Tails of 2 Cities

Tails of 2 Cities: Photographer documents baby gorillas' first year

Raleigh News & ObserverNovember 26, 2013 

Gorillas are not that interesting.

“I said to myself that ‘hey, they don’t move that fast,’” Windy Sawczyn said as she approached the gorilla enclosure during a trip to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro in September of 2012.

Sawczyn had gone to the zoo for two reasons: to try out some equipment she had bought for an upcoming wildlife photography workshop in Yellowstone Park and to get some practice photographing wildlife.

“I thought, where can I go that I will be assured of getting to see wildlife and realized I could go to the zoo,” Sawczyn said. “I looked in the gorilla enclosure window, and my goodness, there was a baby. I couldn’t believe it.

“Then I realized there was another.”

Bomassa, a Western lowland gorilla, had been born on Aug. 4. He was the first gorilla born at the zoo in 23 years. Twenty-seven days later, his half-brother Apollo was born.

“I had to get photos of the babies. When I got home, I decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get baby photos of gorillas, and it dawned on me that they were going to grow up and I should photograph them as they grew up,” Sawczyn said. “So I decided to buy a membership and go back once a week for the entire first year of their lives.”

A few of Sawczyn’s photographs of the boys’ first year are on exhibit at the Southern Village Weaver Street Market through Saturday. But even after they come down, there is unlimited opportunity to see all of the photos that Sawczyn took as the gorillas rapidly changed.

When she first decided to learn about photography in 2011, Sawczyn signed up on Google Plus for the 365 Project. “What that means is that you agree to take one photo every single day and share it online on Google Plus. I posted a photo I had taken at the zoo and wrote a paragraph about it. A guy reading my post told me that I should make a blog out of this. So I did.” Her website is zoomuchinformation.com.

On Oct. 10, 2012, Sawczyn made her very first post sharing a photo of Bomassa’s mother, Jamani, holding Bomassa’s hand.

Gorilla education

The blog is centered on “the boys” as Sawczyn calls them, but she also documents the rest of the troop. While driving home from her daylong photo shoots, Sawczyn thinks about what she captured.

“I will decide that I have a good photo of the boys scuffling today, and so if that is true, I will write up what information I know about the scuffle, like whether they were fighting a lot or a little of the day and who had the upper hand.”

Sawczyn’s gorilla education over the year has come from a blend of gleaning information from the zoo’s volunteers and zookeepers, reading everything she can about gorillas, and her own observations. While many of her photos and tales do tug at the heart, like the photo of Jamani offering her hand to her young son as he tries to scale a rock, Sawczyn’s work also reminds us of the grand wildness of these incredible beings.

“Usually I do just one photograph and write a blog post about it,” she said. “But one day I went out there was a lot of drama happening with the troop so I did a story that had 10 photos.”

Sawczyn was a witness to the return of Acacia, a gorilla whose newborn had died a few days after birth. Acacia’s return to the troop was not heartwarming. “When she came back into the enclosure, it was like the lady gorillas had to go through the dominance struggle all over again,” Sawczyn said. “It looked scarier than it actually was. They would charge but then run past and there was a little swatting.”

Better photographer

Spending so much time photographing the gorillas has not only made this Chapel Hillian a blossoming expert on gorillas, it has also made her a better photographer.

She has learned that when photographing through glass, the reflection and thickness of the barrier must be carefully considered. “Thickness becomes a problem when you photograph at an angle, and focusing is really hard,” said Sawczyn, who wears black clothing whenever she goes to the zoo to minimize her own reflection

“One thing you don’t realize at first is that the face of the gorilla has a shadow because of the deep brow over the eyes. So I don’t take a shot until their faces are to the light. You want those eyes in the light. A lot of times in publications you see a gorilla photo and the eyes are totally in shadow and I think that it is a shame that the photographer did not realize to wait.”

Sawczyn said that the boys are sweet, but Apollo has recently been taking the upper hand over Bomassa. “This is funny because Bomassa is older but Apollo is the son of the dominant female, Olympia, and Apollo is bigger and weighs more.”

Something else that Sawczyn has realized through this year of the gorillas is that she has a real interest in photographing the mother/child connection. “It is fascinating so I may end up pursuing a photography project about this.”

Sawczyn is available to speak to school groups. “I will bring some gorilla pictures and share the love of gorillas.”

When Sawczyn reached her goal of photographing the boys for a year, she found she couldn’t bear the thought of stopping.

“I am still doing it but just every two weeks. We have a real treasure there at the zoo.”



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