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Thursday, February 22, 2024

How I got the shot: Jason Florio on The Gambia’s elusive wildlife

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By Jason Florio

In his photo story for the January/February 2022 issue, travel photographer Jason Florio followed the winding course of The Gambia River. Here’s how he captured this riparian nation’s endangered red colubus monkeys.

Tell us about this image.

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My wife Helen and I have been living and working in The Gambia on and off for more than two decades, focusing mainly on human-interest stories. But when the opportunity arose to document life along the 700-mile River Gambia (after which the country is named), I knew I’d have to include wildlife. During our research, we came across the critically endangered red colobus monkeys. A few troops have been identified in the eastern provinces, but the ones I photographed are part of a small group in the protected Bijilo Forest Park, in the west.

How did you achieve the shot?

I shot this image on my Canon EOS 5D IV with an EF 24-105mm lens — my on-the-go set-up. The lens’ versatile focal length allows me to get in close in confined locations, capture landscapes and create portraits with a shallow depth of field. I also carried an EF 70-200mm f2.8 lens with a 2x converter to get a focal length of 400mm, as I anticipated not being able to get close enough to the colobus. I wanted to achieve intimacy; the final image was shot at a focal length of only 24mm, about five feet away from the colobus.

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In my weatherproof Newswear Chestvest bag, I also carried a Canon R5 body and a Canon 35mm f1.2. I use this mirrorless camera on silent mode when a noisy shutter could be disruptive, while the 35mm lens’ wide aperture allows me to work in low-light settings without over-relying on the ISO.

While the Bijilo Forest Park is open to the public, we checked with the rangers to come at a quiet time. We took one of them with us to help locate the colobus, as the park is densely forested, which saved time — as well as excessive neck strain.

What were the challenges at play?

Initially, the colobus were high in the trees, and getting a clear shot through the foliage proved very challenging. After many distant encounters, we found a small family sitting in hanging vines a few feet off the ground. I tried to contain my child-like excitement and approached them cautiously. Working in dappled light, I underexposed the shot to give a little tone to the highlights, knowing I could gently bring up the shadow areas in Photoshop. The colobus complied for a few seconds before launching into the thicket. I loved the first frame, with the main subject striking a seemingly contemplative pose.

What advice would you give someone starting out in travel photography?

Shoot what’s on the shot list as well as what’s around it, bringing something surprising back for your editor. Keep a note of the ‘what, who, where, when and why’ of your photographs — this is essential for captioning. If possible, try to record the exact location of where you took the image; my EOS 5D IV has a built-in GPS that adds coordinates to the metadata. Finally, limit the amount of post-production you do, keeping the image as close as possible to what your eye saw.

On location, what elements did you seek out for a successful shot? 

My aim is to express how a person or place feels to me through my images; I seek an emotional connection that I can translate into a photograph. I love images that are layered, both literally in composition and metaphorically. I try to create photographs that a viewer wants to ask questions about.

What drew you to this story?

Despite being the smallest country on the African continent, The Gambia continues to capture my heart the way it did when I first visited in the late 1990s, when I was training as a photo assistant in New York. Having completed the first recorded circumnavigation of the country by foot with Helen — a 577-mile trek along the north and south banks of The Gambia River — to create portraits of traditional leadership, I was drawn to telling stories of the river itself and the communities who live along its meandering course.

Was this shoot typical of your career as a travel photographer?

This assignment was much more complex than any other travel story I had worked on. Helen and I spent months researching the logistics and equipment and pulling our small team together. Endless hours were spent poring over maps and travel logs at the Royal Geographical Society. Despite all the planning, nothing prepares you for your first confrontation with an angry hippo.

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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