Opinion: Brown: Lyla in Africa: a Cape 11-year-old goes on photo-safari

·4 min read

Normally, we expect 11-year-olds to do something cute. It becomes news when they do something as well or better than adults do.

I ran photography seminars at Cape Cod Academy for years. Since retirement, I’ve started a kids’ summer program at the Cape Cod Art Center and in the winter, offered programs for adults at the Academy for Life-long Learning. The goal is always the same, to help photographers learn new techniques and build personal portfolios they can share and be proud of.

What works for portraits works for photographs in general. I ask my students to look for what is interesting in a person, what is beautiful and good. (Actually, it’s not a bad practice to look for these things in everyone we meet.) Anyway, if you can see these qualities in a person, it’s apt to show up in their portraits. It’s not too great a stretch to carry this approach into photographing landscapes, wildlife and events.

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A mother and daughter rhino charge during a lesson on aggression. [Lyla Vasquez]
A mother and daughter rhino charge during a lesson on aggression. [Lyla Vasquez]

The visual arts teach us to really see. Once you’ve learned that, nothing is ever the same. Stunned by the tireless beauty of the world, for the rest of our lives, we can’t stop looking. Whether we turn out great works of art or not, the first beneficiary is ourselves.  Then, especially in portraiture, a really good job becomes a gift to our subjects and their families.

We’ve got things to consider in taking the photographs, light and composition being crucial. Then we’ve got all the possibilities to modify the work after taking the picture… all kinds of interesting graphic apps. It’s a chance to take the photograph all over again. A photo can morph into an oil painting. Backgrounds can disappear and be replaced with something else. Obviously, the whole enterprise is only as good as the original photograph, but with graphics, the photograph isn’t the end of the process. It can be just the beginning. Best of all, kids can get as good at this as adults can.  All they need do, if you’ll pardon the expression, is focus.

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On the last day of her trip, Lyla found this leopard hanging out in a tree. [Lyla Vasquez]
On the last day of her trip, Lyla found this leopard hanging out in a tree. [Lyla Vasquez]

Lyla Vasquez was one of last summer’s photography students at the Cape Cod Arts Center. She’s shy, an 11-year-old of few words, but she lets her camera do the talking.  Lyla went right to work building her portfolio. She has an interest in nature photography — so her parents took her to Kenya where the wildlife can be found in spades.

Experienced professionals take visitors out into the bush. Sometimes they go out in caged vehicles for protection… sometimes in open ones. And sometimes Lyla got to venture short distances on her own. At night, she sat out on a wooden deck and did her homework with elephants quietly padding across her field of vision.

Was she scared? Once a pair of rhinos charged their jeep. Cage or not, it could have been dicey. Seems two large females, a mother and daughter were out practicing… the older one teaching her offspring the arts of aggression. Caught out in the open, Lyla ran back to the vehicle, but not before wheeling and, like a true professional, snapping a good shot over her shoulder. There they are, charging right at you in a cloud of dust and a halo of flies.

The lions seemed well-fed enough, and usually they’d take off when humans arrived.  Lyla had been hoping to see some leopards, but it was only on the last day in Kenya that she finally found one in a tree. She got several photos and there it is, offering us a drop-dead baleful stare.

Lyla Vasquez, 11, capturing wildlife on safari in Kenya.
Lyla Vasquez, 11, capturing wildlife on safari in Kenya.

As the African sun goes down in smoking red, the head and long neck of a giraffe towers above the darkened tree line. Lyla caught that too.

Lyla shot her photos with what’s called a “bridge” camera… midway between a cheap point-and-shoot camera and a professional system with interchangeable lenses. Lyla’s little camera had a 1,000 mm zoom lens — essentially a telescope in a box. For rhinos, lions and leopards, it was just the thing.

Our Art Center class was long over but Lyla and I kept in touch, even in Kenya. We talked about light. The same principles apply to people and panthers alike. Safely home again, I sat with Lyla and her mother in Nirvana’s and debriefed. All you need to go anywhere on Earth is time and money. But to return with the African portfolio Lyla has takes a gift.

Lawrence Brown
Lawrence Brown

For teachers of all kinds, seeing a child’s gifts made manifest is the ultimate reward.  Now, thanks to her — and the Cape Cod Times — I can share them with you. Visit capecodtimes.com to see more of Lyla's photos.

Lawrence Brown is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times.  Email him at columnresponse@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Learning to see in a deeper way is gift of photography