Eye Candy

When You Meet a Gorilla in the Mountains, Here's How to Take the Best Photo

by Steve McCurry
Uganda One of Uganda's last remaining mountain gorillas. Photo by Steve McCurry.

Universally recognized as one of the world’s finest image-makers, photographer Steve McCurry has a talent for capturing raw emotion in a single picture. We caught up with him after a trip to East Africa with Silversea Cruises, where he photographed one of the region’s last remaining mountain gorillas.

This year I started a collaboration with Silversea Cruises to capture the world in photographs. Most of the regions I will visit, like the Russian Far East, parts of the Himalayas, and Tibet, will be places in transition with indigenous people who are living and working in a very original way. I’m also looking at cities where the architecture stands out. For example, I think Venice is an important place to visit, along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

This image was taken on my first trip, a five-day excursion in East Africa. It was early in the morning, around 8 a.m., in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. I was following a group of gorillas on their morning routine as they ate various fruits and vegetation. Seeing these three-hundred-pound animals effortlessly go up and down the very tall trees was amazing. They were going about their business as I observed, and it became very comfortable and ordinary that I was there. They were munching and grazing — walking literally within a few feet of where I was standing — and completely ignoring me. This guy in the photo was a juvenile who had paused and looked over his shoulder. It was a profound experience to be so close to him and so totally accepted. I respected him and he respected me.

I’ve always been interested in stories about the human condition and how we relate to one another and the environment we are in. What I like about this photograph is that it shows a certain personality and tenderness. There’s an emotional connection because of his human-like expression that makes me feel like we aren’t so different after all.

I’m always trying to find the right light, the right moment, and the right emotion to tell a story. It’s a question of observation and experience. It also takes a lot of curiosity. For this shot, I was accompanied by a park ranger who knew how to get close to the gorillas. They have a very organized and professional system with a deep respect for the animals and their environment. Once we found the gorillas, there was no acknowledgment of our presence from them — no sense of surprise, distress, or joy. People have been visiting them for decades, so I think they’re familiar with humans. I used my Nikon D810, which is what I usually shoot with because it’s dependable, durable, and gets great results. I’ve been using various models since 1978. The photo didn’t need a lot of editing, I may have increased the contrast or darkened the background a bit.

My next trip will take me to Papua New Guinea. It will be my first time visiting the country — it’s a place in transition. If I were to go back in 50 or 100 years, I have no doubt there would be major changes to the lives of the people who live there. In many cases these are good changes, but in the meantime I think it’s important to have documentation of how we once lived and conducted ourselves. – As told to Berit Baugher.


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