September 3, 2021

Beyond The Lens: Interview with Untamed Photographer's Chris Fallows

Beyond The Lens: Interview with Untamed Photographer's Chris Fallows
Untamed Photographer Team

Chris Fallows is a strikingly passionate and accomplished wildlife photographer and naturalist. Best known for his discovery and ensuing depiction of breaching great white sharks in Seal Island, South Africa, the world-renowned photographer has seen his life's work featured on some of the biggest stages the industry has to offer. He's worked as a wildlife photographer, host, or expert facilitator on more than 60 international wildlife documentaries for The BBC, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic, amongst many others. Most notable of these shows are Planet Earth, Life, Africa, and Shark for The BBC. Chris has also co-hosted and photographed for Discovery Channel's most successful Shark Week series, the Air Jaws franchise.

In a 2020 episode of Shark Week's Daily Bite podcast, marine biologist Luke Tipple speaks with Chris and fellow Shark Week star, Jeff Kurr, about the shooting of "Jaws Awakens" and their pursuit to find "a nearly 20-foot-long, two-ton shark named Fred." Fred had a name already because Chris had made his acquaintance before—a couple years prior to the Jaws Awakens shoot. Chris recalls the day they met:

“I had several sharks around me, and then this truly ginormous animal just came barreling in towards me. As a wildlife photographer, you're used to being in these situations; but generally, animals will keep their distance. Fred was completely different from the other sharks. He just came straight in at me, knocked me over once or twice, and was just an amazingly dominant animal. It was incredible, I mean I live for situations like that—I truly love it. It was one of those experiences that will live with me for the rest of my life.”

He continues:

“After he knocked me over a couple of times... I don't want to say it was fun, but I was actually enjoying myself. Getting to have a few great whites trying to get to know you, well yeah, let's just say it was a unique experience that I'll never forget. Strangely enough, it's one I really hope to have again.”

Jeff follows up by offering his above-water perspective on Chris and Fred's seemingly casual first encounter:

“If I may, I want to go back and comment a little bit about Chris's encounter with Fred because he's very nonchalant about it; but, I have to say that it's probably one of the top two or three scariest moments that I've had as a producer of Shark Week in 30 years. What he doesn't tell you is that we lost communications with Chris for a few minutes and we had no idea where he was. We were trying to follow his bubbles. I got a report from Andy Casagrande, who was on the bottom filming him, that he had lost Chris.”

[Paraphrasing] ‘We don't know where Chris is. Last time we saw him, this giant great white with a pilot fish above him had knocked him over and was carrying him off somewhere.’

“So, it was a very very tense situation. I was on deck trying to call Chris on the radio—all I could hear was a gargle sound... but Chris is so good under water, he's so calm with these animals. He has so much experience that I was fairly confident he'd be able to find a way to get back to the surface and re-hook up to our rope that we use to pull him up. He eventually did.”

Chris believes that "nature has the ability to leave one with many emotions. It is hard and unpredictable but it is also raw, pure, and breathtakingly beautiful." He sees beauty in the eyes of charging two-ton behemoths like Fred just as he sees beauty in the delicate, storied wings of a wandering albatross. Though he'd modestly label himself a liaison between the earth's beauty and the human eye, it's plain to see that Chris has done, and is still doing, something incredibly, historically unique.

We had the privilege of speaking with the man whose daring and charismatic nature baffles Shark Week producers in this #BeyondTheLens. In partnership with Untamed Photographer: Chris Fallows, ladies and gentlemen.

On Himself, His Upbringing, and Finding His Passion for Wildlife:

I was born in Johannesburg in 1972 and was fortunate to have a father and mother who loved wildlife. As such my very first recollection in life is of being surrounded by animals. I was also lucky to have been taken to many of Southern Africa’s amazing game reserves from a very young age and as such quickly became fascinated by the wonderful wild animals in the parks. So began my passion for wildlife which has only grown stronger the more I have come to know each species. 

On His Affiliation with Untamed Photographer:

We were first introduced to Mark Wilkins (founder), Rebecca Badger (co-founder of NTOTA) and Amy Peters (director) through a friend of ours, Damon Crowhurst, who thought we would be a good match. Amy, being an art specialist, had seen our work and thought that it would fit well with what they were trying to achieve with Untamed Photographer.

For us, I think a huge attraction is the overriding philosophy of giving back. This is mine and my wife Monique's aim in life. We have been given the most incredible opportunities and life by nature. We have seen the world and had so many once in a lifetime opportunities that I almost feel I should be three hundred years old. Untamed Photographer strives to give back and we have a strong affiliation to that cause. Through the sale of our works we hope to buy large tracts of land in Southern Africa for rehabilitation and rewilding as our legacy we leave behind one day.

On His History with Photography:

My father was a very keen amateur wildlife photographer; and as such I used to watch him in action. In those days he used to shoot with slides and I would watch in awe when he prepared a slide show for my mom and I. What he did not know was that when he was at work I would take out all his precious slides and make my own show.

