel seem to have earned the lions trust, but what about you?
ANSWER: Can’t explain in words how anxiety-provoking it feels to be just three guys and no weapons whatsoever face-off with six adult, male lions and not a soul to hear you within miles. And yet we never managed to get more than 5 meters close to the big ones for a peculiar reason: We all have this image-wise perception of lions as being somewhat brave. The weird thing here is that the lions are actually terrified of Mikkel and Val, so each time we’d approach them, they’d growl and run away fast, not standing their ground – it’s the world upside down to watch. I am not sure I would do it again though.
QUESTION: What gear did you bring for such a shoot?
ANSWER: It’s funny, I have both Canon DSLR and Leica SLR, yet the one I actually shot the lions with was a small Canon S100 back-up camera. That’s it. Sometimes the camera isn’t the most important thing
QUESTION: What do you think of the merits of the MODISA project? Is their active involvement in caring for these lions ultimately benefiting the animals?
ANSWER: I’ll leave that up to the experts to decide. After my report on their work, they have been invited to do the opening speech at the TEDx conference in Copenhagen on Sept. 26th 2013, so I look forward to hearing the reactions. Honestly though, I can say that the level of engagement and care these guys show the animals and the environment is astonishing. They’ve given up and devoted their entire lives to live in harmony with the Kalahari.
QUESTION: If you could hop on a plane anywhere in the world tomorrow, all expenses paid, where would you go (personally)?
ANSWER: Antarctica and the South Pole – only continent I haven’t set foot on.
QUESTION: What story would you really like to cover or explore (professionally)?
ANSWER: I’d really like to meet Fidel Castro in a one-on-one before he passes on, that’s been a dream of mine for long.
QUESTION: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
ANSWER: I’m just a curious guy with a pen and a camera. But I can tell you this much: My mom’s one of the most accomplished and renowned portrait photographers in my home country. She hadn’t held a camera before she turned 35, now she’s 65 and on top of her game. It’s never too late to begin. Also: light is everything, ask Rembrandt.
QUESTION: Any Upcoming Projects?
ANSWER: Currently doing a story on a good friend of mine from the Georgian oligarchy, whom I recently spent six days with in Tbilisi accompanied by a small army of AK47-carrying bodyguards. Definitely one of the most intense trips I’ve ever been on. Probably the most generous and hospitable people I have ever encountered. Also going to Chile in December and NYC in January, so if anyone has tips for a truly unique story that could be awesome to document in both pictures and words, I’m all ears
Shaving one-handed must have been a little bit of a challenge.
It takes a lot of courage to do what Nicolai did. The payoff was definitely worth it.
Nicolai Frederick Bonnen Rossen is a 26-year-old freelance photographer and strategic adviser/publicist. Born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, Rossen is passionate about travel, writing and photography.