On the Cover: “Little Egrets, Lake Victoria”

The cover of the March/April 2013 issue of Orion features an image from Boston-based photographer Ian MacLellan. We asked Ian, whose work “focuses on the feeling of adventure you get when you are eight years old and exploring an old forest,” about the story behind his remarkable image.

Can you tell us a bit about where and when was this photograph was taken?

This photograph was taken in June 2009, in the town of Usenge, Kenya, right on the shore of Lake Victoria (Kenyans will tell you this is the homeland of President Obama). We had just gotten off the fishing boat and the sun was just starting to rise.

There’s an elegant, delicate quality to this image that felt right for the cover of a spring issue of Orion. What attracted you to this image?

Interestingly, this was not one of the first images I selected from the day’s shoot. It’s easy to gravitate toward the simpler images and the images I imagine before going on a shoot; but the quieter photographs, on the other hand, which take longer to notice, are always the ones I remember years later.

With this picture, I hope to show the special power of people in some kind of working relationship with nature. People and nature are not always at odds, and nature isn’t always something to be afraid of.

The fishing vessel in this image appears to have been abandoned and discovered by new owners. What’s going on inside of the boat?

There were a variety of half-submerged boats littering the shores during the shoot. I think the fishermen just get tired of fixing holes, and they start fresh with new boats at a certain point. Birds and other animals made it their home on this particular morning.

This image is part of a larger series of photographs from Lake Victoria. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

I happened on this project while covering the work of a Kenyan legal aid organization. One of the lawyers was doing pro-bono work for a man named Henry Kissinger (yes, that’s his real, legal name) who runs a community computer lab and sustainable agriculture project. It’s pretty hard to forget someone named Henry Kissinger. The two of us got along well, and I wanted to dig deeper into issues concerning Lake Victoria, so Henry set me up with his uncle who ran a few of the small fishing boats in the area.

I knew about the introduction of the invasive water hyacinth into Lake Victoria, but didn’t fully grasp the inequity of the fisheries. The predatory Nile perch was introduced to the lake as a food fish, unbalancing the populations of other fish in the lake, which, combined with increased fishing, pollution, and logging on the shore, have destroyed the populations of other species. The Nile perch harvested in the lake is mainly shipped away from fishing communities, leaving them with smaller and less desirable fish to feed their families.

Two years after taking this picture, I took a course at the New England Aquarium and learned a lot more about the mass extinction of fish in Lake Victoria. There is also a documentary, Darwin’s Nightmare, that examines more of the environmental and food justice issues in Lake Victoria from a Tanzanian perspective.

Any small stories or details you’d like to share that didn’t make it into one of the photographs from the Lake Victoria series?

It was a very tiring night. A writer and I were both crammed into the stern of the boat, neither of us speaking anything but pleasantries in Luo (the local language), and none of the fishermen spoke much English. We were stepping on spiny fish the whole time, and when we got to wander around the shores, we were warned not to disturb the sleeping hippos.

I was pretty happy to see the sun rise and to finally be free of the boat, but I was also sad. It was a pretty special night, silently watching these men work through the dark, witnessing something I’ll probably never see again.

Visit Ian’s website for more images and stories from Lake Victoria.