And the Art from the Cradle of Mankind

By: Filip Svensson | February 25, 2022

The Soul of the Leopard by Björn Persson

’I can’t help noticing it looks just like a giant penis right next to you,’ I say as I admire what can only be described as an ’African wall’ behind Björn, adorned with masks, shields, spears, and possibly a giant penis. ’Well it’s actually a fertility symbol from Mali, so it was a pretty good guess’ answers the world-renowned

photographer that is Björn Persson, who has published several books, exhibited in the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London and is currently on display at The Swedish Museum of Natural History with the exhibition The Thin Line.

Björn picks up the giant symbol, holding it with both hands for support and continues: ’It has a magical meaning, and that’s what’s so fun, that they have been used in rituals. And it’s an amazing hobby to collect these items. To get really nerdy. I read books all day and know the meaning of every mask and every tribe.’


It is immediately clear to me that this is no ordinary photographer.


And that I have so many questions.


’How come Africa?’


– ’It all started by chance, I went down there with a friend who had gotten a job in Cape Town. So I tagged along and found a job at a pizzeria. Later we started traveling South Africa and that’s when I discovered nature, and the animals. And everything changed. Especially during my first encounter with an elephant.’

’Something happened, within me. I felt incredibly inferior.’

’The elephant approached our car and leaned over, looking straight at me with those wise amber colored eyes. And something happened, within me. I felt incredibly inferior. Like a mosquito. And that moment became something I wanted to explore. The feeling of being inferior, and helpless. As humans we often put ourselves on piedestals, above

nature, but when you’re standing next to an elephant… you’re filled with a sense of reverence, and respect – which is fantastic. And I still feel this way when I encounter a wild animal. And here somewhere my interest was born. I wanted to learn more about the animals, and that’s how it all started… I mean, I have been photographing since I was a child and I have always had an interest in painting as well. But my interest turning towards photographing animals, portraying them, it started with an interest in the animals themselves.’

’You have to love what you’re photographing’

’Later on I went to Kruger National Park’ continues Björn, ’and trained to become a ranger and even worked at an animal hospital. This has given me a good foundation. As a photographer you have to love what you’re photographing in order for it to be genuine, and great. I wouldn’t be a very good portrait photographer, or interior photographer…’ >>

Björn Persson

>> ’I believe so,’ I chime in. ’As a photographer myself I relate to your philosophy. And I also think it’s very interesting that you mention reverence and respect. It shines through in your images. And the notion of inferiority… Often when I view your images, I just feel ”wow…” Perhaps I’m not putting my finger on what I’m trying to say, but I think you know?’ 


– ’Absolutely, and it makes me extra glad to hear because that’s the feeling and effect I want my images to have. Inferior is perhaps a word with negative connotations, but a fascination for their sheer size… Appearance. And for how long they have roamed this earth. Many of the animals look like they did when the dinosaurs were still around, they haven’t changed. I think that’s fantastic and I try to convey that as well.’


’Human is obviously the wrong word here’ I think out loud, trying to put my finger on yet another thing I find so captivating with Björn’s images while we’re still on the topic, ’but I often sense the soul of the animal, like there is someone there?’


– ’That also makes me very glad to hear because that’s something I work very hard on. And that’s why I don’t use long lenses but most often wide-angle. I try to get really close, because it’s the same thing there, you wouldn’t shoot a portrait of a human from 200 metres away using a long lens. And it’s the same with animals. In order to get the glint in the eye and the richness of details, I have to get close.’ >>

The Last Ones by Björn Persson

>> ’How close..?’ I ask while picturing myself becoming the meal of a subject. 


– ’My favorite lens is a 24-70, and then I can get… You can’t say ”how close” because that depends on the situation, what animal, and in what park because they all have different rules on how one is allowed to approach the animals. But elephants have walked past me no more than 1-2 metres away when I have been lying on the ground.’


’How does that feel?’

