SOUTH AFRICAN BORN SNAPPER KIRSTIN SCHOLTZ FOUND FAME AS A SURF PHOTOGRAPHER BUT NOW USES HER UNIQUE TALENT TO HELP PROTECT WILDLIFE ON THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION.
“World Surfing Champion Mick Fanning casts at first light during a WildArk trip to South West Alaska to raise awareness for the Bristol Bay area, under threat from Pebble Mine. Bristol Bay is home to the largest, and one of the last remaining wild salmon runs in the world.”
As far as graduate positions go, Kirstin Scholtz’s is hard to beat. Having spent most of her childhood catching waves in one of the world’s greatest spots, her first professional gig was working alongside Durban-based Pierre Tostee, then one of the world’s first digital surf photographers and the lead snapper for the World Surf League (WSL).
Just months later this was followed by her first major trip when she was asked to head to Hawaii to shoot the Triple Crown of Surfing. Suitably impressed at the work she produced, just four years later the WSL hired her as a fulltime staff member.
Kirstin says as a child in South Africa, she always had two loves. “The first was the African bushveld. My grandfather had a private nature reserve on the border of Botswana where we spent almost every school holiday. During this time, I dreamed of becoming a game ranger. Then, in high school my family moved to Cape Town where I discovered surfing and became obsessed with the ocean. I spent all my time at the beach surfing with my friends.”
“While hiking on the Tundra in South West Alaska, en route to Brookes Falls, we came across this breath-taking landscape. No sooner had we got to the water’s edge and we had to turn around and go the other way because three bears were blocking the bridge we’d hoped to cross.”
These days Kirstin has much to thank the ocean for. The lead photographer on the WSL tour from 2008 to 2016, she has spent more than a decade travelling the globe where she has been chronicling the meteoric rises, and sometimes falls, of the world’s most renowned surfers.
It is also surfing she has to credit for affording her a new life in Australia after meeting her husband when he was her jet ski driver while shooting the Rip Curl Pro meeting at Bells Beach several years ago.
While her work has been seen in surfing mags and on the desktops of grommets around the world, it is her emotive image of Julian Wilson and three-time world champion Mick Fanning embracing at the JBay Pro in 2015 – just minutes after Fanning had been attacked by a shark – which introduced her to the wider public.
The shot, captured seconds after both competitors learnt there would not be a re-surf and they would share equal second place for points and recognition, summed up the honest and raw relief both felt that Fanning was still alive.
It is also the work of which Kirstin is most proud. While difficult to summarise the events of such an emotional day, she says she always strives to tell the story and to evoke emotion through an image and considers herself “lucky” to be at the right place at the right time to capture that moment.
“Gabriel Medina performs for the crowd and earns his round three victory at the Quiksilver Pro France in 2015. Hossegor, France is a unique place to shoot as the tide changes are extreme and the crowd likes to stand right on the water’s edge making for some interesting foreground.”
First introduced to photography while studying a Bachelor of Journalism degree in Grahamstown, Kirstin says being paid to spend her days in and around the ocean was something she had always dreamed of. “It challenges you in so many ways, from poor conditions to changing light to braving the elements. Then when everything comes together it is the most inspiring subject to photograph. Add the professional surfing and sports element and you’ve got drama, emotion and the human story which adds so much depth to your imagery.”
Having switched from a competitor brand, the Victorian-based photographer was introduced to Nikon several years ago having been impressed by the brand’s encouragement of surf specialists.
“I was loaned some equipment to try out back in 2015. I was hooked and slowly made the transition. It makes such a big difference to have this kind of support as a professional photographer.”
“The elephants of Mana Pools, Zimbabwe are renowned for their ability to stand on their back feet and feed off the Albida trees. I shot this image during an extraordinary trip with WildArk, Australian Rugby legend David Pocock, and fine art photographer David Yarrow. We were hosted by Nick Murray of Bushlife Safaris and were there to learn all about the amazing work Nick is doing to protect the elephants in the area.”
Her cameras of choice are a Nikon D5s camera body with a NIKKOR AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR lens for general lifestyle shots or a NIKKOR AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens when shooting landscapes. Other gear in her bag includes a Nikon D4 camera body, the NIKKOR AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR, NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR , and NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4 lenses.
In late 2015 Kirstin began contemplating a life outside of the WSL after she was afforded the opportunity to join Kelly Slater and Owen Wright on a Rhino anti-poaching mission with the Chipembere Foundation in South Africa. The mission involved darting a white rhino from the air with an experienced veterinary team before drilling a GPS implant into its horn and putting a tracking collar on its foot.
Being so close to such a majestic animal, proved a life changing experience for the 35-year-old and inspired Kirstin to become a volunteer and ambassador for the Australian Rhino Project (ARP) which aims to establish a breeding herd of Rhino in Australia as an insurance policy in the event of extinction of the species.
“Australian World Surfing Champion Stephanie Gilmore gets up close to a sedated female white rhino during a rhino anti-poaching mission at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. We were on assignment with the Australian Rhino Project to raise awareness for the plight of the white rhino in South Africa and came across a rhino whose horn appeared to have been poached. On darting and sedating the animal, the veterinary team found that thankfully she had broken her horn off naturally and we were able to clean the wound and make sure it didn’t get infected.”
Earlier this year Kirstin made the decision to step off the tour and take up a position as head of content for conservation startup WildArk, whose aim is to secure more space for biodiversity globally while reconnecting people with nature.
“I did some volunteer work for the ARP non-for-profit and met WildArk Founder Mark Hutchinson on one of the trips we did. I wanted to transition out of surfing and into the conservation space and we connected on a common vision for conservation and digital content and the rest is history.”
While entering a male dominated profession has its own challenges, shooting wild life is an entirely different matter altogether, she says.
“I have a long way to go. It’s a whole new challenge for me and I am learning how much patience and time is needed to really nail a shot. I have so much respect for the wildlife photography greats such as David Yarrow who I was fortunate enough to meet in Zimbabwe recently. He really puts himself in harm’s way to capture his images and he is a complete perfectionist. It’s inspiring and frightening at the same time.”
[Words: Tracey Porter]