Wildlife photographer Tessa Schack shares her love for nature with an exhibition at Artcatto starting April 14
Tessa Schack was born in South Africa and left aged 19 to live in Paris, where she worked as an advertising executive for a woman’s magazine before settling in the Algarve.
But the décor of her incredible home in Quinta do Lago is a testament to the profound connection she has with the African continent. Her love of its wildlife can be seen in the various artifacts and images displayed throughout the house, which is built around a central circular courtyard. A large wooden elephant is a particular favourite of Tessa’s granddaughter and is ridden on every visit.
Essential Algarve sat down with Tessa to discuss her forthcoming exhibition at Artcatto, her wildlife photography, and conservation. She has always loved photography, ever since she was a little girl. Initially, she painted from the images she took in Africa. But it was thanks to Gillian Catto, founder of Artcatto, that she decided to devote herself entirely to photography.
Some years ago, Tessa had invited some friends, including Gillian, over for dinner and showed them some pictures taken from a recent Safari trip. Gillian did not say anything at the time but called Tessa up a few days later to say that her photographs were remarkable and that she would love to stage an exhibition of her work. Tessa was, of course, shocked and flattered in equal measure.
But what do you need to be a good wildlife photographer? “Patience is one quality you need,” Tessa explained. “You need to wait for that right moment, when the animal is in the perfect position.” She has sat still for over three hours, waiting for a leopard to leap out of a tree. “The waiting, the anticipation, and the thrill of capturing that fleeting second is all part of the process. It is a passion and so the challenges are of little significance.”
Her images reflect that passion, not just for the incredible animals but also for the tribes of Africa, the Masai Mara in particular. For Tessa, “these proud communities with their beliefs, traditions and customs are an essential part of the landscape and whose way of life is equally under threat”. Her striking black and white portraits capture these people with dignity and respect. The patterned beads, jewellery and intricate textiles of their costumes against the tonal quality of their dark skin make these monochromatic photographs visually dramatic.
That drama is also inherent in the hundreds of wildebeests making their migration across the Mara River. The centre of action is in sharp focus, in contrast to the blurred confusion of the mass crossing. Another great example of her work features a herd of elephants striding through the bush on their nocturnal passage; these majestic creatures can live up to 70 years in the wild and communicate by touch, sight and smell. They seem to have self-awareness and appear to grieve the loss of family members. Tessa has a deep connection with these sentient animals and that special relationship comes across in her stunning photographs. Beyond the image taking itself, conservation is vitally important to Tessa. In various parts of Africa, including Kenya, Zambia, and Tanzania there are some excellent people involved in anti-poaching initiatives. Of course, it is a dangerous occupation in countries where lawlessness and corruption are rife.
For Tessa, it is human greed that is the real problem: “The fact of the matter is that poaching is profitable.” Tiger bones and rhino horns, for example, are still used and legal in traditional Chinese medicine, despite the fact China has now banned the sale of ivory. This has meant that rhino poaching in South Africa has risen for the first time in seven years, which is troubling. Another issue conservationists like Tessa must grapple with are big-game hunters. These so-called trophy hunters pay vast amounts of money to ‘bag’ a lion or elephant. For Tessa, the argument that a certain amount of licensed hunting is a good thing as it brings much-needed funds for conservation does not hold water. She highlights another, more pressing problem in Africa — human activity such as crop farming is expanding and therefore encroaches into animal grazing lands. Elephants can now sadly be targeted as much for their tusks as for their feeding behaviour. One solution Tessa puts forward is “the ongoing development of eco-tourism, which brings in ‘bread and butter’ for the local communities, although, of course, as with urban tourism, numbers need to be managed to protect the integrity of the place”.
Through her photography, Tessa would like to “create awareness, promote communication and the conservation of animals, in particular, the ones on the brink of extinction”. She is personally involved with one of the oldest foundations in Africa, where one can adopt an animal at their sanctuary in Nairobi, Kenya. When we spoke, Tessa was going there to visit her adopted baby elephant and to do a shoot.
We turned our discussion to other wildlife photographers whom Tessa respects and admires. Peter Beard is one such. His photographs of Africa and animals are often combined with other elements such as diary entries, newspaper clippings, drawings, old photos, and found objects. Beard worked at Tsavo National Park in Kenya and documented the demise of 35,000 elephants, which later become the subject of his first book The End of the Game.
Tessa also has great admiration for the British wildlife painter and outspoken conservationist David Shepherd. For Tessa, her ultimate wildlife hero is Sir David Attenborough; “he is the sum of everything”, she states.
Tessa Schack’s exhibition opens on April 14 at Artcatto Gallery, in Loulé.