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A leopard, a baboon, and the dark past of wildlife photography

Aug 21, 2012 By Abraham

In a 1993 interview for the book LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, John Dominis tells the depressing backstory of this remarkable 1966 photograph…

Life magazine gave me the assignment to do “The Cats of Africa.” I had photographed some animals before, though I certainly wasn’t a cat expert, but I could hire people who knew things. They’d lined up a hunter in Botswana, who was a hunter for zoos.

He had caught a leopard, and he put the leopard in the back of the truck, and we went out into the desert. He would release the leopard, and most of the time the leopard would chase the baboons and they would run off and climb trees. I had photographed all this.

But for some reason one baboon didn’t get off. It turned and faced the leopard, and the leopard killed it. We didn’t know that this was going to happen. I just turned on the camera motor, and I got this terrific shot of this confrontation.

After discussing this specific incident, Dominis broadens his comments to address wildlife photography as a whole back then…

There was a different feeling about that in the 1960s. We were always setting up pictures of some sort…. Scientists couldn’t handle the crude cameras that we had well enough to get good stuff. I felt that my job was to get the pictures.

I learned how to bait animals and do things from the experts in Africa. We shot a gazelle and put it in a tree and waited for a cat to come. I didn’t feel bad about it at all.

It sounds terrible now, I know, and maybe my attitude would be different now. But it wasn’t then, and I don’t know what more to say. I’ve been criticized a lot. But to me, I had to do what I did.

(via Le Journal de la Photographie)


  1. Terry Cafferty says:

    The photograph is terrific, regardless of how it was produced. There is no ‘production’ in what is portrayed, which is the baboon’s refusal to ‘go gently into that good night’ (death). Instead, he or she wheels around and gets in the cat’s face with every bit of ferocity on hand. Note that the leopard has the brakes locked up at all four corners, facing the baboon’s force and fangs. I first saw this photograph in ‘Life’ while in the waiting room of a dentist’s office; I was 21 years old. This photo made a deep impression on me. I have no issue with the photographer or Life magazine. Leopards kill baboons. Humans kill each other, chronically, and often for reason than for power or money, or in the name of ‘God’, or because of skin color. I wonder how many of the righteous protester to this photo essay ate beef today, and of those how many even remembered they were eating a once-living, feeling being who had the misfortune to fall under the control of humans bent on profit.

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