In a world dominated by urban landscapes and fast-paced lifestyles, it's easy to forget the profound beauty and rawness of nature. But for some, like Alexandra Surkova, the enchantment of the wild is not just an admiration; it's a calling. As a celebrated wildlife photographer from the picturesque landscapes of Spain, Alexandra has graced global audiences with glimpses into the lives of creatures we often fail to appreciate or even acknowledge. Her story is as captivating as her photographs, as she finds magic amidst challenges, patience in the face of anticipation, and purpose in the art of conservation.
Retro Kolkata : Alexandra, your wildlife photography has captivated audiences worldwide. What initially inspired you to specialize in this genre of photography?
Alexandra : I owe my passion for wildlife photography to two coincident factors. The first was the COVID pandemic. As people vanished from the streets, animals began to appear. I live in a secluded area, surrounded by the vast fields of Spain. At the peak of COVID, roe deer began casually crossing the road a mere 500 meters from my house, and vultures and kites were soaring directly overhead.
It was at this precise moment that a mysterious follower, who had been admiring my photos on Instagram, many of which were captured with my iPhone, made a move that changed my life forever. I will never forget that day when a courier knocked on my door and delivered the package. This person, recognizing something more in my images, sent me a Sony 200-600 lens instead of a typical postcard, completely altering the course of my journey.
So, there I was, an unexpected owner of a telephoto lens, living in an area that teemed with wildlife. The die was cast indeed.
Retro Kolkata : Can you share the story behind one of your most memorable wildlife encounters? How did it influence your approach to photography?
Alexandra : I still recall my very first wildlife experience with incredible trepidation. Exactly three years ago, I spent about 4 hours in a tent in 40-degree heat, sweating and dying of thirst, to take just 2 owl photos! I think any normal person would have changed their hobby immediately after such an experience. But that wasn’t my case. Those hours of waiting provoked such an adrenaline rush that I got hooked on a very addictive drug: wildlife photography.
A couple of weeks later, another incredible encounter happened, which equally affected me. That day, I saw an Iberian lynx for the first time, one of the most endangered felines in the world. Since then, I’ve seen these animals dozens of times, but that very first eye contact, my trembling hands, skyrocketing pulse… Like on a first date when Cupid’s arrow pierces you and you don’t know how to contain your stammering voice, blushing cheeks, racing heart…I think it’s one of the tensest moments I’ve experienced in my life.
Retro Kolkata : You have been to some of the most remote corners of the world to capture wildlife. Is there a particular location that you find yourself returning to again and again? Why does this place hold such a special place in your heart?
Alexandra : Africa holds a special place in my heart. I will never forget the day I first arrived in Serengeti Park, Tanzania, on a small airplane. As we touched down, I eagerly pointed out of the plane's window, exclaiming, "Look, there are giraffes running!" and "Oh, those are elephants!" Upon landing, a multitude of zebras and giraffes awaited us at the edge of the runway. The moment I descended the airplane's stairs, I realized: this is my haven. Now, I organize photo tours in Tanzania to share a slice of my paradise with fellow photographers.
Retro Kolkata : Your photos reveal an innate understanding of animal behavior. How do you prepare yourself to capture these perfect moments, and what kind of research goes into it?
Alexandra : From a technical standpoint, I don’t specifically prepare for each shoot. However, I do meticulously study the locations of the hides from where I can shoot different animals, and I try to choose places where I can take unique shots. When you choose to photograph a particular animal, it’s crucial to have a basic understanding of when certain events may occur. If you’re interested in observing a mother owl feeding her newborn chicks, you have a limited window of a couple of weeks in mid-June. Want to capture swimming bears or witness a lynx mother teaching her cubs to hunt? That’s likely to occur in July or August. Each animal exhibits its specific behavior that can help you plan your ideal shooting dates.
Retro Kolkata : There are inherent risks associated with photographing wild animals. Have you ever found yourself in a challenging or dangerous situation, and how did you handle it?
Alexandra : I believe that the risks for wildlife photographers are often exaggerated. I have been doing this type of photography not for very long and I haven’t traveled much yet, but I tend to think that animals don’t pose a significant threat to humans if they don’t feel threatened by them. I recently returned from Finland where I was photographing bears. Our hide was on the edge of a lake, and we were photographing the animals from the opposite side. Suddenly, a bear dived into the water and swam straight towards us, emerging from the water just half a meter away from our shelter. Did my heart freeze? Absolutely. Especially when the bear lifted its head and stared straight at me. But after a second, he looked away and continued his journey as if nothing had happened. Maybe he just likes blondes, ha-ha, but I think it’s more likely that I posed no threat to him and he was perfectly aware of it.
