A Love Affair With Africa: Piper MacKay Reflects on her Magical Place

by Kari Post | August 1, 2012

© Piper MacKaySometimes, a single experience changes one’s life forever. That may certainly be the case for Piper MacKay, a celebrated wildlife, travel, and culture photographer whose work focuses on the African continent.

Piper’s journey to becoming one of Africa’s premiere photographers began on a Sierra Club safari in 2004. Led by a woman who, in her youth, had been a nurse working in Africa, the group ventured beyond a typical safari, visiting tribes, schools, and women’s groups, in addition to observing Africa’s incredible wildlife by vehicle. The experience was one Piper would not forget.

“From the moment my feet hit the rich red soil I feel in love with Africa. It was magic, it is almost hard to explain—I felt home. The sights, the sounds, the smells… it was all magical,” Piper recalled lovingly. Already a veteran traveler at the time, Piper had visited numerous other places around the world including various countries in South America, Europe, the Caribbean, and Asia. Africa, however, felt different to her. “Africa just seemed more real than any other place I had been. The doctors, the vets, the humanitarian workers, the wildlife roaming free—life just had a different meaning, one with more soul.”

That first trip to Africa also introduced Piper, who at the time had a career in the fashion industry, to the world of photography. “Prior to 2004, I had never held professional camera and could not tell you what an f-stop or aperture was,” she said. But on the packing list for her trip to Africa, the Sierra Club had listed a 300mm lens. “I went to a camera shop and said, ‘What’s that?’ ” Piper laughed. “I fell in love with Africa on that trip, and with photography.”

In the five months that followed, Piper returned to Africa twice. Since 2004, she has made multiple trips to the continent every year, often staying for 6-8 weeks at a time. Most of her travels focus on Eastern Africa—to destinations like Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ethiopia—but she has also been to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mali. “I try to spend as much time there each year as I possibly can,” said Piper, who’s home is in southern California. Next year, she will try to spend six months abroad in Africa, and she dreams of living there one day. Piper has already tried, unsuccessfully, to move there twice. “The dream is still there,” she said.

When asked what her favorite destination in Africa was, Piper struggled to find an answer. “Eastern Africa is where my heart lies,” she said. She admitted that no one place stood out to her as a favorite. Instead, she has many favorites.

One of them is the Omo Valley, in Ethiopia, where Piper has befriended the local people. “Ethiopia is where I have connected with the most beautiful and ornate tribes on this earth,” said Piper. “I have developed some very special relationships there.” She tries to visit the Omo twice a year.

Another favorite of hers is Rwanda, a country that was torn apart by horrific genocides less than two decades ago. “[It] is now so beautiful with real sidewalks and a city that is more beautiful than many western cities,” said Piper. “Rwanda is one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and incredible places I have visited.” The country is also home to the endangered Mountain Gorilla, and is one of the last places people can go to observe and photograph them in their natural wild habitat.

For wildlife, Piper enjoys visiting the Masai Mara, home to one of the most magnificent wildlife migrations in the world, a destination she said “always delivers” when it comes to photography. Amboseli also comes to mind, for the herds of elephants that cross its great plains everyday.

Piper MacKay with group in Africa

Elephants are one of Piper’s favorite wildlife subjects. “They are the smartest and most sensitive animals on our planet,” said Piper. “I can put down the camera and just watch them interact as a family for hours.”

She also loves cheetahs. “They are sleek, exotic, and beautiful,” she said, “and their cubs are the cutest and most playful.” Of her wildlife photography, her photographs of cheetahs have been the most highly honored.

Piper’s enthusiasm for Africa is unmistakable, and it comes across in her photographs. For her, photography in Africa is about more than just creating stunning imagery—it is about making that deep connection with the subject and sharing that connection with the viewer. Piper said the goal of her photography is “to inspire others to explore, respect and preserve the beauty of our fragile planet. To bring awareness of what is right and good in this world that it is worth experiencing and protecting.”

“I want to capture images that make people stop and think about what is really important. Powerful images help shape the view of the world and play an important role in disseminating how cultures and wildlife are coping with the rapid changes happening in the developing world,” she said.

Piper’s work has been influenced by other African wildlife photographers, including Nick Brandt, Greg DuToit, and Jeff Vanuga.

