Words by Nicholas Bonde
Illustration by Anna Lewenhaupt
Meet the photographer and entrepreneur who gave up a promising corporate career to pursue her passion for wildlife photography. Driven in part by her urge to raise awareness about the critical condition facing Africa’s remaining lion population.
At a first glance, it appeared as if Nina Siemiatkowski had it all.
But in spite of graduating from Stockholm’s most prestigious business school, having climbed the corporate ladder at a publicly traded company, where she landed the position of Marketing Director at the tender age of 29, something was missing.
After carefully considering her options, Siemiatkowski decided to pull the plug and follow her lifelong ambition of becoming a professional photographer. She quit her job at tobacco giant Swedish Match on a Friday and enrolled in photography school the following Monday. Much to the astonishment and awe of those around her.
During her photography studies, an assignment from one of her mentors triggered a fascination for documenting the unvarnished reality of everyday lives. A project that proved to be both challenging and deeply meaningful.
Intrigued by the vague idea that only the human condition warrants for an interesting story, combined with her love for the African wilderness, led her to the vast plains of Kenya’s Maasai Mara national reserve.
Here she would come to spend the following months, documenting and living in close proximity to a pride of lions, which eventually materialized into the exhibition “Book of Leon”. A project that taught her a great deal about herself, family values, laws of nature and the art of co-existence.
Today, as a mother of three and many experiences richer, Nina Siemiatkowski juggles her days with one foot in the entrepreneurial world of her hometown of Stockholm, and one still very much in the world of wildlife conservationism. We met up with her for a candid conversation about ambition, expectation, photography and the fact that it’s never too late to start over.
You were appointed Marketing Director for Swedish Match at age 29 but left the position to pursue a dream of becoming a photographer. Can you take us through the thought process that lead you to making that decision?
– I had a dream of becoming a CEO of a publicly traded company and I hoped to be in such a position by the age of 40 or 50. But being appointed Marketing Director at such a young age, which was a milestone for me, really got me questioning if that was what I really wanted from life. I was of course happy at first, but other things were happening in my life that made me critically evaluate where I was and where I wanted to go. I was young and privileged, I had my dream job, but I was not fulfilled.
So, I sat down with my calendar one day and went back every single day for the past six months, categorizing each day as being fun or not fun. At the end of my evaluation it turned out that 70% of my time at the job had not been any fun, and that was sort of depressing.
– I started asking myself if there was something wrong with my attitude, so I got a hold of a coach who I started seeing and, sure enough, it turned out that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my attitude. On the contrary, my attitude was quite sober, and I realized that I had to make a change.
What sort of reactions did you get after walking away from a high paying corporate position?
– People seemed genuinely happy for me. Some, mostly people in the same position as me, were perhaps a little jealous that I had taken a step most of them had only thought about. But mainly, people told me they were inspired and happy for me. That me taking that leap of faith had enabled them to start similar thought processes, which was nice to hear.
Land of man © Nina Siemiatkowski
What stopped you from pursuing a life in photography earlier on?
– I have a simple answer to that question which is: I was too afraid. I had really good grades and applying for business school seemed obvious at the time. For me, becoming an assistant to a photographer immediately out of high school was associated with so much fear of being rejected or critiqued that I told myself to play it safe and perhaps pursue my passion later in life.
How did you come up with the concept for “Book of Leon”?
– I think there were two essential things that happened: One was that after resigning from my job at Swedish Match, I had a six month leave of notice over the summer where I met an amazing photographer named Pieter ten Hoopen. I managed to convince him to bring me on as his assistant and he invited me down to a small Swedish town called Hjo.
When I got there, he gave me an assignment to go out and find a family or a person, have them invite me into their lives and bring back a series of seven portraits of them by lunch the following day. I was terrified of course, but I went into town and started asking people if I could take their picture. Most of them said no, but eventually I found two young girls who invited me to follow them around for the rest of that day. These girls were in a really tough position in life. In their 20’s, without jobs, without money and with a history of domestic violence and drug abuse. I ended up coming back later that fall to continue documenting their lives. It was a really sad window into their reality and I was with them through some tough times. This sort of photo journalism had of course been done countless times before, but I was really fascinated by following somebody and telling their story through pictures.
– The other thing leading up to “Book of Leon” was when I sat down with a revered Swedish art critic to go over my portfolio at the end of my photo studies. It contained some of my portraits of the girls in Hjo and other works, and he was very impressed and gave me lots of praise. At the end of my portfolio I had a portrait of a lion, since I was so fascinated with Africa and the majestic beauty of these animals. When he saw the lion, he exclaimed: “Animals, how boring!”, and shut the book and slid it across the table. That made me so frustrated, because really, what is it that’s so interesting about humans? Why do we consider ourselves to be such supreme beings and animals to be mere objects?