Retro Kolkata : Could you share some insight into the technical aspects of your work? What equipment do you usually use, and how do you adapt to different environments and subjects?
Alexandra : Currently, my main gear includes a Sony Alpha 1, Sony 600mm F/4 GM, Sony 400mm F/2.8 GM, and Sony 200-600mm F/5.6-6.3 G lenses. Another indispensable helper is my Gitzo tripod.
Once I know the shooting location, and thus the approximate distance to the subject, I bring specific optics for the specific shoot. For bird photography, it’s always fixed optics: 600mm or 400mm. However, when shooting mammals, I often use zoom lenses. Imagine you’re sitting in a hide for 12 hours waiting for an Iberian lynx to appear. And finally, it appears out of nowhere and walks straight towards you. You simply don’t have time to change the lens, by the time you’re done with that, your model is already posing for another photographer a kilometer away.
Retro Kolkata : Environmental conservation is a crucial part of wildlife photography. How do you use your platform and work to raise awareness about wildlife conservation and climate change?
Alexandra : I try to do my best to make people see the beauty of the world around us through my pictures. When I receive comments where people tell me how my pictures made them start reading/learning/being interested in wildlife, I am beyond happy. And if there is even one hunter among all these people who instead of a gun takes a camera in his hands…, I would consider my mission accomplished.
Retro Kolkata : You manage to capture such intimate and expressive shots of wild animals. How do you approach these moments without disturbing the animals or their natural behaviors?
Alexandra : I always make sure to enter the hide when the animal isn’t around and I only leave when I’m confident it’s no longer in sight. I’m there to observe, not to influence their behavior. It’s likely that the animals are aware of my presence as they have highly acute senses, but as long as they don’t feel threatened, they won’t harm me. If you respect them and their space, they will often let you admire them, even up close.
Retro Kolkata : Patience must play a significant role in wildlife photography, often waiting for hours or even days for the perfect shot. Can you share an instance where your patience truly paid off?
Alexandra : Oh, absolutely. If you're as impatient as I am, wildlife photography will test your nerves in ways you wouldn't believe. It's like waiting for the kettle to boil but for 10-12 hours, or even all night. But let me tell you, the waiting game isn't even the toughest part. Picture this, you're waiting for hours and suddenly not one, but several perfect subjects appear before you.
Once I witnessed an incredible scene: a mother lynx appeared before me with four (!!) tiny lynx cubs. They came to the watering hole with the last rays of the sun and, having quenched their thirst, they began to play with each other. That's the moment of panic. What to do? Who of them to shoot? You frantically move the lens from one subject to another, trying to capture something, but while you're darting around, the spectacle is already over. Being able to concentrate on one thing and patiently wait for that very moment, worthy of shooting, despite the fact that something no less interesting is happening around at the same time... this is very, very difficult, believe me. Your adrenaline is off the charts from what's happening around, but you have to patiently wait for the chosen subject to make your shot unforgettable.
That evening I chose one cub who seemed particularly intrigued by a swarm of bees. Sure, my heart ached a bit for not choosing the others. But, when that cub took a step towards the bees, I knew I made the right choice. That shot earned me the win at the international competition 35AWARDS.
Retro Kolkata : Looking ahead, are there any specific projects or locations you're excited about? Can we expect to see Alexandra Surkova venturing into any new wildlife territories soon?
Alexandra : Well, truth be told, I feel like a teenager who just discovered the magic of roller coasters and now wants to try every single one of them. I do regret not discovering this exhilarating world of wildlife photography earlier. But as they say, better late than never!
I'm dreaming of exploring untouched corners of the globe, organizing photo tours, and sharing this indescribable joy with others who've got the bug like me. We might be over 60 years old, but who cares?
Fasten your seatbelts! We might be charting a course for the exotic landscapes of Namibia, the tiger-rich forests of India, or tracking pumas in the rugged wilderness of Patagonia. Sky's the limit, indeed! But remember, just in case we end up in Antarctica, bring a sweater!
In every frame, Alexandra Surkova captures a tale, a moment of wild beauty frozen in time. Through her tales of unexpected gifts, profound patience, and encounters that quicken the heartbeat, she reminds us of the immense beauty that the world holds. Her journey, from the rolling fields of Spain to the sweeping plains of Africa, has been nothing short of magical, capturing not just images but emotions. As we look forward to her future ventures, it is clear that her passion is not just about capturing the wild but also celebrating and preserving it. And in doing so, Alexandra invites us all to become a part of her journey, challenging us to see the world with the same wonder she does.