Remembering Elephants, Fighting Cancer

In my humble opinion, there are few more pleasurable ways to while away a couple of hours than by observing elephants. Family dynamics are always at play when there is a herd and the parallels between such families and our own society are marked. And then there are the babies, running around like crazy things, full of glee, wonder and absolute faith that nothing and no-one will do them harm.

The many similarities we share with elephants are well documented, from our average 70-year life span, to the love and bonds we form with each other, from the intelligence they display, to the way the older generation guides and teaches the younger. And of course elephants mourn their dead in the way we do too.

But then we part ways, because, quite frankly, elephants aren’t killers. Elephants don’t put a price on the heads of animals for trinkets that makes them worth more dead than alive. And elephants don’t murder for fun. When you stop and think about it, elephants have more "humanity" than us! That’s where the joy comes from in observing them. And also the horror when doing so, of the knowledge about the impact man is deliberately having on these sentient beings.

It was for these reasons that I created the Remembering Elephants project, filled with impotence and rage and wanting to actually DO something to fight the crisis. I wanted to put my corporate background and experience to good use and try and raise some serious money, make a difference if I could. It started initially as an idea for an exhibition that I ambitiously hoped to stage in a high footfall location such as Selfridges, with the intention that it would be educational too. When after months of indecision they turned us down I felt disheartened but regrouped and after a few months decided upon the idea of a book. I ran the idea past Keith Wilson, the editor of Wild Planet Photo Magazine and amazingly he instantly signed up, agreeing to be our editor too. I could never have got this project so far without his unstinting and generous support.

The idea was simple - to produce the most beautiful book on elephants ever made and sell it to raise funds to fight poaching. We wanted 50 well-known wildlife photographers to donate an image each and we drew up a list and started approaching those we admired to participate. At first 50 famous photographers seemed a lot to get. Acceptances started slowly but then after one or two big names said yes, began to snowball. The generosity and willingness by photographers to try and help was overwhelming with virtually everyone we approached saying yes and many helping us pull in other big names (I must say a particular thanks to Shem Compion of C4 Photo Safaris in this regard). The fame and following of the photographers we could attract was going to be key to the next stage of the process, funding, so to get yeses from the likes of Art Wolfe, Greg du Toit, Jonathan & Angela Scott and Frans Lanting gave us an incredible boost.

Having observed another wildlife photographer’s success using Kickstarter for their own project and realising the potential combined social reach of our photographers, I set out to raise £20,000, which would pre-fund a print run of 1500 books. We designed the book cover using an image donated by one of our talented photographers Federico Veronesi, edited a supporting video (with the footage and editing time kindly donated by friends) and drafted our Kickstarter page.

What started as a germ of an idea very quickly became virtually a full time job (fitted in around my actual work) while I juggled participating photographers, Kickstarter messages, offers of help from safari friends, approaches from other photographers and the relationship with the charity partner Born Free Foundation, which I had selected to work with following a meeting with the inspirational Will Travers OBE. While I felt I had a good chance to raise money, I knew I was no expert in how to spend it on the cause, so finding the right charity partner had been key.

After months of planning and work, when our Kickstarter went live I sat back and wondered what the hell we’d done because Kickstarter is all or nothing you see. Raise your target or get nothing at all. What if we failed? Would all that effort be for nothing? We simply had to make £20,000. By 4pm on day one (of 30 days) we’d raised £8000 and although proud I was also nervous. £12,000 felt like an awful lot more books to get through (we were effectively pre-selling books but also prints generously donated by some of our photographers). And then, just before 5pm, Born Free Foundation emailed their database of animal lovers, urging them to help us reach our target. And things went crazy. For the next three hours the pledges from all over the world started pouring in, flashing alerts on my phone like a fruit machine. In the end I went and poured a glass of wine and watched the total rising until at 8pm that evening we edged over the £20,000. Quite incredible.

I was on a massive high for the next few days, though very aware of course of how much faith had been placed in us, how we had to do a good job with the books and also the eventual funds raised. I was approached during this period by over 200 photographers generously wanting to donate photos for the book and to each I had to individually and politely thank them and explain that by now our 50 places had already been pre-filled but that we’d be hosting a competition for a further 10 places in a few months’ time. Many were incredible photographers with beautiful images and it was frustrating that because of the model we'd set up, we simply didn't have space to include them. Most, thankfully, were supportive and understanding but a few were quite frankly pretty rude. “I donate images all the time to good causes, I don’t see why I should have to pay to enter a competition,” was a disappointing response from one who seemed to miss the point. Fortunately many other great (and award-winning) photographers have promised me they'll be giving it a shot. All we want is the very best images out there now. This book is going to be incredible.

And then there was the double-edged sword of social media. We were able to use it to great success with the support of and help from our photographers and friends, spreading the word and the hashtag #rememberingelephants far and wide. And while without it we never would have succeeded in the way we did of course, there were also a few publicly criticising the choice of some of our photographers, or the choice of the name of the book. I’m not sure why anyone would have cause other than bitterness or jealousy to criticise a project born out of the desire to do good and reverse the damage man is having but some it seems will always have a pop.

