20 years of photographing lions and tigers

Written by Staff Writer

Gina Barreca was a journalist with a background in public relations when she answered an ad in the classifieds on Craigslist for a freelance photographer to travel with her on a safari.

“At the time, big-game travel was far and few between. There weren’t many places you could go, and most of the time, the places you went tended to be in far-off, frontier countries,” she said.

From the time the trio set out into the wilderness, Barreca, Bobbie Roscoe and Jim de Jager found a deep connection to the big cats, including a vivid imagination that underpinned a photographic vision that has spanned decades.

These days, they offer tours across Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa, while Barreca teaches photography at Dartmouth College and the Community Center for Creative Photography.

Catching the lion

One of the highlights of their first trip was their meeting with a pride of lions at Tamati National Park in Tanzania.

“Bambi is often thought of as the “lion with the white pelt” and sometimes as an elusive explorer,” she said. “But in this case, it was actually a young male with a grin that could light up the dark night. These are big cats, so they want you, even if they are not sure who to fear.”

For Barreca, who grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York state, capturing these majestic animals was always a dream come true.

“I’ve always had a fascination with big cats,” she said. “Growing up in New York at a time when you really weren’t allowed to walk around, I was always into big cat menageries and animal preserves.

“But it was almost like something had died out or something, because there was nothing I saw when I was a kid anymore. I went to high school and college, and I still hadn’t seen a big cat; I couldn’t even eat at a park, like a Dumbo restaurant, the way my parents did.”

When they first began their safari, they couldn’t tell whether they were standing on dirt or grass.

“The only time you’d see lions in New York is in movies,” Barreca said. “From what we saw in Tanzania, they were either a little track from someone’s back yard or a record of just being in a real big park.

“One day, we were out on our quad and I was so tired, I just decided to take a nap. While I was in my sleep, I heard a lion really loudly howling at the top of his lungs, and just like that, I woke up.”

At that moment, Barreca realized the enormity of the lions.

“It turned out the lions’ howling was like this ear-piercing, piercing sound, and that’s what immediately got my attention. It was like the noise of a thousand warthogs as they have to ride out a bit of war that happened here. That’s how loud they are,” she said.

“After that it was just listening and, for a good hour, they didn’t stop howling. A bigger animal, a giraffe, would have gotten irritated but the big cats continued howling. They are a really, really fascinating bunch.”

When she was in grade school, Barreca was asked by her school to be a Girl Scout leader.

“I became my best friend’s best friend and her father’s best friend as I sold lemonade and cookies with people who went on 20-year safaris. Later, I would take their children on big-game trips,” she said.

She recalled one story in particular of how she had been charged at by a buffalo.

“I don’t think I could tell that story right now, because my legs still hurt from the buffalo’s stomping,” she said.

Catching the big cat

For De Jager, the driving force behind their success has been their love of the big cats.

“We love the big cats. The big cat has actually been a myth for us,” he said. “Our fascination started with lions in the 1970s. It has been a calling for many years. It is something we have worked so hard on. We have made big investments. We spent our 40th wedding anniversary in Kenya in June.

“We want people to feel the excitement, the fear, the sadness and the wonder when they are looking at our pictures.

“We believe our passion for them is why people love them.”

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