Dominic Cunningham-Reid Interview

 
 
 

PHOTOGRAPHER Q&A: Dominic Cunningham-Reid

 

Talking mission-specific expeditions, big tuskers, and the power of collective change

By: JEREMY K. SPENCER

 

Dominic Cunningham-Reid | Photo Credit Frederic Courbert

 
 

Q:

 

You have a long family history in Kenya. Can you tell us a little bit about that? And how do you see your twin roles of filmmaker and conservationist developing?

 
 

A:

I am extremely lucky and grateful to have been born in Kenya, since I was both premature, due to airplane turbulence, and delivered by our vet, albeit in a hospital! I grew up in a comfortable old Kenya home and beautiful Rift Valley hotel belonging to my stepfather, Michael Cunningham-Reid, stepson of the Fourth Baron Delamere, who owned the vast Soysambu Ranch, also a nephew of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who came to Kenya in 1948. So the family had a strong Kenya history, one of the white families who didn’t abandon Africa at independence, in 1963, but felt Africa was their home. I grew up in the wild outdoors learning from incredibly interesting and culturally intact people like the authentic Samburu people of Northern Kenya, with whom I often walked in the bush. The experience gave me the luxury of being deeply connected to nature, honing instincts often lost in urban lives. 

 
 
Photo Credit: Frederic Courbert

Photo Credit: Frederic Courbert

 
 

"I have a passion for sharing extraordinary experiences with people open to exploring the world outside of their comfort zone. It’s one of the greatest joys in life: to fully inhabit the unfamiliar and become a relevant force by applying all our combined skills."

 
 
 

After attending boarding school ( I went at age ten) and university in Scotland, I craved the wild, free African life, so I returned to Kenya with a deep-seated yearning to get under Africa’s skin and not fall into the breezy white-African life of tennis and polo in manicured country clubs. Instead, I chose to expose myself to Africa’s darker heart by becoming a self-taught photojournalist, buying a camera in duty-free and reading the manual on a military cargo flight to Mogadishu, where I became a freelance news photographer for Reuters and the Associated Press, building my portfolio by being on the street when star photographers went on R&R, subsidizing my activities by founding a T-shirt company called Conflict Clothing, supplying American soldiers with memorabilia. Being 21 on the streets of a war zone in Africa was an adrenaline-pumping adventure with a group of crazy, committed journalists living a high-octane life, a tough street school where you learned the extremes of human nature. I went on to cover the Rwanda genocide, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Kosovo, Colombia, and Afghanistan before a MIG attack on a helicopter I was traveling in over the snowy peaks of the Panshir Valley, in Afghanistan, made me rethink. During my twenties I made several documentary films, alongside photography, and as hard as the craft is within a saturated world, as a filmmaker I’m determined to apply my experience to a different kind of conservation message, one more essential now than ever as booming Africa comes at the cost of nature, and I really look forward to doing this with like-minded participants.

 
 
Photo Credit: Classified member of the special forces unit

Photo Credit: Classified member of the special forces unit

 
 

Q:

What drives you to guide, and how long have you been doing it?

 
 

A:

I have a passion for sharing extraordinary experiences with people open to exploring the world outside of their comfort zone. It’s one of the greatest joys in life: to fully inhabit the unfamiliar and become a relevant force by applying all our combined skills. I love producing important and hopefully life-changing experiences, bringing together like-minded people on a specific mission. It’s what drives me as a producer. When we made our historic IMAX film in Mecca a few years ago, I lived full-time in Riyadh for three years to secure 87 permits to put four IMAX cameras into the annual Hajj for five days. I then went on to Morocco, where we rebuilt the Grand Mosque, as it was in the year 1325, and put a thousand animals in the desert with 700 people in costume. We had 2,000 people on the payroll and pulled off the seemingly impossible, because our belief in the plan was unshakeable. The success of any mission comes down to good, egoless teamwork, so I focus on mission-specific expeditions and create a conducive environment for the collective energy and passion of participants to bloom into a bigger idea and make change possible. I love to take people into the heart of the story, look at the facts differently, and then push creativity and boundaries to create a new message. I’ve been creating unique experiences for years—from camel-walking expeditions in North Kenya to two-week dogsled expeditions in Alaska and the Swedish Arctic to a spending 72 days at sea, following in Shackleton’s footsteps in Antarctica—and I have a host of animal-borne trips planned for the next five years. My philosophy is to pursue authentic adventure with spartan yet comfortable living, devoid of excess. Simply great experiences with interesting people, cool animals, good food, a hot shower, a cozy bed, and a few spontaneous curveballs thrown into the mix. 

