My Favorite African Photo

I got back from an African safari vacation last night, very jet-lagged, having not slept for about 43 hours.  When I woke up this morning, I was anxious  to start organizing the photographs from my trip.  Siting down at the PC to do so, I found an e-mail from my erstwhile roommate, John, reminding me to send him photos of the wildlife I’d seen.  (John is an avid outdoorsman who once tried to make a living as a wildlife photographer.) Having not yet gone through the photos myself, having not yet cropped, nor cut, nor selected any of them, I wasn’t ready to give John the full-blown “Here Are the Pics of My African Vacation” slideshow – but I decided I’d send him just one of them – both because it was my sentimental favorite, of all those I’d taken, and because I knew that John, of all people, would appreciate it.

Now, the reason John would appreciate this particular photo was not just that he’s an erstwhile wildlife photographer; almost all the photos I’d taken were of African wildlife.  But the year that John and I spent as college roommates, many decades ago, were marked by regular discussions of deep philosophical issues; and this photograph had become my  favorite due to its philosophical implications, implications I felt sure John would appreciate.

As I learned on the Shamwari game preserve, most wild baboon troops of South Africa run quickly away at the approach of human beings.  But on the day this photograph was taken, I had come to the extreme southwestern tip of the African continent, a rocky, mountainous formation that rises high above sea level like the prow of a sailing ship that projects above the ocean waves.  In fact, here is a photograph – one taken from the Wikipedia article regarding the Cape of Good Hope – which shows the general topography of the place.

View at Cape Point

(Photo by Thomas Bjørkan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Naturally enough, given the impressive topography, the Cape has become a tourist attraction.  The result of being a tourist attraction is that the native baboons of the Cape have lost their fear of human beings.  In the Cape Point parking lot, they were nearly as plentiful as the people, ready to pounce on anyone foolish enough to walk by with a sandwich in hand.  They were sitting on the roofs of cars.  They were scouting for half-open windows through which to steal picnic lunches.  They were on the rocks, in the bushes, outside the souvenir shop, intermingling fearlessly with us, their more advanced cousins.

I took the photograph in question – the photograph I wanted to send to John because it had become my favorite – while standing on the Cape, looking south like some fifteenth century Portuguese explorer from the bow of his ship, gazing across thousands of miles of ocean toward the south pole.  The Atlantic Ocean was to my right, the Indian not far to my left, and the Antarctic somewhere far in the distance in front of me. To my immediate left, on the summit of the mountain peak, a lighthouse had been built to guide ships rounding the Cape. Because of my fear of heights, I had not attempted the funicular or the steep climb from the funicular to the summit, but as I looked at the rocky cliff, with the triple-ocean breeze blowing into my face and the triple-ocean surf crashing into the old, unmoving rocks below, I noticed movement high up on the cliff’s stony face.  Tapping into the unconscious (but ingrained) ability of one primate to recognize the movements of another, I was drawn to it, a twitch on the horizon, a dark profile silhouetted against a bright sky.  He was maybe fifteen hundred feet away from me and several hundred feet higher than me, but I could see him settle onto one of the highest, most southerly rocks of the cliff side, clearly fixing his gaze southward, looking out over the oceans just as I’d been doing — except, of course, that he was braver and more agile than me, having dared to climb out onto the virtual bowsprit of the continent, where I would not.  I wondered why he wasn’t in the parking lot, with the rest of his kind, ready to pounce on a tourist; wondered why he had gone off on his own, to gaze across the oceans toward the vast unknown.

Like all primates, baboons are an intelligent species.  Scientists have recently discovered that they can acquire orthographic processing skills which form part of the ability to read.* I wondered if this solitary philosopher was more intelligent than his fellows in the parking lot.  I imagined the thoughts he was having about other lands, far away.  I imagined him capable of evolving into another Bartholomeo Diaz someday.  Gazing across the ocean and into the unknown, I wondered: wasn’t it possible he had seen ships pass, and wondered how he might build a ship of his own, to go exploring, some day?  I maximized the camera’s zoom and got the best picture of the contemplative creature I could.

The sight so impressed me, in fact, that for the rest of my time in Africa, I told people about it.  Last night – my first night home – I told my wife, and my daughters, and my grandson Jacob, about it.  Jacob in particular was wide-eyed as I promised to show him the photograph when he comes over this afternoon.   The profiled creature has become my hero; the photograph of him looking out across the ocean has stuck with me, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head – more than the photographs of lions, cheetahs, elephants, and giraffes I took – even more than the elegant springbok herd, the pod of dangerous hippopotami, or the solitary, rare and elusive black rhinoceros.  It is my favorite photograph, despite the fact that, fully zoomed in, and lacking a tripod for my camera, the image came out slightly blurry. It is my favorite not for its technical quality, but because of its fascinating philosophical implications.  And as I composed my e-mail to John this morning, he seemed the perfect person to appreciate those implications.

Anyway, this morning, as I composed my e-mail to John, I described the photograph I was sending him, describing why it was my favorite, much as I had to Jacob last night, much as I have to you here.  As I was finishing my written description to John, my grandson Evan walked into the room. I invited him to come take a look at the photograph of the contemplative baboon.  I fetched it from the digital camera’s SD drive and displayed it on my monitor.  Evan and I shared still more deep, philosophical observations about our most intriguing subject.  Finally, after Evan departed, I embedded the photograph into my e-mail to John, as I now do here:

You can see the solitary baboon toward the top of the picture, squatting on all fours, his tail raised behind him, dreaming of building his own ship and exploring the oceans on three sides of him.

Alternatively, you can do as I did.  To wit: as I embedded the photograph into my e-mail to John, I realized that I could blow it up even larger, digitally, than I’d been able to do through the zoom setting on the camera  With the wonders of modern technology – my virtual icon in the shape of a magnifying glass with a plus sign – I was able to enlarge the photo enough to see the image at a level of detail not revealed by the camera’s telephoto lens.  Glints of sunlight on the rock, the baboon’s tail, his haunches.  Magnifying the image even more, I thought I might even have captured the contemplative expression on the creature’s face.  But the more I enlarged it, the more the baboon’s haunches looked like a torso, his legs hidden behind the rock; and the more its tail looked like a back pack.  With a final enlargement, I could see how close this baboon had evolved to the point of being able to read – he was wearing a pair of glasses.

As you’ve figured out by now, the fascinating, contemplative creature was actually a tourist, just like me (only without the fear of heights). The only baboon in the picture had been on my side of the lens.  What will I tell my grandchildren now?  (At least until now, a few of them still look up to me.)  Is that Jacob, coming up the stairs now?

Still, the photograph remains my favorite wildlife photograph.  And the reason hasn’t changed, either: although it’s still a bit blurry, the photograph has deep, philosophical implications for the species it portrays.

— Joe

*Jonathan Grainger; Stéphane Dufau; Marie Montant; Johannes C. Ziegler; Joël Fagot (2012). “Orthographic processing in baboons (Papio papio)”. Science. 336 (6078): 245–248. PMID 22499949. doi:10.1126/science.1218152.



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4 thoughts on “My Favorite African Photo”

  1. I really enjoyed reading your story. Made me smile. A child’s imagination, it seems to me, was at play deep within your observation, and once triggered by taking the cherished photo, it took on a life of its own in thought and contemplation. Especially now that the truth has been exposed by digital technology, so to speak, the photo ought to remain a favorite.

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