Behind the lens: David Yarrow on his most famous photographs

Zoe Gunn

11 February 2021

The British photographer reveals the stories behind his most mesmerising images

11 February 2021 | Zoe Gunn

Even if you don’t recognise the name David Yarrow, you’ll know his pictures. His powerful black-and-white photographs of giraffes charging across African plains and tigers stalking through undergrowth are as famed (and coveted) as his images of model Jodie Canseco driving Thelma & Louise-style through Monument Valley with a wolf or Cara Delevingne resolutely not cracking under pressure while being shadowed by a lion for a TAG Heuer campaign.

Now the British photographer is offering fans the chance to go behind his most famous images with a new podcast, In Focus with David Yarrow. “I’m a storyteller and I think pictures without a narrative can leave people in a bit of a vacuum,” he explains. “We’ve had some interesting experiences on the road, we meet great characters and there’s a bit of jeopardy from time to time. It complements a series of pictures to tell their stories.”

Here he gives Luxury London a sneak preview and takes us behind the lens of some of his favourite photographs.

Africa (2018)

All images courtesy of David Yarrow

That’s Tim, the biggest and most famous elephant in the world, and that’s Kilimanjaro behind him. So you’ve got Africa’s biggest elephant and Africa’s biggest mountain in one photograph. Tim was huge, one of only 20 big tuskers left in the world, but sadly he passed from old age last year. When you photograph a big tusker like that you don’t really think about seeing any other elephants because they’re just so magnificent. 

It looks like he’s charging me; the image has a lot of dynamism to it. I got out of the car and lay on the ground to get this shot but I can only do that because I know Tim’s behaviour. People on safari should not be getting out of the car to photograph elephants. It’s only because I’m so familiar with him and I’ve got a good team of locals with me that I can. It’s quite a dangerous thing to do.

This was in Amboseli in Kenya. I work with the local Masai there and early every morning they would go out on motorbikes to see if they could find Tim. Up until Covid I was going there about three times a year. I was there last summer and it was quite empty, I don’t want to see other photographers, and I’m not there on holiday, so the fact it was empty suited me. We got amazing access and little bit more serenity.

Blade Runner (2018)

We called this photograph Blade Runner because it reminded me of the Ridley Scott film. It was taken in North Korea; I spent a bit of time there in 2017 when Americans, in particular, were getting worried about it. As a Brit you could get in – it’s always good to go to places where no-one else has been. Photographers aren't able to go off wandering on their own in North Korea, at least not easily, so I worked with the government while I was there and they showed me around. I don’t think many people have photographed that steel plant before, that’s for sure.

The locals in North Korea are very friendly. I went to a beach resort on the east coast and they offered us drinks and food but it’s a hermit nation. The government only wants you to see certain things and they want you not to see other things. Pyongyang is a strange place and it’s difficult not having anyway of contacting people at home. It’s like going back 100 years. Your phone doesn’t work, WiFi doesn’t work, you’re very much left without any form of communication.

Diamonds in the Sky (2018)

Polar bears are not that common, there’s only two or three places that people tend to go to photograph them. There’s Churchill in Canada and Svalbard in Northern Norway but I prefer to go to the north slope of Alaska, near Prudhoe Bay, where the oil refinery is. In September you can find a lot of bears there and, when they’re in the water swimming, it’s quite exhilarating.

It will always be windy there, it will always be cold, and when you’re bouncing around in a boat you need a fast shutter speed to be able to capture anything. Failure is far more common than success – we fail a lot. Occasionally I know as I’m pressing the button that it’s going to be a good picture but it doesn’t happen often. On this occasion I was lucky that the light was strong, that allowed me a very fast shutter speed which froze everything. There’s a lovely symmetry to the whole picture.

Mankind (2015)

This is the picture that really got my career going. It was taken in South Sudan in 2014 and I was the first white guy up there for quite a while. It’s a dangerous place, quite a lot of guns. Levison Wood showed me some pictures he’d taken there. He’s a very good filmmaker, presenter and adventurer, but not a photographer, and I thought, ‘My goodness, if you can take photographs like that and it’s not even your job, there’s got to be some potential there.’

That’s a Dinka camp and the currency is cattle. We had to bring cow medicine to gain favour with the chief, we had to involve the police, we had security details. I think my accommodation was about £5 per night and my security detail was about £1,000 per night. It was good to arrive and good to leave.

I knew the picture I was trying to get needed to have depth and, because the land is so flat, I needed to have raised elevation so I had to take a ladder across the Nile to get it. The Daily Telegraph printed the picture across two pages a few days after I took it and Sotheby’s sold a copy for £100,000 not so long ago. It got me on the map but it was about as far away from anything normal as I’ve ever been so I think I earned it.

The name of the piece comes from the idea that this is the cradle of mankind. Covid has taught us we’re all equal. While these people have lives that we can’t really relate to, we’re all part of mankind.

The Killers (2019)

This was in northern Norway in early December. It was very, very cold and we only had three hours of light a day. When you’re photographing orcas, you’ve got to try and be as close to sea level as possible because you want to emphasise their dorsal fin. I was in a specially-designed raft, it was tiny, but the fact that I’ve got a perspective where the fin is taller than the mountains adds to the drama.

I was also very close to the whales but they’re friendly, they’re not killers to humans, they don’t mind us at all. The whales are there for the herring and the pods tend to be about 45 minutes out from a little fishing village so the hotels, such as they are, are always full with divers.

The Unusual Suspects (2019)

I collaborate with Cindy Crawford quite a bit; this was for a charity project and I think we’ve raised over $1 million from the picture now. Cindy had a brother that died of leukaemia and the money went to the paediatric cancer care unit in Madison, Wisconsin.

It’s set in a bar in a ghost town called Virginia City and it’s just one of those pictures where everything works. I wanted people to have menace and I wanted to put beauty next to these rugged mountain men. They're open to posing as long as you keep the bar open! The wagon wheel, the lighting, the positions of every individual, are perfect. The wolf came from a sanctuary and was used to being around people so it was reasonably well behaved. We don’t use wolves any more though – we use dogs that look like wolves because we got a little bit of heat from animal activists. 

When you’re photographing animals you’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time. When you’re photographing people you’ve got to do your homework and use your brain a bit more. It’s more expensive because of the costs of the crew, the stylists, the make-up and the accommodation, but I prefer doing the staged stuff because it’s a bit more challenging.

In Focus with David Yarrow is available here.

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