Drew Burnett: How I became a wildlife photographer and my gallery in Old Amersham
PUBLISHED: 15:46 20 August 2018 | UPDATED: 14:53 21 August 2018
Drew Burnett's path to becoming a wildlife photographer is as extraordinary as the images he now captures for us all to enjoy
Drew Burnett recounts the occasion when a cheetah tried to jump onto the roof of his vehicle and, in a terrifying instant of misjudgement, ended up “flying through the passenger window,” not with fear, or even relief (he was, thankfully, unscathed), but excitement. And never mind the potential threat of a maverick animal, the wildlife photographer had the nous to capture the moment.
“She was only eight months old,” he states casually while reaching for the photograph he took at a time when most of us would dissolve in panic. “Look, you can see the truck’s reflection in her eye. I’ve also been charged by lions and once had to be rescued by boat having been chasing by a hippo in Zambia; he was a particularly angry chap.”
That Drew is unfazed by such incidents reflects his enthusiasm for nature. His smile never takes a break and his personable manner manifests itself in a commitment to engage with everyone who enters Wild Eye, his gallery in the heart of Old Amersham, established earlier this year. As Drew chats to customers who are intrigued to hear how he captures such close up shots, I take a look around. The brightly painted studio is packed with images of all sizes as well as triptychs, greetings cards and even wrapping paper, all featuring wildlife from around the world. Familiar and beloved British creatures such as foxes and hares are stacked alongside penguins, elephants and tigers. In a far corner, Drew’s eight year old Bernese Mountain Dog, Indy, as laid back as her owner, occasionally stirs to meet and greet.
During a temporary lull I get to know more about Drew. His career background isn’t what I expect, or he planned. In fact, fate and a nasty injury lie behind his current success.
After enjoying photography during his teens, the now 40 year old headed to university to read languages. Then the appeal of money lured him into corporate banking: “For six years I loved it and had an amazing lifestyle. I didn’t even own a camera at that time.”
It was while on board a luxury sightseeing liner in Norway, however, that Drew’s life changed. “My wife and I were on our honeymoon in Svalbard by the Hornbreen glacier,” he reveals. “We were too close to the glacier and it carved an iceberg onto the ship and put a huge wave over the boat. Standing on the prow, we were swamped by the wave, nearly washed overboard, and that is where I got hurt.”
Drew doesn’t dwell on the disaster though he was airlifted to hospital, the injury also causing him some mental health problems. And this is when a camera and his love of animals turned around his life and instigated a new career. Following a period when even leaving the house was traumatic, he and his wife travelled around the world, taking with them a camera they’d been given as a wedding gift.
“The Falklands was the last place we went to. It’s unchartered. I loved that remoteness. My penguin images from there formed the backbone of what we’d done.”
In building his business, Drew initially concentrated on art fairs and shows before launching Wild Eye. There are 1,200 mounted images here and, given their popularity, the need to replenish stock is ongoing.
“I’m usually away on location six to eight weeks of the year. In 2018 I’ve already been to the Arctic tracking wolves but also saw lynx, wolverines and red foxes with big, fluffy coats. I’ve visited Scotland and Northumberland, too, topping up images of animals from this country. I teach courses (aimed at normal people, complete beginners) and lead safaris. At the moment I’m studying for my professional guiding qualification for Kenya.”
Drew’s wildlife images are colourful and compositionally strong but presumably each photograph isn’t necessarily up to his expectations? “On a good day, I’m satisfied with one in 20.”
And what constitutes a good day? “The environment, when the weather is right, I’m in the right mood; so many things have to come together. I want to connect with animals and capture their behaviour interacting with the environment or each other.”
I can’t help but ask whether he ever resorts to artificial manipulation. “Cropping is the only tweaking I do. And if it can’t be done in a minute, it’s not worth doing. So much planning goes into shoots. What you want to do is maximise your chances of success and work with the right people.”
Given the range of animals Drew has already captured, I wonder if there are any he’s yet to photograph? “Without a doubt there are two: African hunting dogs, they’re very rare and difficult to find. Also, bears are my nemesis. Seven years ago I was due to photograph at Brooks Fall where they capture salmon. But it was the year my daughter was born so I didn’t go. Another time I spent a month in Canada and didn’t see a single bear!”
After more customers have browsed the gallery, befriending Indy and congratulating Drew on images, he tells me how welcoming local shop owners have been. While printing and framing is done at his nearby Prestwood home, the gallery has freed up time he previously spent preparing for, and travelling to, art fairs, as well as providing the perfect showcase for his work.
“Photography has only recently been classed as an art,” he says. “It’s a real privilege that people buy my work because they live with it. Pictures of mine are all over the world.”
Talking to this stimulating photographer, the mental ordeal he experienced after the accident is unimaginable. Yet there’s no denying the positive impact this trauma has had on his second career as well as him personally. “Photography has helped me massively. I’ve come from nothing in terms of my confidence. Before, I would get stressed, unable to talk. Now I’m comfortable talking about my subject. This has helped me push myself again.”
Life changing events often lead to new experiences. For Drew Burnett a moment that altered the course of his life triggered a career which does far more than satisfy him, it brings pleasure to wildlife lovers everywhere.