As a boy of maybe five or six years of age, I didn’t quite understand that touching the middle of slides wasn’t a good idea; and so each time my dad next looked at his slides and there were tiny finger prints all over them... I remember some choice words :)

On Where His Professional Photography Journey Began:

In 1996 I discovered the now famous flying great white sharks of Seal Island in Cape Town, South Africa. What I was seeing each day was simply incredible and I knew I had been gifted a golden opportunity to create a niche for myself. As such I sold pretty much everything I had and bought myself a really great camera and lens to be able to capture the action. I was lucky to take a few photographs that went viral—well, as viral as they could go in the late ‘90s. This put my photography on the map as suddenly my images were appearing on newspaper covers all around the world.

Historically I would shoot approximately 200 per year on the ocean and about 100 in the bush. Nowadays it’s probably about 100 of each.

On His Most Memorable Photo Expedition:

There have been so many, but one that really stands out was spending roughly a month on South Georgia island as part of the once-every-decade albatross count. I got to see parts of South Georgia, which is arguably the world's most impressive marine wildlife location that very few people had ever seen. 

I got to sit alongside courting wandering albatross with their 12 foot wingspan, walk in Shackleton’s footsteps and stand in the shadow of battles of 15 ft long Southern Elephant seals. All this with complete photographic freedom, pretty hard to beat.


This photo expedition was part of a project by Dame Sally Poncet, a legendary researcher and albatross conservationist that allowed six very privileged guests to help with the project to count the rare wandering albatross nests around South Georgia island.

On Discovering and Photographing the Now Famous Breaching Great White Sharks of Seal Island:

It feels incredible. I remember the first time I saw a Great white shark breach like it was yesterday. The reality is that it was August 1996 and few people had ever seen a great white shark launch itself out of the water.

"Shades and Elements" by Chris Fallows


Quite simply a once-quiet seal colony in the heart of False Bay, which lies approximately 40 minutes away from Cape Town's CBD, went from obscurity to one of the world's most famous locations for seeing incredible wildlife behavior. As a wildlife photographer, I had been given an incredible opportunity to capture imagery that many people were fascinated and astounded by. People are always interested in great white sharks, but flying great white sharks, that was a whole new level of incredible.


You had the world’s most famous marine predator exhibiting a level of athleticism that surpassed even our wildest dreams of what these animals were capable of. It wasn’t scary, it was just amazing; and people gravitated to seeing more and more of it. Today, nearly 25 years later, more film crews than ever are trying to use the latest technology to capture this behavior.

Gone are the days of being terrified of them. Today, people are mostly trying to protect sharks as a result of documentaries and photography educating and showcasing the majesty of these animals rather than perpetuating the fear factor.

On Close Calls with Sharks:

In 1994 I had a great white shark break into a lightweight cage we were using. The shark wasn’t aggressively trying to get me. It had been attracted to our research boat with bait, was curious where the smell was coming from and made the mistake of wedging its head between the bars. With no reverse gear it could not go backwards and with the cage's lightweight construction it simply buckled the bars inwards. For the next 60 seconds I had a very scared 10ft great white as a cage mate. Fortunately I was able to lift its head up to the gap on the other side of the cage whereupon it got traction with its tail and proceeded to break that side of the cage open and swim out.

Both myself and the shark were happy in equal measure. Other than that non aggressive mistake of the shark I have never in all my thousands of interactions with them or other supposedly dangerous wildlife had any act openly aggressively towards me despite me often being completely unprotected.

On Lesser-Known Shark Ethics:

Don’t eat small sharks. It is a very popular meal in Australia and the UK as well as parts of the US where people don’t know they are eating shark in their fish and chips. If your fish doesn’t have bones, beware it may well be shark you are eating and by eating these smaller predators you are having an effect right through the food chain. In South Africa for example, smooth hound and soup fin sharks are being caught at completely unsustainable rates and both are threatened with extinction. There are many other options out there, choose wisely.

Fun Fact:

Most people are surprised to hear that smaller shark species and rays, and not seals, form the bulk of the great white's diet for the first 75% of their life cycle.

On the Longest He's Waited for a Shot:

I’m still waiting after 30 years. You never get the perfect shot where behavior, background, mood and subject all combine. I guess the closest I ever came was in June 2001 when I took my Air Jaws image, which if you had to ask me to create the perfect shot of what a hunting great white is capable of, that would have been it. That shot literally took thousands of hours waiting behind my tiny camera’s viewfinder for one perfect second's action.

"Grace on Granite" by Chris Fallows

On Overlooked Skills Necessary to be a Wildlife Photographer:

The ability to get comfortably close to my subjects whereby they choose to come to me rather than me pushing them. This is very important to me—I am a visitor in their world and I need to engage with them on their terms.

By far the most important skill for me is getting to know my subjects. I have spent well in excess of 3,000 days (8+ years) at sea getting to know sharks, whales and dolphins. By understanding their behavior, knowing what they are likely to do under any given circumstance allows me to predict where to be and when. They say luck is where opportunity meets preparation and for me knowing my subjects allows me to get lucky more often than not.