“Nick Brant’s work is stunning, deep, and very inspiring,” she said. Upon becoming a successful and celebrated African wildlife photographer, Brant founded the Big Life Foundation, an organization that has made big strides in protecting elephants and stopping poaching. “I really admire a photographer with that kind of success [who] then uses it to help the very subjects he was so inspired by,” said Piper. “That is a powerful message.”

DuToit is a 5th generation south African who Piper calls “one of the most talented and dedicated African wildlife photographers” and she hopes to be able to work beside him one day. “He has gone to extreme to produced the most unique, challenging and powerful African wildlife imagery ever,” she said.

Yet Piper considers Vanuga, a talented and well respected but lesser known photographer, to be her true mentor, calling him a “constant pillar of support.” “He has openly shared with me, given me advice, and been a shoulder try cry on when I just thought it was too hard to move forward,” she said. “He constantly encourages me and inspires me.”

It is not easy to turn a passion for photographing nature, wildlife, and native culture into a successful career, and perhaps on a on a continent so often photographed as Africa it is even more challenging, but Piper has made it work. “I believe that [being a] professional means being proficient at your craft and having credibility in your field that is respected by your peers,” says Piper, whose list of accomplishments include being interviewed and featured in professional magazines and by companies such as Nik software, getting her work represented by Getty Images, and having her images displayed in the Smithsonian, Art Wolfe’s gallery, and the prestigious G2 gallery that has featured exhibits by Art Wolfe, Tom Mangelsen, Ansel Adams, Jack Dykinga, and other top wildlife photographers. She has a her first ebook Dream, Plan, Go set to be released shortly, and is now thrilled to be leading workshops for NatureScapes. “It has been part of my dream to lead trips for an incredible and respected photographer or organization, so this is really a proud moment for me,” she said.

Yet such impressive credentials didn’t come to Piper overnight. It has been a long journey for Piper, who has found success mostly on her own. Along the way, she observed that many of the top photographers had assistants or spouses that often provided support in the field or at home while the pros were at work. “I had a hard time finding a photographer that was not married that was making it on their own,” she said. She was afraid is was not possible. “I almost gave up, however my passion and drive pulled me through, and it has make me stronger and more determined.”

“I think it would be hard to find another person so passionate about all things Africa photographically,” Piper added. Coming from someone else, such as statement might come across as conceited, but not from Piper. When she talks of her favorite place on earth, Piper glows. Her enthusiasm and love for Africa simply emanate from her. The comment is merely fact.

That passion for her subjects is what makes Piper shine in the field. She describes going on a photographic safari with her to be “like you are out shooting with a friend.”

“I am a real people person so I am easily approachable, I love to share everything I know and I do it with a lot of passion. I get pretty excited when talking about photography and Africa,” she said. “I still get very excited every time I am on safari and in Africa and that spills over on to the group.”

Over the past eight years, Piper has spent a great deal of time in Africa. That intimate knowledge she has gained from her time spent in the continent, both on her own and guiding groups, helps her recognize when something special is happening and where good photo opportunities will be. Her experience with the guides enables her to get her groups into the best positions to take advantage of photographic opportunities. “The relationship with your guides is very important and can make or break your trip,” she said.

Another thing thing that distinguishes Piper from other guides and photography instructors is the amount of time she had dedicated to exploring Africa on her own, camping in small tents just outside of the reserves and exploring in the field without a group on safari. “I understand the true rhythm of Africa,” she said. That connectedness with the land is what makes Piper, her images, and the opportunity to explore Africa with her—to feed off of her excitement and the pure joy she feels, and shares, at being in her element—special.

“I want my photography to inspire people to come to Africa and experience this magical place. Great change is made by one person who is touched by a personal experience. I know many who have come to Africa and have returned home to get involved with conservation and humanitarian projects,” she said. “A trip to Africa changes the way a person views what is important and real.”

About the Author

Kari is a self-described adventurer, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, conservationist, and nature lover. She loves being outside in nature, exploring the world around her, and doing just about anything that keeps her on the move. Kari picked up photography as a young girl and developed a serious passion for the still picture in high school. In college, she combined her photography hobby and love of nature and began photographing wildlife and outdoor subjects, which now make up the bulk of her work. Kari views photography as a way to share the beauty she sees in the natural world with others. She hopes her images can be used help educate and inspire others to appreciate, preserve, and protect wild places and creatures, and aspires to one day work as a photojournalist for National Geographic documenting conservation issues. Visit Kari's website at: www.karipost.com and her blog at: www.karipost.com/blog.

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