’You feel life itself pulsating through every vein in your body’

– ’Again, it’s that feeling of… It’s an immense joy, while at the same feeling inferior. You feel life itself pulsating through every vein in your body. You feel that you’re ”here and now” in a way you normally never do. On planet Earth. It’s not like when you’re sitting on the bus on the way to town… It’s easy to forget what an amazing planet we’re living on.’


’So, is this a way for you to ground yourself on Earth? And in reality?’


– ’Yes, I haven’t thought of it that way, but I like how you phrase it! And when you say it, it makes sense. I think you’re right. I feel more alive among the animals. And life on Earth is so much more than our tiny boxed-in universes. In the societies we live in today, with the modern digital world in particular.’

’That is so true. We live in a bubble, in a bubble, in a bubble, with Earth being somewhere else, outside of it all.’


– ’Exactly! There are so many emotions I want to convey and this is one of them. It follows that if I want people to become inspired, engaged, fascinated, this is one of the parameters. To make people feel that it’s an amazing planet we live on. With an amazing wildlife.’


I ask Björn if his background in painting plays a further roll in his style and sense of symbolism, if he has a notion in the back of his mind that ’now I’m going to paint a picture.’

’I’d say painting is the foundation of my photo- graphy’

– ’I’d say painting is the foundation of my photography, because that is how I view photography. With some of my images I even try to create the feeling of the old oil paintings. That it’s beyond the obvious documentary type of photography. Another dimension, which I like the viewer to step into. A sort of blend between photography and painting. And this is something I work with right from the start, when I look for compositions and landscapes with a dreamy quality.

So I’m very picky when it comes to choosing the right situation, right lighting,right environment, before I know it in my gut that ”this is an interesting light, an interesting composition.” And then of course throughout the entire editing phase, which can last weeks for a single image.’


– ’It makes sense to hear, because it doesn’t feel like there is a trace of coincidence behind your images.’


– ’Right. But they’re not planned, either.’

’So you don’t agree with the lion to strike a pose and wait for the wind?’


’Exactly’ laughs Björn and continues, ’but many wildlife photographers may have a preconceived idea of ”now I want this particular bird sitting on this particular type of branch” and then they go looking for that, or whatever it may be. That’s not me. When I go on a safari, I’m completely openminded. Come what may. I feel it in my gut when something is right.’

Follow the Sun by Björn Persson

I find all of this so very fascinating. That what we see as viewers of Björn’s work is just the tip of an artistic iceberg. And it makes me even more curious as to the origins of it all.


What more lies beneath the surface. How this artist came to be.


’Speaking of your artistic youth, do you want to tell me more about your journey as a photographer?’

’Whether I have a brush or a camera in my hand is quite uninteresting, to me they are tools’

– ’For me all types of creativity go hand in hand. Whether I have a brush or a camera in my hand is quite uninteresting, to me they are tools. When did it begin? As soon as I could hold a brush or a camera I have been out taking pictures or sitting at home painting. When it comes to photography itself, I have never attended a photography school, so I’m self-taught. And I thought it was more important to learn about the subjects of my images than to learn about the camera. The camera I can always figure out as I go along, and in my own way… But by having the training and background and experience in wildlife preservation, I have an advantage that the other wildlife photographers don’t have. I know the behaviors of the animals, and I know how to read nature. You can’t be right all the time, but I can often guess what is going to happen next. >>

Nirvana by Björn Persson

>> If an elephant is at position X, I’m often able to read the landscape and the wind etc. and figure out where it’s going to go. And then I can get there in advance and prepare. So that has been my best photo education, to learn about the animals.’


’Such an interesting approach. It’s so common to start by learning technique before anything else.’


– ’I think that’s a mistake many people make, they focus so much on that ”you have to know all there is to know about the camera” and that you have to be a technically skilled photographer before you can start taking pictures. It’s easy to forget what you’re really interested in – photography. And I see that often when on safari, people sitting nose down into their cameras adjusting settings instead of looking around. They are missing the entire experience, because they are so focused on technique.’