So with the highs there were certainly lows and I tried not to be hurt by the critics.

And then out of the blue, my world was turned upside down and all my previous concerns seemed trivial. With a week to go until the Kickstarter ended, I found a lump in my breast, which refused to go away no matter how many times I felt it. I had an immediate ultrasound and was told I needed some proper tests urgently. On the 23rd September 2015, Kickstarter closed at 9am with us having raised an astonishing £58,125. That evening instead of toasting with champagne as I’d planned, I sat in a hospital being told that I had breast cancer and was facing a long and tough road of treatment.

It was two weeks later that I went for my first surgery and that afternoon before heading to the hospital, nil-by-mouth, I met with a potential sponsor I’d been courting to pay for an accompanying exhibition for the book. Thrillingly, they agreed in that meeting to come on board. Another high…before being sent under by the anaesthetic. That night when I woke up after surgery I had a message on my phone to say I’d won two awards in the prestigious Nature’s Best 'Windland Smith Rice Photography Awards', including a highly commended for one of my all-time favourite elephant calf photos.

The next morning I woke to news reports that “elephants could be the key to fighting cancer” (they have developed genes to fight cancer and maybe science can learn from that). And then a few weeks later, during Breast Cancer Awareness month in the UK, there were reports everywhere of the German hunter who’d senselessly killed one of the biggest remaining tuskers in Africa. I watched with horror from my sofa where I was recuperating with my laptop.

Elephants, cancer. Cancer, elephants. Highs and lows. It was all I seemed to see on the news, on my Facebook feed, both dominating my life in equal measure. But in a good way, if that makes any sense. I am more acutely aware than ever of the importance of getting this project right, the importance of using our lives, our efforts, to best effect on the things that matter. Not sweating the small stuff.

Along the way my faith in humanity has been more than restored by all of those who generously supported and those who selflessly stepped up to help with the project. There are too many to mention here but needless to say our success is a result of a huge team effort. And of course it was then doubly renewed by the outpouring of love and support from friends old and new, all over the world, who'd heard about my illness. Just like elephants, my extended 'family', far larger than I ever realised, has certainly stepped in to surround and love me in recent months and I will be eternally grateful.

My ambition now is to raise £100,000 by the end of 2016, to be spent fighting poaching by Born Free Foundation. So far we have raised enough to print books worth £70,000 to sell next year. The competition entry fees will hopefully raise more and then we will auction all of the prints from the exhibition too.

We are in talks already with the Kenya Wildlife Service about an immediate donation of items that can help them wage the war on the ground. Hopefully that will happen before Christmas this year and Remembering Elephants will already start to make a difference. And I am expecting be fit enough to visit Meru in early 2016 and meet the rangers who will be starting to use our equipment.

In the meantime, the hard work goes on. Our London exhibition space is now booked for September 2016. The competition is about to go live and will hopefully raise further funds. I am meeting people all the time who can help make the project bigger and better than I ever dreamed and I feel driven and full of purpose between my treatments.

Unfortunately for me my first surgery wasn’t successful in getting all the cancer out, so last week I went under the knife for a second attempt which I'm delighted to say I just found out was successful. I will start radiotherapy soon and will be on hormone tablets for the next five years. I feel remarkably well and I have every intention of seeing this book through to publication and launch next September. My doctors are confidently talking cure…little do they realise that as well as them, it will indeed be the elephants helping my recovery.

The Remembering Elephants photo contest, open to everyone, from amateurs to pros, will go live on Sunday 15th November 2015 at www.bornfree.org.uk/REphotocomp. Each entry will cost $7.50 (you can enter from anywhere in the world, PayPal will handle the payments and currency conversions), with all profits raised going directly to fight poaching. 10 winning photographs will appear in the book. The Remembering Elephants book will go on sale in September 2016 via Born Free Foundation but can be pre-ordered for £45 + postage by emailing recontest@margotraggettphotography.com.

The 50 current participating photographers in Remembering Elephants, including eight overall winners of wildlife photographer of the year are:

Billy Dodson, Morkel Erasmus, Shem Compion, Isak Pretorius, Federico Veronesi, Austin Thomas, Anja Denker, David Lloyd, Andy Rouse, Sarah/Andy Skinner, Albie Venter, Will Burrard-Lucas, Marius Coetzee, Ross Couper, Elliot Neep, Greg du Toit, Art Wolfe, Paul Goldstein, Peter Delaney, Marsel Van Oosten, Richard Peters, Mark Dumbleton, Brendon Jennings, Michel Denis-Huot, Theo Allofs, Marina Cano, Melissa Groo, Victoria Stone/Mark Deeble, Michael Poliza, Keith Connolly, Todd Gustafson, Alwyn Coates, George Logan, Daryl Balfour, Martyn Colbeck, Johan Marais, Margot Raggett, David Cayless, Frans Lanting, Jonathan/Angela Scott, Steve & Ann Toon, Marlon du Toit, James Warwick, Jan van der Greef, Richard Packwood, Thomas Mangelsen, Ben Osborne, Tony Heald, Jabruson and Joel Sartore.

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© Margot Raggett 2018