Originally from London, Melbourne based photographer and videographer Ian Bickerstaff has dedicated 20 years of his life advocating for primates with Ape Action Africa at Mefou Primate Park, Cameroon.
Profile Section - Ian Bickerstaff
Favourite teamArsenal FC
Favourite football momentThe 26th of May 1989 when Arsenal won the league in dramatic fashion at Anfield. It was the first time Arsenal had won the league title in my lifetime...lets hope it happens again soon.
The enclosures at Mefou Primate Park are set against the lush green of the Cameroonian rainforest. Primates living here get the opportunity to live in the semi-wild as they are rehabilitated and recovered through the great work of Ape Action Africa (AAA).In this particular photo, we meet Daniel - a primate that Ian helped rehabilitate while volunteering with AAA.“When Daniel arrived at the sanctuary, he arrived in a horrible state. It looked like he had been kept in a box for months. We rehabilitated him and Daniel joined the group of chimps I was looking after.“I became invested in his individual story; coming from a scared, timid chimp to a flourishing adult. Every time I go to Mefou, visiting him is one of the first things I do.”
Ian’s passion for conservation and the environment began 20 years ago, when he volunteered to work with monkeys in South America. That sparked a fire in him, and when he found AAA, Ian decided to put some money aside and ultimately venture to Cameroon in 2007.“I'm endlessly fascinated by the potential for rainforests and the animals that reside there. Especially when it comes to apes themselves - they are so close to us humans which makes them so fascinating.”Mefou Primate Park is located on logged land. And at the heart of this project, is the village of Ndangan; home to not only local families but also anyone associated with AAA.“Ndangan was where the workers would sleep; where the volunteers would pitch their tents; and where food gets cooked and meals get prepared for the animals - that’s still true to this day.”
Being an embedded part of the community is fundamental to Ian’s work. As a photographer, he prefers to be a quiet observer and blend into the background. The key to Ian’s success has been the trust he has been able to build over time.“I’ve built up a lot of trust at Mefou because I’ve been going there for 13 years. Consistently coming back - getting rained on, cleaning chimp cages, living in tough conditions - it showed them that I was someone who took it seriously and prepared to put in the hard work. “Although I stick out quite a lot as a foreigner in Cameroon, it is relatively easy for me to become part of the background because they know me now.”Although his work with AAA and the team at Mefou is focused primarily on the primates, Ian also understands that there is a human element which is impossible to ignore. Cameroon itself is a harsh and impoverished country, and he acknowledges that a certain responsibility exists as a creative working there.
“I’m always on the lookout for those scenes that can help paint the picture for someone that hasn’t been to that part of the world, or perhaps never will. But, I do my best to not overlay my own feelings or prejudices about particular situations.”“There are certain things that are a bit tough to see. I go to certain places where people are desperately poor, malnourished even. But I don’t shy away from seeing it. I always prefer to have knowledge about a situation rather than not. “Knowledge is power. “I spend quite a lot of time trying to not over dramatize the negative things that I see. What I hope for instead is that my photography can help ameliorate the situation.”It is this decision to consciously choose to see and learn about the overall climate of Cameroon that has helped Ian understand his place as an activist and as a changemaker.“Although my work in Cameroon with AAA is focused on their work with primates, it also indirectly impacts the people. For example, I know the sanctuary is able to fundraise better when it has better imagery or video, and I can help with that. “The indirect benefit is that as the sanctuary grows, there are benefits that can impact the surrounding community.”
The collective commitment to maintaining Mefou Primate Park is what continues to inspire Ian, with local activism providing a beacon of hope for the future.“The more that I talk to people, the more I realise that they don’t want forests chopped down and emptied of animals. For example, there are many young people with startup conservation projects; around plastic pollution or climate change for instance. “There are people on the ground in Cameroon for whom activism is real, it is a part of life, and it is something that they believe can benefit their communities.“And seeing that people do care, gives you hope.”Speaking to Ian it becomes clear very quickly that Mefou and the primates that reside there hold a very special place in his heart. However, he believes his unique bond with the park is reflected far deeper in those that call it home.“For the people, the park is central to everything that they do, to everything that they are. The park is their home, their source of income, their stability. It represents an opportunity for them to improve the lives of their family and their community.“For the primates; it is a sanctuary for these refugees of the forest. Without the park, they would be without hope. “It is their source of life.”