’With that said, do you shoot on auto?’


– ’Yes. Many times. Not always, though. In some situations with demanding light for instance, then you have to adjust the settings. But in good conditions I don’t want to be distracted. And the cameras of today are so good that you can always correct for things in the editing. Highlights and you name it. But I definitely do my own settings when called for, like when I shot snow leopards at 4000 metres altitude and it was almost completely dark. 50/50 is perhaps the right answer.’

– ’Is there a stigma around shooting with auto in the world of photographers?’

’It’s a conscious decision to stay out of that world’

– ’I try not to get too involved in the world of photographers… I’m terrible at reading up on what the others are doing and keeping myself informed on the latest trends and so on. It’s a conscious decision to stay out of that world. So, I wouldn’t know. But I can surmise that shooting on auto must be a mortal sin.’


’But this is interesting, how come you’re staying out of it?’


– ’It’s a conscious decision, and I try to actively keep away from it because it’s so easy to be affected by trends, influences, and inspiration. And I see this clearly and it goes for all types of photography. Someone does something groundbreaking or wins a photo competition and then a million photographers are trying to sing the same tune. So I have always tried to walk my own path and to not be influenced by current trends or by other photographers. It may sound arrogant, I realize as I’m saying it… But I do have the deepest respect for the industry and for other photographers. This is just my way of approaching what I do, and I have always been like that. I have lived in my own bubble. Perhaps it’s more me as a person, a bit of a lone wolf.’

Ray of Light by Björn Persson

’Is this, perhaps, why your images feel like art? Because it is your voice, because you haven’t been influenced by how things ”should” be done or by what the others are doing? So, what you see in your mind’s eye is something more… timeless?’

’It’s something that I even felt early on’

– ’I hope so. And perhaps I believe so. It could very well be so. I think it’s incredibly important that my own voice speaks through my creations. And I suppose it’s like that with all art and photography. But this is something that I consciously strive for, and it’s something that I even felt early on. The purpose, which we haven’t really touched upon yet… I saw a lot of horrible things when I worked in wildlife preservation. Ivory, and so on… And I made a decision early on that I didn’t want to show all that just to get people engaged in animal right’s issues. I wanted to show the beauty, instead of trying to scare people. That has always been my philosophy. And in order to break through the incredible noise of today, you have to find your own style, your own voice. I have, perhaps both consciously as well as subconsciously, worked towards finding a type of art photography that’s different from everything else. Because it doesn’t matter how good an image is technically, it’s uninteresting if it looks like something else.’ >>

One for all, All for One by Björn Persson

>> – ’Just out of curiosity, what do you call yourself? Wildlife photographer? Art photographer? Illustrative photographer?’

’It’s a conservative world’

– ’I’m more of an art photographer than a wildlife photographer because I edit the images afterwards. It’s a conservative world, the world of wildlife photography. Traditionally speaking, you’re a wildlife photographer if you don’t change anything but keep it exactly as is. Especially when it comes to competitions.

Like when I entered the Africa Geographic, and my retouch of that ear… I was reminded about the sensitivity of this issue.’


In 2019 Björn entered the esteemed photo contest Africa Geographic and placed first with a powerful photograph of the elephant Tim. However, when voices were raised regarding the editing of the image, the image was disqualified.

’How did that feel, as someone who lives and breathes the savannah?

’It was tough, of course, with all the negative publicity’

– ’In the moment it was tough, of course, with all the negative publicity that followed. But at the same time, the debate that came out of it presented an interesting opportunity as I was allowed to get my voice heard through many media and I was able to give my own view on photography and art. And also to give my view regarding an industry which is obviously very conservative. And to go deeper into my style and my philosophy… I was allowed an opportunity to say ”this is what I’m doing,” and for all time to come to be open and honest about that. In the long run, this has been something positive. Absolutely.’


