Derek Kettela in Africa

Mike Made // March 20, 2012 

We’re pleased to present an exclusive display of images taken by photographer Derek Kettela while he was out on safari in the middle of Africa. Milk Made’s Mike Abu got a chance to grab a beer with Kettela in a little pub in Paris, where they talked about pretty girls and shooting elephants.

Milk Made: So…why elephants?

Derek Kettela: I shot a whole bunch of different animals while we were on safari in Botswana. The place we went to, Chobe National Park, apparently has the highest concentration of elephants in one place in the world. You couldn’t turn without seeing an elephant—there were thousands of them everywhere. It was impossible not to take a picture of an elephant, literally. In Botswana, the elephants are definitely the stars of the show.

MM: What were you doing there?

DK: I was there working on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. We were in Zambia for three weeks in October, and on our last day we decided to go on safari. It was a new experience for me and obviously I enjoyed it.

MM: So all these photos were shot in one day?

DK: Yep, they were all shot in one day. What they do is take you out on the Chobe river in the morning. The boats come up on the shore about 20-25 feet away from the animals, and if the animals get to close, the boats go back on the river. In the afternoon they take you on the safari trucks, but you get a lot closer with the boats.

MM: Did you find some elephants to be more photogenic than others?

DK: Well, they all seemed to have different personalities. It’s really like a big family, but it was obvious that there’s always one in charge that everyone else followed. One goes across the river and then a hundred will follow. The interactions between them were pretty amazing, as you can see in the photos. I was just documenting what was in front of me.

MM: How close did you get to the elephants?

DK: Earlier in our trip we rode some African elephants that were been raised by humans. It’s pretty amazing to ride an African elephant because in general they’re pretty violent and aggressive…they’ll kill you. You can’t really get to know African elephants because they’re extremely dangerous, as opposed to Indian elephants, which you can generally go up to. We went to this place called Mukuni Big Five, which is a place where you can walk with lions and hand feed elephants. We stuck our hands in their mouth and they sucked the feed right out of our hands. It’s like the most powerful vacuum you’ve ever felt. It’s insane!

MM: What’s the difference between shooting animals and models?

DK: The photos we did for the magazine had the models with the animals in every picture.

[He paused to show me photos of models in bikinis posing with lions]

These white lions were raised by humans. Even though they walk with people everyday, we still had to be cautious—we had six handlers with us. The lions we used were a year old, but once they’re two, they can’t walk with humans anymore. Their instincts will come back, and they’ll want to kill you.

[He flipped to a photo of a model standing near a wild rhino]

MM: Intense…

DK: We got even closer than that! I think it was standing about 15 feet behind the model at one point. The guide told us afterwards that same rhino had flipped a truck with tourists in it a couple weeks earlier… of course he told us after we got the shot! So obviously it’s different shooting models than animals.

MM: Do you think you’ll go back and do it again?

DK: I’d love to go back, it was a great experience. This was the best shoot I’ve ever been on, both the Sports Illustrated shoot and getting to go out on safari and photographing the animals. It was great.

MM: What’s next for you?

DK: We’re doing SI again in September. I can’t say where we’re going yet, but it’s going to be equally as impressive as Africa.

Mike Abu