Close-up with Tina Claffey – The Last Great Wilderness
Feeling lost after returning from Africa to Birr in Ireland, nature and macro photographer Tina Claffey found solace in the bogs of the Midlands Region. This living carpet of spiders, mosses and newts provided plenty of opportunities for photography, and a chance to slow down and adapt to the pace of life around her.
Tina was a finalist in the Plants & Fungi category of Close-up Photographer of the Year 01. Read more about her winning entry and see all of the Top 100 finalists at www.cupoty.com/the-top-100.
When did you first pick up a camera and think ‘yes, this is for me’?
I went to art college in the late 1980s, and that’s where I was introduced to the camera. I thought I was going to be a painter at first, but when I was handed a camera and started developing film and making black & white prints I was hooked. It felt like magic. Studying photography through art was a good thing, because it taught me how to think outside the box a little, and look at things differently.
A lot of photographers seem to start out with the intention of becoming painters.
Yes. To begin with my technical skills were very basic, so when I finished college I went to work for a fashion and industrial photographer, and it was a steep learning curve! I think I learnt more in two weeks with him than I ever did in college.
So how did working as a photographer’s assistant lead to a life in Botswana?
In 1998 we went on a fashion shoot photographing wedding dresses in Kenya, and I fell in love with Africa as soon as I arrived. After two weeks I returned home with the intention of going back as soon as possible. I read an article about a guy who had won a bachelor of the year competition in Ireland, and it mentioned he worked in Botswana where he was studying migrating flamingos. I contacted him to see if he knew anyone who could help me get back to Africa. He took my details and about four months later called me up and said he needed someone to document what he was doing in Africa for his PhD. So off I went!
It must have been quite a culture shock!
Yes. I went from a nine-to-five job as a photographer’s assistant to sleeping in a tree, immersed in the wilderness. It was like being in my own Attenborough movie. I was only supposed to be there for three months, but it ended up being a year. It was the stuff that dreams are made of really.
“I went from a nine-to-five job as a photographer’s assistant to sleeping in a tree”
What did the job entail?
My job was to fly in a microlight over the nesting birds, photograph them from the air, and then count them later. This was all pre-digital, using slide film, so I had to take about 10 shots, and then mask them together. I was sponsored by Kodak back then, so I would send my slide film off to London in batches of 20 and wait for them to come back.
And when it ended?
I came back to Ireland for about nine months, during which time I held an exhibition of the images, and then went straight back to Africa on a one-way ticket!
When you returned to Africa you spent nine years managing safari camps – what brought you home?
I had a son, and I came back to Birr in Offaly (where I’m originally from) when he was about a year and a half. Coming from Botswana to my hometown was really odd. I found it hard to cope when I came back, because I missed everything about Africa: the sound at night, the wilderness – I felt quite lost.
How did you cope with the transition?
One day I went on an eco-walk with a botanist in a bog just down the road from me. There was about eight of us in all. He handed us little magnifying glasses and as he was walking and talking he kept scooping up moss, picking up raft spiders and putting them on our shoulders. Looking though the magnifying glass and seeing this other wilderness – just as important as the one I had experienced in Africa – simply blew my mind! It was like a living carpet.
It must have been quite a relief to find something so uplifting close to home.
It saved me, it really did. The next day I went back with my camera, and I realised I had to get a macro lens or I wouldn’t be able to photograph what I was seeing. That’s how it all began. I’ve been photographing the bogs of the Midlands Region for about eight years now – and I’m still finding new things. In some ways it feels as though I’ve just scratched the surface. There are bogs all over the Midlands – it’s like the remnants of a massive lake – which is why we are known as boggers!
“Looking though the magnifying glass and seeing this other wilderness – just as important as the one I had experienced in Africa – simply blew my mind!”
Do you find photographing in the bogs to be a meditative experience?