– ’’But with that said, we have to go on record and state that for a while you were winner of the competition – first of almost 30 000 submissions. Which is pretty amazing. It’s obvious that you have something very, very special.’


Sensing that Africa itself may play a part in this very something, I decide to ask once again:


– ’We have talked about it, but still… why Africa?’


’This is a very hard question to answer’

– ’Why Africa, indeed… This is a very hard question to answer. But somehow I believe that when I’m in Africa I feel the strongest connection to my origins. My own roots. And that is not a coincidence, I think many who come to East Africa feel the same. It is the cradle of mankind. So, when I arrive in Kenya it’s like coming home, literally. Home to my roots as a human, as a human species.’


I feel the hairs on my arm rise as I take in the meaning of what Björn just told me. Not sure how to express myself, I let out some sort of ’wow.’


– ’Yeah… and that feeling only gets stronger when you’re out on the savannah. Perhaps it’s the Stone Age man inside of you that awakens.’ >>

>> – ’Precisely, that is the feeling I get when I listen to you. That it’s like a journey through time, of sorts.’


– ’Yes, well said! And that’s probably how many feel, not just me. And how many feel when they look at my images. It could be something subconscious, some deep emotion that’s triggered.’


’I’m certainly more inclined to go now…’


– ’Then my job of selling it to you is done’ laughs Björn and continues, ’What I mean is that everyone becomes a child again, the first time they see a big elephant, or a giraff. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 70-year old CEO or a teenager. You become a child again. With that stupid smile. I often say, ”the older one becomes, the fewer things you get impressed by in life,” isn’t it so? When we were kids, everything was interesting and you were flabbergasted by whatever you saw. But the older one becomes, the more hardened your soul becomes. But when you see the great wild animals, the kid in you comes alive.’


’So, it’s not only a journey through time, but a journey within your own time as well?’


– ’Yes, exactly! Indeed.’


We let the gravity of the cradle of mankind sink in for a moment, before I bring up the question that has been brewing within me for a while… >>

Kilimanjaro by Björn Persson

>> – ’On the one hand we have the animals…’ I begin carefully. ’We have talked about you being a bit of a lone wolf. You have lived within your bubble. Kept away from the world of photography…’ I pause for a second. The silence between us is palpable. I ask, ’What do you think of humans?’


Björn gives a heavy sigh.


I keep the silence alive.


– ’There are so many answers to that question. The way I see it, where we have gone wrong… We have many amazing qualities as humans, which the animals does not possess and that makes us special. Where we have gone wrong, which is what makes me more and more of a loner, is our great egoism. Our selfishness. And not only about issues concerning animals, just look at all the conflicts around the world. We are very selfish. And put ourselves above… not only the animals, but above other humans as well. And I think it shows, time and time again, in different ways. Through life, in meetings with people… they have an agenda. So, I choose to have a few genuine friends, as opposed to having a thousand.’


’Fcuk. Hear, hear.’


– ’And on the other hand, and this I write in my books as well, we are the most amazing species. We can cure deceases, we’ve been to the moon, we’re incredibly fascinating and proficient in many ways. But… we destroy what we build.’ >>

Human Kind by Björn Persson

>> – ’For sure, definitely. And I this is something I see in your images as well, I believe. You’ve told me that you didn’t want to do the documentary type of photography, and show tragic things, to scare people or to make them think and feel in a certain way. But nevertheless, there is a darkness in your imagery. A certain melancholy, almost creeping in. Is that perhaps the contrast between the animal kingdom, and the world of men?’


– ’That’s an incredibly good question. And I’ve heard that many times from people who have attended my exhibitions or viewed my images. And I actually don’t have a good answer. But if so, I believe the darkness originates from within myself. It’s not something I can motivate, or explain or dissect with words. But perhaps it’s me sensing that these animals are about to be gone from this earth, and that that is the story I want to tell via my images, an emotion that comes from deep within my self and expresses itself through the images. But it’s not something I walk around thinking about, like ”now I’m going to make this image a dark one.” They just turn out that way.’


