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Stéphane de Greef: Combining Nature Photography With Documentary


Inspired by Don McCullin and Piotr Naskrecki, Stéphane de Greef is a forest engineer, cartographer and photographer with a long career in humanitarian work and a passion for bugs and archaeology. He talks to us about his nature photography and documentary work in Cambodia.

When did you first pick up a camera? What first attracted you to photography?

I received my first camera from my aunt when I was 11, in 1988. It was a Yashica Motor J 35mm compact film camera, which I mostly used for shooting my family and friends, but this was a long time ago and no photo from that period survived the dozen house moves. I was first attracted to photography as my father himself was an avid photographer. I was fascinated by all this strange, expensive, and fragile equipment, with all these buttons and switches. I had always been interested in nature photography, spending all my childhood looking at pictures of bugs in science books.

A leaf insect Phyllium sp photographed in the MYN field studio
A leaf insect (Phyllium sp.) photographed in de Greef's field studio on the island of Koh Rong Samloeum, Cambodia. Such a picture, he says, "never fails to amaze people and raise their curiosity towards a natural world they know very little about."

At which point in your career did you decide to invest more time in photography?

I’ve always spent time taking photos to document my work as a forest engineer, but it was a side activity until 2011. I started calling myself a professional photographer in 2012, when I joined the Meet Your Neighbours (MYN) project, which required that I upgrade my skills, improve the quality of my shots, and reach a marketable quality. It was also a time when my work with landmine survivors brought me to refugee camps and conflict areas, where I considered it essential to document the situation and to collect high-quality images to denounce injustice and human rights abuses.

A M42 cluster submunition found near Preah Vihear temple after a clash between Cambodia and Thailands army
A M42 cluster submunition found near Preah Vihear temple after a clash between Cambodia and Thailand's army in February 2011. Acting as an international observer, Stéphane's photos were evidence enough of the use of these internationally banned weapons.

Which photographers have influenced you?

For nature photography, Piotr Naskrecki is a role model for me. I had the chance to work with him during a scientific expedition in remote Cambodia in 2011. I learned a lot just by looking at how he was working in the field to generate such amazing pictures. For my work in photojournalism, I was truly inspired by Don McCullin, after I saw an exhibit of some of his work in the Photography Museum in my hometown of Charleroi, Belgium. I didn’t switch to black and white, but I understood the power of images to document war and other humanitarian disasters. This is when I realized that with my camera, in my line of work (humanitarian mine action), images showing the naked truth of armed conflicts are often more efficient at informing people than lengthy descriptions.

The venerable monk of the Buddhist shrine of Wat Athvea, Siem Reap, Cambodia, rests with his pet cat. This shrine, located near the famed temples of Angkor, acts as an animal shelter for dozens of stray cats and dogs waiting to be adopted.

Are there areas from which you take inspiration outside of photography?

Nature is my biggest inspiration—I spend a lot of time outdoors, I love nature. What inspires me next are people, especially how they react and fight back in times of trouble. I feel like many photojournalists restrict themselves to capturing the issues and the misery, while I prefer to document the coping mechanisms and the hope of people in difficult situations.

You're a forest engineer, cartographer and photographer currently living in Cambodia. For how long have you been in Cambodia, and what do you do there?

Ah, it’s a bit complicated! I’ve been living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for about ten years now, initially coming here to work on the mapping of minefields and prioritization of mine clearance, then working on human rights and environmental issues. As of today, I’m working on half a dozen projects! I’m updating the map of the Angkor temples (we find new ones every week!), I’m helping develop two nature-based tourism ventures in Angkor, I’m running my own tours (jungle and countryside treks), I’m a professional events and nature photographer, and I’m also quite active running an online community promoting the flora and fauna of Cambodia.

A Cambodian girl learns to walk with her new prosthesis in Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center
A Cambodian girl learns to walk with her new prosthesis in Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center, Cambodia, in 2011. She lost her leg in a traffic accident. Road crashes cause more fatalities and amputations than antipersonnel landmines in Cambodia.

How did you get involved in humanitarian work ?

While at university, I decided to aim for a career abroad, something in the environment or development. I started working on biodiversity surveys in Ecuador and Gabon in 1999–2000, then on the population census in Haiti. After this, I traveled regularly to West Africa to train people how to make GPS-based village maps for water supply and sanitation. Then in 2002, I noticed a job offer for a data management and mapping project related to humanitarian mine action, and knew instantly that this would be the bridge I needed to apply my engineering skills to humanitarian work. I definitely do not regret making that choice at the time.

How does photography connect with the other areas of work you're involved in?

As I’m running my own jungle treks, developing nature-based tourism, and promoting the fauna and flora of Cambodia, it’s essential for me to have a good portfolio of images I can use for scientific research and tourism promotion. In all humility, I probably have the largest and most exhaustive collection of insect photographs in Cambodia! These pictures illustrate what people can see on my tours, are used to raise awareness of the amazing microfauna of Cambodia, and may even be used to set up the first ever species lists for arthropods of this country. For archaeology, I sometimes go to remote locations looking for ancient sites dating back to the 8th–12th century. Being a photographer allows me to professionally document all the archaeological artefacts I come across.

