shooting cheetahs

Novorapid is a fast-acting insulin pharmaceutical product for which Steve Jones at McCann’s had come up with an ad campaign using cheetahs (I have worked many times with Steve photographing tigers in the studio for Esso).
I was asked to shoot various scenarios with them, and as I’d previously visited a cheetah sanctuary in South Africa, I knew instantly where we had to go. 
The sanctuary hand rear some of their cheetahs (they literally take them home at night) so they are comfortable around people and very used to human contact from birth and consequently quite tame.
They agreed to help us to create the images we needed for the Novorapid campaign, so we flew out there to stay with them for a few days.
They had around 50 tame cheetahs and 150 wild ones for us to work with, so we set about shooting the tame ones first to get some of the scenarios in the bag before venturing on to photograph the more unpredictable wild ones. 
The two types of cheetah were very different in appearance, the tame ones (above) looked friendly, stocky and their coats thicker whilst the wild ones (below) were wary of us, leaner and some looked mean.

I didn’t want the usual wildlife photo “long lens look” to the photographs, so I shot everything with a more intimate short lens. This meant being very close to the cheetahs. While this wasn’t a problem with the tame ones, it was a totally different story with the wild cheetahs. The low growl from the wild cheetahs firmly let you know when they thought you were close enough, and quite a few sauntered over, head down, growling. When I glanced over, concerned to our guide from the sanctuary, he quietly assured me we were quite safe as he “had a broom” – a simple yard brush with which he could protect us.

Quite a lot of interest was shown in our photographic activities by a pack of wild dogs one afternoon too, although they soon got bored and wandered back to their dinner.

The cheetah cubs were great fun to work with. If I lay on the floor to photograph one at eye level, ten or so of its brothers and sisters would instantly jump on me climbing all over thinking it was a brilliant game.

When you work closely with people on a project like this, you make friends. In our time at the sanctuary we had many a night gathered around a braai (BBQ) eating, drinking and story telling. I kept in touch. 
About a year after the shoot, I telephoned one of the guys at the sanctuary for my monthly update – he broke down. These beautiful cheetahs we’d worked so closely with were all dead, all deliberately poisoned by a disgruntled local. When I asked why, he just replied, “This is South Africa”.