 
 
 
 

Q:

Why should someone do this trip with you?

 
 

A:

I suppose it’s a bit like asking why someone should jump from a perfectly functioning aircraft. Because they want to feel free, wild and alive. This trip will appeal to anyone who’s ready and open to travel differently, and bring value through their life experiences, on an intelligent, mission-based safari. And go home affected and inspired as an agent of change. Too many people travel without applying their life skills to issues of relevance in the countries they visit. I’m not going to sell this trip by saying all the cliché things of how cool and beautiful it is. Those are a given. We only put on the best possible show. But I will say that if you want to jump out of that plane from 30,000 feet and feel the wind in your face and make a difference in Africa today, then suit up for a leap of faith, with a sense of trust that it’s going to be a cool and relevant adventure.

 
 

Q:

What do you see as this trip’s biggest opportunity to help save African wildlife?

 
 

A:

I believe we have the opportunity to collectively create a new kind of message regarding the ivory crisis in Africa, with a view to break through our cluttered world. I believe every participant can become a powerful agent of change.

 
 
 

Q:

What are your top three principles of conservation filmmaking?

 
 

A:

Sensitivity to the subject. Total immersion in the people who live with and care most about the animals. Then act on instinct.

 
 
 

Q:

What’s your outlook on Kenya’s wildlife in ten years’ time?

 
 

A:

I had the luxury of growing up with giant herds of elephant crossing roads in Kenya and have since watched the numbers decline as modern Africa shifts into high gear and the population grows. To be conservation-minded is a luxury that most in Africa cannot afford. We must keep in mind that we killed and ate everything in Europe, chopping down beautiful forests to make ships without consideration for the environment. We had to destroy it before we could appreciate the true value of what we had lost and have these last 50 years been working hard to bring back. A positive sign is that recently Switzerland saw one of its first wild packs of wolves roaming the Alps. Life for most in Africa is pure survival, the game and biodiversity a resource to be harvested for food and money. Sadly, global criminal gangs and corruption have created a catastrophic vortex as Asia’s demand for ivory drives killers to destroy one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. And once wild elephant are no more, we will have turned a page, much as the wild herds of North Africa were wiped out by the Roman demand for ivory. The challenge now is: can we communicate with Asia and Africa fast enough to stop the killing in time? It’s like turning around an oil tanker; even if you swing the wheel today, it’s going to take time to have an effect. It all comes down to how we communicate fast.

 
 
 

Q:

Who are your heroes?

 
 

A:

Anyone who transcends material pursuit for a higher cause, even at the risk of total failure. Women and children living in conflict zones. People who care for the sick and elderly. Search-and-rescue dogs. Scientists and entrepreneurs with the courage to push boundaries. And people who carry hard lives with integrity and dignity. People who show kindness to children and animals.

 
 
 
 

Q:

Is there a quote you live by, a mantra, a motto?

 
 

A:

Mahatma Gandhi’s quote ”Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

 
 
 

Q:

What’s next for you?

 
 

A:

Our film company, Cosmic Picture, is developing a few very cool new IMAX films that push the boundaries of our experiences to date, which I’m very passionate about. I’m also developing two annual, mission-based expeditions that I hope will have an impact. And last but not least, in June I’m having a son, Jack Flynn, to share all of this fun stuff with! 

 
 
 

 

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