Stéphane de Greef beside a sandstone pedestal discovered during his exploration of Mahendraparvata, a 1,200-year-old Royal Capital he helped uncover in 2013. Thanks to airborne laser scanning (LiDAR), archaeologists have discovered countless ancients sites around Angkor, Cambodia.

Recently you've been documenting the discovery of the lost city of Mahendraparvata in the Cambodian jungles. How important is photography for that type of work?

Well, not as much as one would think! The main reason why this whole city remained hidden for 12 centuries is because you can’t really see it! We had to rely on a helicopter-borne laser technology called Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to create images of it by remote sensing. LiDAR helped to uncover this archaeological landscape and to map dozens of previously unknown temples. But once you’re on the ground, there’s actually very little to see. The visibility is extremely limited by the dense vegetation, so it’s almost impossible to photograph the sites I discovered, except for some old stones sticking out from the ground, and shards of pottery…

A dragon caterpillar Charaxes sp found in the undergrowth of the evergreen forest of Angkor Thom Cambodia The invertebrate fauna of Cambodia is totally unknown and de Greef uses photography to record and document all the species he encounters
A "dragon caterpillar" (Charaxes sp.) found in the undergrowth of the evergreen forest of Angkor Thom, Cambodia. The invertebrate fauna of Cambodia is totally unknown, and de Greef uses photography to record and document all the species he encounters.

You have a special interest in bugs as a photographic subject. Why?

Childhood legacy! When I was a child, I was fascinated by nature photo books about the beetles of the world, social insects, or spiders. I developed an early love for nature, especially for insects that I could observe in my own backyard. Children of my generation would spend countless hours watching ant trails, overturning stones looking for bugs, and climbing up trees. Most of them would get over it by the age of 12. But others, like me, never grow up.

You're associated with Meet Your Neighbours, a global biodiversity documentation project. How did you get involved with the MYN project?

I first became aware of the MYN project while looking at Piotr Naskrecki’s pictures on Facebook. We had met during an expedition in northwest Cambodia in 2007, and I have admired his work ever since. When he started shooting on white background for MYN, I decided to learn more about this project and visited its Facebook page. In early 2012, Clay Bolt, the co-founder of MYN, called for photographers to join the project, and I contacted him saying I was interested. He taught me about the technique remotely, helped me choose the required equipment, and guided me through my first shots.

Galana Salec, a young woman working for the landmine survivor network ASAVIM, interviews a disabled war veteran in Awserd refugee camp, Southwest Algeria, in 2012. Tens of thousands of refugees from Western Sahara have lived there since 1979.

How challenging was it to apply the field techniques used by MYN—subjects photographed against pure white backgrounds in a field studio—to your work?

It was actually quite easy and fast to learn the MYN technique, with all the help provided by Clay and the other contributors. It took me just a few hours to get my first results, and a few weeks to dramatically improve my technique. Of course, two years on, I realize that my first shots were not that great, which also shows that there’s always room for improvement. I almost exclusively used my MYN studio for shooting bugs in Cambodia, in order to conduct biodiversity research and raise awareness on the microfauna.

Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world
Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, but its forests are among the least studied by biologists. De Greef uses his pictures to show the beauty of every species to the Cambodian people, in an attempt to reconnect them with nature.

In terms of gear, what can usually be found in your bag?

I’m currently using a Canon 6D, a cheap full-frame camera with great low-light capability. Lens-wise, my trusted Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS USM for macro (and a MP-E 65mm for close-up), a Canon 16–35mm f/2.8 for wide shots, and a 50mm f/1.4 for fast action and evening shots. Shooting bugs, I use a heavily modified MT-24Ex macro flash with double-level diffusion and have a couple of Canon Speedlites which I use for backlighting my subjects for Meet Your Neighbours. I also use a headlamp and a UV flashlight for finding bugs and shooting at night. And mosquito repellent, plenty of mosquito repellent!

Any tips for people getting started in nature and macro photography?

Just don’t forget that patience is a virtue! I always tell people to get a hand on inanimate objects, just to learn to get the settings right before approaching live animals. In many cases, you’ll have to rely on artificial light to get the required depth of field, but even a pop-up flash can do miracles with a DIY diffuser. My friend Anna did a great job with a cut-out milk bottle! The most important is to get a good macro lens, such as the 60mm for EF-S mounts or the Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS USM.

A marine crab photographed in the MYN field studio
De Greef photographed this marine crab in his MYN field studio on the island of Koh Rong Samloeum, Cambodia. He says such images are essential, as we potentially have hundreds of undescribed species of invertebrates in Cambodia, and hardly any reference documents.

What are your projects for the future? Is there a specific direction you want to take your photography?

I have an ambitious photographic and scientific project: to produce the first ever photo-based insect identification guidebook for Cambodia. It will be produced in several formats, for scientists, the general public, and children, and should be ready by mid-2015. We desperately need reference books for the identification of Cambodian insects and to raise awareness on what Piotr calls the smaller majority, all those insects and spiders that represent up to 90% of the biodiversity…

Stéphane de Greef was born in Belgium. You can see more of his pictures, and read about his work, at www.stephanedegreef.com.

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