Jack Davison, Ol Pejeta

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Loose Joints (here). Softcover booklet housed in an oversized folded poster (24.5 x 26.5 cm), 44 pages, with 19 duotone and 7 color plates. Includes an essay by Sam Anderson and an illustration by Hatty Staniforth. Design by Loose Joints. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Ol Pejeta is also available in a special edition (here). This version includes a signed book, a photograph by the artist, and a drawing by illustrator Hatty Staniforth. The prints are on Hahnemühle Photo Rag and 20 × 25 cm each. In an edition of 100.

Comments/Context: Ol Pejeta is a wildlife conservancy in central Kenya, and one of the world’s largest rhinoceros sanctuaries. It is also home to the world’s two last living northern white rhinos. Today Najin and Fatu, a mother and daughter, are the only two rhinos of their species in existence. Sudan, the last male rhino, died in 2018, leaving only the two females. They live together under the protection and care of armed guards, and people fondly refer to them as “the girls”.

Two years ago, the London-based photographer Jack Davison visited the conservancy to document the rhinos on an assignment for The New York Times, and he subsequently worked with Loose Joints to release a publication sharing the story of Najin and Fatu and their lead caretaker Zacharia. Titled Ol Pejeta, this photobook is a square format booklet hosted inside a folded poster. The image on the poster is a fragment of Najin’s back, at nearly the scale of her actual size – it immediately feels delicate and gentle, just like its subject. Another fragment of rhino appears on the cover, and the artist’s name and the title are placed vertically on the right side in red font. Inside, the images vary in their size, creating a dynamic and bold visual narrative. With a few exceptions, there is just one photograph per spread, with a generous amount of white space provided around it. The book was printed using a mix of excess papers left over from other projects (reinforcing a message of sustainability) and a portion of the proceeds is being donated to the conservancy, to support its genetic projects.

The story of Najin and Fatu is already well known and photographed. But Davison’s images of the rhinos are far from a typical safari series, offering instead a more abstracted and emotional portrait of the pair, in many ways resembling expressive personal portraiture rather than wildlife photography. He often gets up close, playing with scale, texture, roughness, blur, and perspective, deliberately avoiding simplistic views – he is clearly interested in provoking reactions with his visually striking photographs.

The image on the cover captures an unidentified piece of a rhino’s body, almost like a rock formation or a mountain, right away showing us both the immense scale of these creatures (the second largest land animals) and their unexpected beauty. The next spread features a color photograph of a rhino, this time showing the edge of a body and an ear, paired with a black and white portrait of Zacharia wearing a hat (also showing his ear), the two images linked by formal edges and sensitive details. There is something calm and magical about this juxtaposition of one of the last remaining animals and its caretaker.  

In the essay, printed on the back cover of the publication, Sam Anderson shares his experience of being close to the animals: “To be near the girls is, almost magically, to transcend the tragedy of that larger story. They are huge and strange – products of many millions of years of evolution – and unlike any creatures most of us have seen up close”.

The first time we see two rhinos together is from the back, their enormous hindquarters taking up the entire frame, like ancient carved rocks. Then we see a full image of a rhino as she eats grass, yet the photograph is intentionally swirled and distorted, making the animal look even bigger and majestic, like a dramatic shadow projection.

Other photographs document the tender, almost spiritual, connection between Zacharia and the animals. A black and white image shows a rhino’s head with its eye in the upper right corner as the caretaker’s hand is gently placed under it, like a soft, reassuring caress. In another image, Zacharia’s shadow gently falls on the rhino’s body, again symbolizing their unique connection. The last photograph is a vertical black and white portrait of a rhino, its eye and part of its horn filling nearly the entire frame, and again, we can see the signs of majestic age in the details of skin texture and deep wrinkles. 

Ol Pejeta is a small, yet quietly brilliant publication. Its success lies in the clever integration of striking photographs that capture the grace and power of the last two white rhinos and thoughtful design ideas that reinforce their presence. In 2019, the United Nations issued an alarming report stating that nature was declining globally at unprecedented rates, with around 1 million animal and plant species threatened with extinction, more than ever before in human history. But against these long odds, there is also a glimmer of hope, at least for the rhinos – Anderson writes that scientists were able to create five embryos, using rhino’s eggs and sperm from the last male. “These now wait, in deep freeze, for the day when it might be possible to kindle them into life, to let them wander out in the field of their own.” Sensitive photobooks like Davison’s remind us of the fragile grandeur of animals like these rhinos, and projects like his will hopefully encourage people to consider more deeply our impact on the planet and its other inhabitants.

Collector’s POV: Jack Davison is represented by Mini Title agency in London (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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