Capturing the Wild: A Chat with Safari Photographer Robert Sayialel

In the realm of wildlife photography, few can rival the passion and expertise of Robert Sayialel, a captivating personality who has captured the hearts of fellow enthusiasts and professionals alike. From humble beginnings in the heart of Amboseli National Park, where he first honed his skills capturing the majestic big Tuskers, Robert has traversed the breathtaking landscapes of Kenya’s national parks, documenting once-in-a-lifetime safaris for awe-struck guests. Now, as the resident photographer at the sybaritic Angama lodge, perched on an escarpment high above Kenya’s Maasai Mara, Robert shares his wealth of knowledge and unique perspective with emerging photographers who, like him, find the allure of the untamed wild irresistible. HAP spoke with Sayialel about his expertise, all-time favorite shots, and why African safaris remain the holy grail for every aspiring photographer.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into photography, and how did you land at Angama? 

I started my career in the IT department working with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Amboseli National Park, close to where I was born and raised. Over time, I started going out on safari drives, documenting and photographing the big, famous Tuskers of Amboseli, which opened a new chapter in wildlife photography. When my time was up in Amboseli, I moved to Nairobi, freelancing with tour companies, traveling with guests through Kenya’s National Parks, and documenting their safaris. When Covid hit and there were no visitors, much of my work turned to portrait photography within the city until I saw an advert that Angama was looking for a photographer to guide and document safaris and wildlife of the Mara Triangle. An opportunity too good to pass, I applied, and it has been an incredible two years now of my life doing what I love in one of the most beautiful wildlife viewing places in the world. The best part about being part of this dear team is that I am not always confined to the studio teaching and editing photos; every now and then, I get to go out and hone my skills even more.

What are some of the experiences that Angama’s photo studio offers and are they unique compared to other luxury safari hotels? 

Angama has set itself apart as one of the travel destinations in Kenya, with a few camps now following suit, that has a dedicated Photographic Studio to cater to guests’ photography needs. In the studio, guests have an opportunity to arrange private complimentary photographic tutorials and editing sessions to learn the ins and outs of a camera. This can either be with their own gear or cameras and lenses available for hire in the studio. Alternatively, one can choose to hire a photographer for one-on-one, in-depth practical classes on game drives. For those who prefer to put down their cameras and enjoy their Mara experience to the fullest, we accompany them on drives to capture these wonderful memories on their behalf, both people and wildlife.

As a way to keep engaging our guests, both past and those we expect, about our wildlife, culture, and experiences, Angama runs weekly blogs, and one of them is titled TWAA (This Week At Angama), which highlights our wildlife sightings and stories from the Mara Triangle. We have intimate knowledge of much of the wildlife in the Triangle, which helps in telling stories about them. TWAA is such a hit with so many viewers as we also feature some incredible photos taken by our guests and our guides as well.

We’ve heard that Angama also runs a photography competition open to the public. Can you tell us more about that?  

The Greatest Maasai Mara Photographer of the Year competition was launched by the Angama Foundation to reinforce the status of the Maasai Mara National Reserve as one of the best year-round wildlife destinations on the continent. Aimed at the community of Mara-based guides, Greater Mara employees, photographers, and visitors, the competition showcases the incredible images from the Mara while raising funds for boots-on-the-ground conservation initiatives to ensure its sustainability for generations to come. 

Each entry includes a donation to one of the competition’s conservation partners active in the Maasai Mara, with more than US$83,000 handed out by the Angama Foundation to the Anne K. Taylor Fund, the Maa Trust, the Mara Elephant Project, the Mara Conservancy, and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in 2019. Running from January to October, each month a finalist is selected by a judging panel of acclaimed wildlife photographers and stands a chance of winning the grand prize: a five-night safari for two at Angama Mara and US$10,000 in cash.

Are there any legendary safari photographers that you’ve admired over the years?

Nick Brandt has always been my favorite as one of the pioneers in portraying animals as sentient creatures, not so different from us, showing how deeply our fates are intertwined. Brandt portrays people and animals together, causing us to reflect on the real-life consequences of climate change. In the end, what is a wildlife photographer if there is no wildlife to photograph?

Can you explain what prompted the shift from traditional game hunting to photography safaris? Why this was pivotal to conservation, and the types of experiences offered by safari lodges? 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Africa was a popular destination for European and American big game hunters who traveled to the continent to hunt exotic animals. This was seen as a sport and a means of demonstrating one’s masculinity and courage. However, in the early 20th century, a few pioneering photographers began to challenge these notions by capturing images of African wildlife instead of killing them, creating the idea of “photographic safaris” and safari travel as we know it today—a pivotal change to shooting with a camera instead of shooting with a gun.  

And finally, if you could pick one or two of your very favorite photos, which are they and why? If the animal has a name and story, please share!

In the two years with Angama in the Maasai Mara, I have photographed many incredible photos, but one that sets all my photos apart is when I witnessed a zebra earning its stripes even in the face of death. During the migration season, a dazzle of zebras was crossing the Mara River from the greater reserve towards the Triangle at one of the highly crocodile-infested crossing points. We spent hours on the river’s edge waiting to witness this extremely world-popular animal migration river crossing. Eventually, the urge to cross became too much, and the animals had to cross despite the imminent danger awaiting in the river. Almost immediately, more than a dozen crocodiles swung into action, grabbing a few zebras here and there. There was chaos and blood flowing in the river, which gave the rest of the zebras an easier pass while the crocodiles fought for a piece from those that succumbed, or so it seemed. A lone croc away from the melee managed to grab a zebra by its leg followed by a death roll, rendering it immobile, hence the ensuing fight for survival. Zebras are revered for their kicks and bite. The zebra was able to fend off the single croc by giving it a good bite, but only for a while. The damage already done, the poor zebra was a sitting duck, and eventually, more Crocs descended on it. It’s the circle of life.

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