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The Siberian

The Siberian

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36” x 77” Unframed 51” x 92” Framed Edition of 12

48” x 103” Unframed 63” x 118” Framed Edition of 12

I firmly believe that having interesting stuff in front of the camera is the cornerstone of a good photograph. I know this to be a platitude but sometimes it pays to remember the simple stuff.

I have been deliberating about photographing a Siberian tiger in the habitat that defines it for several years, but North China - where I took this image – had, until recently, been out of bounds for foreigners since Covid. Even now, it is not the most welcoming of places. It’s a long way from home, English tongues are rare and, in the winter, it can offer indecently low temperatures.

The starting point of my interest in this project was that these cats are not just the most visually arresting animal species on our planet, they are also the most dangerous. They will kill a human in eight seconds and do it for fun. The trade-off between safety and proximity was at the heart of this project; I needed to be close and work with a lens that would afford context, but I also needed to be safe.

Two decisions were important in the process of making this picture. The first was to allocate a good amount of time in the north and wait for flat light and snow. Many days in the Siberian winter are played out under high pressure weather systems of freezing temperatures and dry and bright skies. This was not what I wanted. I needed moisture in the air and flat light and snow. That would mean either getting very lucky or waiting. I waited. It is very cold up there, but it doesn’t snow as regularly as it does in western ski resorts.

The second decision was to work closely with the Chinese authorities and, in retrospect, this brief encounter was only possible because of the help of two or three extremely influential Chinese people. I am reminded that access is a key word in photography and this is normally achieved by investing in people. My charm offensive with my Chinese contacts was several months long. My team knows who they are and their stature within China, but no one else needs to know.

The question that I will be asked about this picture will simply be “how on earth did you get it?”. My answer would be two-fold. I was in a bespoke vehicle with a lower window opening, smaller than a tiger’s head, but larger than a camera lens. The second part of the answer is more important: it was by showing China and the Chinese some respect. Without that there was no chance. I know some people will criticise me for working with a country with a questionable record in conservation, but life is too
short and I am an artist first and foremost.

The evolution of species is quite remarkable. Look at those tiger stripes and the colouring of the tiger and then look behind him. Now that’s clever camouflage. Well done to whomever sorted that one out! ~ David Yarrow

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