With a background in photojournalism and editorial work, Swedish photographer Frank af Petersens has in recent years almost exclusively focused on projects and exhibitions of fine art photography. His main focus is sub-Saharan Africa, with two recurring themes: the ongoing struggle against rhino and elephant poaching, and the many issues related to the lingering colonial legacy in Africa.

af Petersens is bringing some of his latest work to a new exhibit, The Poaching Wars, opening on January 24 at Gallery 169 in Santa Monica, California. It will be on view through March 29.


Nordstjernan had the good fortune of getting a little more background on this fascinating photographer, whose father worked for the United Nations and raised his family in various places in the Middle East and Africa. All these places were fascinating to af Petersens as a child, but East Africa in particular made an impression that kept hold of him throughout his life.

Eventually his parents, who wanted him to learn proper Swedish, sent af Petersens to boarding school in Sigtuna, Sweden. He stayed there and did his military service, became a captain in the reserve, then got a degree from Handelshögskolan, married a Swedish girl and started a family. After having lived and worked in various places, including five years in Paris, Stockholm has become his family's base.

Though af Petersens is Swedish, part of him stayed in Africa ever since those early years, and he always longs to go back. As a photographer, he has had opportunities to do that quite frequently.

“It was really a very natural choice to focus on Africa, and perhaps even more so to focus on the burning issue of elephant and rhino poaching, which is an absolute disaster,” says af Petersens, who adds that at the present rate, rhinos and elephants could all be gone from the wild in a decade or two.

af Petersens’ black and white photos, in all their incredible beauty also illuminate the seriousness of the poaching crisis. His exhibitions are vehicles for raising awareness, urging people to become involved and donate funds to help stop the poaching before it's too late.

More of af Petersens' work: The Poaching Wars

His work in black and whites photography is poignant. “I feel we are so overwhelmed by color images in our everyday lives that we have stopped paying attention,” he says. “Black and white photos tend to draw our attention to composition, subject matter and subtle details in the image, like shadow and texture. The myriad of wrinkles in an elephant's skin or the folds in a rhino's thick hide are beautiful, and they come out better in black an white, as do clouds and the shades in a distant landscape.”

The photojournalist respects the striking natural beauty of color as well. He works in color as a pro bono photographer for various conservation organizations, including Save The Elephants, Wildlife Conservation Network, The Thin Green Line Foundation and International Anti Poaching Foundation, donating many color photos for use on websites, presentations, fundraising, etc. af Petersens also volunteers directly with parks and conservancies in various African countries. “They have limited budgets and can rarely afford professional photography,” he says. “Donating my time has a large impact. This is actually what I really enjoy doing, and it's the core of my photography.”

There are occupational hazards for photographers whose subjects are wild animals. He has had to climb trees to escape charging rhinos on several occasions. In Zimbabwe he was with a group of people who suddenly found themselves 30 yards from a group of nine lions in tall grass. “They were more intent on stalking some buffalos, and were merely curious about us. We quietly backed away, and they eventually went back to their business,” af Petersens recalls.

Sometimes he wants to enter areas that require formal permission, such as national parks or private conservancies. On other occasions he rents or borrows a 4x4 vehicle and drives around on his own or with friends. In terms of personal safety, it's a matter of experience and judgement. He often works on foot, since many of the things he wants to take pictures of are in very remote and hard-to-access areas. Then he normally has a guide with him.

Things become more complicated when he works in conflict zones, such as eastern Congo. “I wanted to document the wildlife rangers who try to protect the Virunga National Park in what is in effect a war zone. I got in and out without a scratch, but very narrowly missed a firefight on the road north from Goma, and managed to escape a carjacking attempt with some luck."

Perhaps unexpectedly, Zimbabwe is a peaceful and lovely country for visitors, says af Petersens, "But the authorities have very little patience with suspected photojournalists out to document things that might be sensitive. I was there when reports filtered out from Hwange National Park that over 300 elephants had been poisoned by cyanide in the waterholes. I tried to get into the park to document the catastrophe, but police and army special forces locked down the area — which only strengthens suspicions that corrupt officials and politicians were involved in the slaughter. Rhino and elephant poaching is a multi-billion dollar business today, controlled by criminal networks that also deal in narcotics, illegal arms and human trafficking.”

For last year’s exceptionally successful Sundown Gala in California, af Petersens donated some photos, helping raise over $2 million in donations to the Elephant Crisis Fund at the event. Leonardo Di Caprio was there, and he donated $1 million from his foundation, a fantastic gift. These funds help buy equipment essential for anti-poaching work that needs to be done in Africa. There will be information at the exhibition for donations of all sizes, as every little bit helps. After all, as af Petersens says, “We can't all be Leonardo DiCaprios!”

Attend the opening night reception and meet Frank af Petersens on January 24, 5 to 8 p.m. at Gallery 169, 169 West Channel Road, Santa Monica, CA 90402. Complimentary valet parking is available opening night.

photography by Frank af Petersens
January 24 through March 29, 2015
Gallery 169
169 W. Channel Rd., Santa Monica, CA 90402
Open daily
(310) 963-3891

Frank af Petersens is a contributing photographer to Wildlife Conservation Network (www.wildnet.org), Save The Elephants (www.savetheelephants.org), The Thin Green Line Foundation (www.thingreenline.org.au), the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (www.iapf.org) and Ewaso Lions (www.ewasolions.org).