’So, there is this sorrow about the animals being hunted and disappearing more and more, is that the source of the darkness, or have you had a darkness within you from earlier years which perhaps is reflected as well?’ >>

Queen of Africa by Björn Persson

>> – ’Like with all humans, I’ve had my ups and downs in life. Absolutely. And I was depressed for a couple of years when I was younger. So… certainly I’ve seen the blackest of the black. I think I’m a very emotional person, and that infuses my imagery in many ways. But it’s not like I’m walking around acting like a dark person towards the people in my life, that’s not the persona I put on display. But all humans are multifaceted. And the darkness is one of my sides. Absolutely.’


’Do you feel that this is something that helps when finding and editing images with the power to move? Or, how do you feel working on an image?’

’It’s the ultimate victory over the darkness within me’

– ’So, when I’m in Africa, photographing, that’s the opposite of depression. It’s the biggest joy and ecstasy I can reach as a human. In the moment, when I’m lying in front of an elephant, taking the picture… It’s the ultimate victory over the darkness within me. I feel life itself brewing at full strength throughout my body. And later, when I’m editing the images, the creative phase begins and that’s when I get to express myself. And I always have a billion ideas in my head. I even have a hard time sleeping at night because I get up just to write down the ideas that pop up. That’s the sort of person I am. And that’s incredibly important because that’s when I channel my creative energy in the editing and creation of an image.’ >>

Africa by Björn Persson
The King by Björn Persson

>> – ’I can totally see that. And thank you for sharing. I also get the sense that you’re one with the image, in a way. And for what it’s worth I can relate to your personality and I know it can be tough sometimes. But when you manage to create an image that makes you go, ”Oh, this one ’feels,’” that feeling is fantastic.’

’There is nothing better … It’s the meaning of life’

– ’There is nothing better. It’s worth more than all the money. It’s the meaning of life. When you nail it and the image is complete, there is no greater joy.’


’Speaking of which, do you have a favorite?’


– ’I have always loved The King. That’s one of those images where I feel that everything is just right. With most images I can still feel that… And I’m sure you can relate to this as well, when you have had some time away from the image and you return to it and you discover that ”this I could have done better,” that there is always some ingredient that could have been better, or perhaps is missing. But still, when I look at The King, I feel that it’s complete.’


’Oh, yes, that is a strong one. I love it and I actually have it on my wall. So you have very good taste.’

We laugh a bit and I ask Björn if there is a runner up, or a couple of images that he feels are almost there.


– ’In that case, several. But one of them… I also really like the one called Soul of the Leopard (image one in this article). When I had an exhibition at Dunkers it was on display on a big banner on the wall in front of the museum, and it has this ”something,” and perhaps it’s not a coincidence. They are related in a way, with the leopard gazing towards the sky. You can sense the soul of the animal.’

Sensing our interview drawing to an end, I ask if there is something more Björn would like to share, which we haven’t touched upon yet.


And I’m glad I did.

– ’Perhaps we haven’t delved deeper into the purpose of my images, which is something rooted in my engagement in wildlife preservation. I want to be a part of protecting and saving the animals, so a lot of the profits from my images have gone to wildlife preservation in Africa. I have been a part of raising €400 000 in five years. And that, for me, is what makes me the most proud.

That my images have been a tool to create an actual improvement for many animals. For instance, we have built and renovated a hospital for animals in South Africa which is now up and running, and the veterinaries are able to work every day. For me that is the highest praise for my work.’

I leave this encounter with Björn Persson a humbled man, and with the sense that my own world just got bigger.


I also realize that I now have a new dream on the horizon.


I too want to look into the great wise ember colored eyes of the elephant. I too want to feel the overwhelming nature of the wild.


Walk the savannah.


Travel back in time.


Ground myself.


In the cradle of mankind.


/Filip Svensson

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