I could be having the most horrible day, then I go out with the camera, and when I come back I’m a different person. It’s really good for the soul out there. We are all in such a rush, but macro photography forces you to slow down. Once you stay still, creatures reveal themselves to you.
Does it take a while to attune to your surroundings?
Yes. It takes me an hour or two to tune into my surroundings, but then I slow down, and adapt to the pace of life around me. I could spend an hour just watching a spider creating a web. It’s like a mindfulness meditation. You go off into your own world. There are creatures and plants out there that haven’t been discovered yet, It’s like the edge of the wilderness.
The importance of bogs and wetlands can often be overlooked – what role do they play?
The carbon sink alone of the bog is more than all of the trees in the world (including the rainforests). It’s mind-blowing. I just want to raise some awareness – not just about the flora and fauna, but the importance of maintaining it and keeping it too – it doesn’t take a lot to preserve these things, all you have to do is just let them be. A photograph can speak too, and influence, a lot of people.
“The carbon sink alone of the bog is more than all of the trees in the world (including the rainforests). It’s mind-blowing.”
Some of the plants in the bogs have had to adapt to survive – can you give me examples?
The sundew is a prime example. It can’t get the nutrients it needs from the bog anymore so it has adapted to become a carnivore and obtain nutrients from insects instead. It’s my favourite plant – I can’t stop photographing it!
When you go out do you have a clear idea of what you want to photograph?
I’ve been doing it so long now that I know what’s about to bloom or what insects should be emerging, but I might go out for one thing and come back with 10 different things! I’m like a sloth out there, I move really, really slowly. I can get immersed in one patch for three hours or more. The brain switches on and you see more, the senses become more alert.
I’m assuming light can be an issue for you – do you use flash?
No, it’s all natural. On a sunny day I just bring a diffuser to soften the light. I love early mornings in particular: the dew is amazing and shows up all the spiders so you have a good starting point. Early morning and late evening light is stunning, but even on the dullest days it’s beautiful out there.
It might be beautiful out there, but bogs can also be dangerous places.
Yes. I follow the animal tracks, because that way you know you’re not going to sink. I am very wary, and I have a lot of respect for the bog, because it can be a treacherous place. I have been out walking before and one leg has disappeared up to the hip – and it’s a real battle to get out! If I go to a new bog I always take somebody who knows the area with me, so I can get my bearings, then I go back.
“I have been out walking before and one leg has disappeared up to the hip”
Do you return to the same places again and again?
I have about seven or eight bogs that I visit regularly. I like to go to the same places because different seasons reveal different things. Each bog I go to has a different energy, a different atmosphere – they are like living things. I never walk through a spider’s web, I walk around it, and I thank every insect that I photograph.
On a practical level you must get very wet!
To begin with I got soaked, but since then I have invested in some proper wet weather gear. I rarely use a tripod, because everything is on the ground, and I like to keep my hands free to help me balance while walking in those areas. I carry everything in a backpack.
Are there any accessories you couldn’t manage without?
I don’t use a beanbag, because it would get sopping wet, but I do use my son’s swimming armband as a substitute! I use it half inflated and the camera fits in really snug. When I get home I just rinse it off.
Tell me more about the equipment you use.
I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon EOS 7D. I have a Canon L-series 100mm macro lens, but I recently bought a Canon MP-E 65mm macro. It’s tricky for me to use out there, but with practice I can achieve 5x magnification – it’s like having a microscope! You don’t know what you’ve got until you get home and look at the images on the screen. That’s what I love. I still have butterflies in my stomach as I drive home – I just can’t wait to see what I’ve got – it’s the best feeling. You know you’ve got something special when it touches your soul. That’s my buzz. I love it.
Tina’s book Tapestry of Light: Ireland’s Bogs & Wetlands illustrates her unique perspective of the flora and fauna of the raised bogs and wet woodlands.
To see more of her work visit www.tinaclaffey.com or follow her on:
Read more about Tina’s winning entry ‘Frozen Sphagnum’ for CUPOTY 01 here.
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