"Dune Dance" by Chris Fallows

On His Favorite Piece of Equipment:

I would say my Canon 70-200mm F2.8 lens. It has taken most of the great shots I have been lucky enough to get. It is lightweight, fast and sharp and can be used in many applications. I have big 600mm lenses but in all honesty I seldom use them as I am usually very close to my subjects where I like to shoot wider.

Chris with his favorite lens

On Advice and Gear Recommendations for Aspiring Wildlife Photographers:

Follow your passion no matter what you do in life. Your photography and style will evolve—don’t be afraid to go with the changes you will encounter. It is fun finding out who you are and what you most appreciate in an image.

"Earth and Empathy" by Chris Fallows

I recommend using 2nd hand gear. With constant new technology you have the opportunity to buy truly incredible gear a model or two behind the latest at vastly reduced rates. You will still be getting gear that is incredible and can do 95% of what the latest gear can. I would always suggest buying the best lenses you can afford.

On His Team:

The team is my wife Monique and I. I choose to keep it small. I am getting extremely close to great white sharks, lions, elephants and other big potentially dangerous animals and as such I want as few distractions as possible when I am lying on the ground a few feet away from an elephant or at arms length outside of a cage with a great white. I need someone who understands the animals behavior to help watch my back for the one I don’t see coming or to give me a heads up on behavior I might not be seeing.

I also need someone who is relaxed and trusts in my ability around these animals. The last thing I need to hear is someone telling me to be careful or have someone who is nervous as this permeates into what I am doing. I am always careful and knowingly taking calculated risks—this is what I have done my whole life. Monique is an amazing wildlife naturalist, has evolved with me in terms of what we have seen and done and know is possible and has a great photographic eye so I am incredibly lucky to have her as my partner.

"Warrior" by Chris Fallows


Shout out to my wife and the many many other photographers who have paved the way for me to continue on the photographic journey of telling the story. Above all, a huge shout out to my subjects: the animals themselves. My work and life would have been nothing without all of you.


"The Kings Gold" by Chris Fallows

On Next Steps as a Photographer and Naturalist:

From a natural history point of view, I would really like to photograph in the Russian Far East—I love the harsh winter landscape. I also cannot ever get enough of the wild places in Africa. At the top of the list of things I haven’t done yet would be to photograph forest elephants of equatorial Africa. I love elephants and would love to get a great image of a tusker forest elephant to round out my collection with.

Photographically, I want to really get my work into galleries, board rooms and homes around the world for people to appreciate our planet's icons. I launched my life's work last year by way of the 11th hour collection that has done very well in the UK where it was launched. I now really want to get the work into the US market and use the funds raised to buy land in Africa for rehabilitation and rewilding as Monique's and my legacy.

On Which Limited-Edition Print He's Most Proud of:

I guess the work titled Warrior of a magnificent Black Maned Lion walking towards me in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game reserve. I know how long I had to wait for this image, the preparation involved to get the lion to feel comfortable to walk towards where I was lying on the ground and then finally the absolute beauty of the lion itself. An amazing day in the field for sure. 

Don’t think about it—first thing that comes to mind:

What is one thing you couldn’t live without?

Wildlife

One adjective to describe your work?

Intimate

Favorite animal to photograph?

Great White Shark

Favorite location to shoot?

Has to be Seal Island, False Bay South Africa

Least favorite location to shoot?

Any city.

What would you do if you weren’t a photographer?

Pilot or Olympic 800m Athlete if I had the ability.

Favorite snack while shooting?

Chocolate in the cold and a frozen orange when very hot.

Go-to cafe order?

Never order from cafes, none in the bush or underwater :)

Favorite season?

On land: Late winter early spring, it’s dusty, hot and dramatic.

On the ocean: Late summer early autumn. Lots of good behavior offshore— waters warm and clear, leading to many nice days. (S. Hemispere)

If you could speak with one type of animal, which animal would it be?

A wandering albatross, they see the whole world and experience the wildest weather handling it with aplomb.

Favorite piece by another Wildlife Photographer?

Nick Brandt, Elephant Exodus.

Favorite piece by another Untamed Photographer?

Brian Moghari, Majestic Manta.

Closing

Chinese philosopher Confucius coined the adage: "choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life;" and Chris, it's plain to see you embody that ancient truth to the fullest. The energy you bring to each environmental project not only entertains and informs a wide breadth of viewers, but it depicts the earth's waning beauty as evergreen.

With each journey you and Monique depart on, you bring back something that researchers, naturalists, and photographers alike are astounded by. Your eye is the one trusted to showcase the literal and figurative depth of the natural world; and what surfaces is never short of breathtaking. In partnering with Untamed Photographer, you continue to amplify and expand the reach of the earth's muted distress signals and showcase all that is beyond the lens.

If you love Chris's work and mission as much as we do, you're in luck. Act fast and shop Chris Fallows's limited-edition prints today on the Untamed Photographer website.

Thanks again, Chris!

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