After the meeting I thought: “what if I could do the same thing with a pack of lions as I had done with the two girls in Hjo?” To step into the lives of another species and follow them over a long period of time. So that’s what I set out to do; not just to portray iconic animals and beautiful side lit African light, which everyone else does. My ambition was to get close to the lions and find their personalities and study their lives in depth.
So, what was the next step at that point?
– Well, I learned that I was pregnant. The original idea was to go down to Maasai Mara and spend six months with this pride of lions, but obviously that changed since I had to give birth and nurse at home. But because of these circumstances I went back and forth over an extended period of time, observing one specific pride, spending about five months in total with them. Over that period of time my life unfolded with giving birth and starting my own family, and at the same time I witnessed their lives unfold before my eyes. When I first met them, they were a pride of about 15-20 lions; but today most of them are dead. Even when the exhibition opened, most of the portraits that hung on the walls depicted lions that were no longer alive. So, the project was in actuality a story of their lives. Life, death and the hardships you endure during a lifetime. Lions do lead really rough lives.
"Conservation at its core is never about animals, it’s always about humans. About human interaction with nature."
Love on a distant hill © Nina Siemiatkowski
What sort of connection did you foster with these animals over the course of the project?
– Well, I would like to say that they recognized me but I’m not sure that’s anything else than wishful thinking… They would let me get very close, so perhaps they adapted to my smell after a while. But on my end, I got very attached to them and would recognize specific individuals by watching their behavior, their walk or their temperament. In 2015 the pride was poisoned by local herders protecting their cattle, and two of the more dominant females died. When I learned about this my heart was broken and I was devastated and was sitting on the floor of my living room crying. I still get sad when I’m down there and think about the fact that they’re not around anymore. But that’s life, right?
Who are some of your favorite wildlife photographers, and did you reach out to any of them for mentoring purposes at some point?
– Initially, I went through the work of every wildlife photographer I could find whose work inspired me, but that didn't really take me where I wanted. I had a vision to photograph lions and tell their story in a different way than what had been done before. Therefore, I reached out to artists and storytellers, analyzing their methodology more than their actual stories or art. Basically I was trying to understand what story I was trying to tell and also evaluating my own artistic process; to be able to find my own way. As a result, I became more introvert in my process, but my friends Pieter ten Hoopen and Johan Willner where both really important to me in the work behind “Book of Leon”. Pieter, for example, told me not to mind when things would go terribly wrong while on an assignment. One day my camera started letting in water and I couldn't focus. Initially it stressed me out, but then I remembered Pieter's words and in terms of my visual language it was really an eye opener. I never fixed that lens.
What set of skills have you been able to take from your previous career and put to use in your life as a photographer?
– Not sure, but I would say that my business degree, schooling and work experience combined makes me somewhat different in this field. I really did “Book of Leon” from an artistic perspective. At the same time, my aim was to make some sort of difference. People say doing both at the same time can’t really be done, but I feel as if though it worked out that way. The profits that I was able to amass from the project would never have come without my business experience.
"We are both apex predators, top of the food chain, we live in families and we are both social creatures."
Return of queens © Nina Siemiatkowski
Nina and her partner William at work in Masaai Mara, Kenya
Your colleague during your work in Kenya was Maasai, a tribe who traditionally have to kill a lion as a rite of passage into their warrior class, known as “Morani”. How has the relationship between the lions and the Maasais changed over the years in the face of the lion population’s decline?
– There are somewhere between twenty to twenty-five thousand lions left in the world, about half of what the population was only twenty years ago. Lions and humans actually co-evolved on earth and have always lived side by side for thousands of years. We are both apex predators, top of the food chain, we live in families and we are both social creatures. In our fight for survival over the course of history, the lions have unfortunately lost. Because the big wild landscapes that lions need are shrinking dramatically while the African human population is exploding – the human/wildlife conflict is more problematic than ever. It’s all quite complicated but it’s not rocket science. There are wonderful projects going on to save the African lion, of which some of the more successful ones are done together with the local communities. So, there are known solutions to the problem, but they require passionate people, especially local, over long periods of time. And these projects also require long term funding.
So, going into the future, wherein lies the greatest challenges for wildlife conservation?
– Conservation at its core is never about animals, it’s always about humans. About human interaction with nature. All parts of establishing a healthy environment contains working with people and educating them. That to me is the greatest challenge, raising awareness of where to start. If more people knew that these two factors are so tightly connected, we would be well on our way.
Tomorrow nothing will be there © Nina Siemiatkowski
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Note: 20% of all proceeds during Black Friday-weekend will be donated to the Zambian Carnivore Program and their mission to protect local wildlife