Find out more about Ape Action Africa and support the work they do.
In the heart of the Cameroon jungle a football team bears the name of the animal they seek to save. They are the Silverbacks.
Building on what has come before
For filmmaker James Baines, the story of Silverbacks FC was a collective effort.
Favourite teamManchester City; before and after the financial takeover.
Preferred positionCDM, like a Fernandinho or Claude Makelele, but I’ve tried most positions...
Favourite football momentKevin De Bruyne’s goal in the second leg of the Champions League against Paris Saint Germain. I was there, and we all went nuts. For me, it felt like a game that cemented us amongst Europe’s elite.
Oh and when I was really young, we were playing at a football tournament. I’m left footed but I crossed the ball with my right foot to the shortest player on the pitch who scored a header. It was the semi-final, and just added insult to injury for the opposition.
It’s midnight in Cameroon when James finally touches down from London. He’s tired and dazed from the flight. The air is significantly more humid.
He stops at border control, documents in hand.“Where’s your yellow fever certificate?”
Getting the yellow fever shot was part of the visa application process prior to travelling to Cameroon. But they wanted the paper element to prove this. James did not have it.
“So the first thing I did in Cameroon was get escorted into this small room to receive another yellow fever jab.
“Are you meant to have the same two vaccinations in such a short amount of time?”
We couldn’t answer that.
What we can tell you is that James was in Cameroon to film Silverbacks FC, a short documentary about a group of workers from Ape Action Africa (AAA) who formed a football team together.
The name pays homage to the animals the team look after. These are animals that have been poached or stolen from their natural habitats who are then rescued. They arrive at the AAA sanctuary - Mefou Primate Park - to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
“PARK had shared a photo. It wasn’t your usual wanderlust photo on Instagram. It was a simple photo that just highlighted football in Africa and the story of the Silverbacks. It spoke so much to what I do as creative - I love visiting communities around the world and PARK was supporting them through these balls.
“It struck me as an amazing story that I should follow.”
James has spent years creating films around football. He believes that the subject is not so much the sport itself, but rather, the people that partake in it.
“I’m someone that strives to find the stories that are small and quiet, but have the emotional crescendos that make you feel connected to the person.”
“Football is one of those unique sports that brings people together that might not necessarily be brought together. Like music that is used in film to evoke emotion, football has the ability to convey emotion too.”
In pursuit of finding out more about the team, James finally got in touch with Alex Benitez - Manager of AAA.
“It was around Christmas time when we connected and Alex told me that they had a match with the military in a couple days and asked me to come and film. But there was no way I could just go to Cameroon at the drop of a hat.”
Alex’s eager interest and receptiveness did give James even more reason to pursue the story. So he spent the next 6 months saving before embarking onward.
“I’ve done a lot of travel before but nothing really prepares you for Cameroon.”
With only four days to film in Cameroon, James had to embed himself into life at Mefou Primate Park amidst some pretty tough conditions. There was a language barrier because the primary language of Cameroon is French. The environment was also unpredictable.
“The surroundings were quite harsh with extreme weather patterns. You’re sleeping in a mosquito net and at 3am you’re listening to chimps going crazy.”
However, James embraced it as his new normal and began to immerse himself with the surrounding community.
“Though most of our communication was non-verbal, I was still able to engage with the locals.
“After breakfast I would go film the gorillas, the workers would feed the apes and clean the cages. I would just hang around and interact with them. Once they were comfortable I was able to film.”
“They eventually got used to this kid lugging his camera and tripod around and could see I was willing to put the work in to capture their story.”
James likens his process to street photography; where permission is just as important as the act of photo-taking itself.
“I will not film someone without expressly speaking first. Especially in a place like Cameroon or Africa, where white filmmakers often come in and just point the camera wherever they see fit.”
Developing that trust was important, and James acknowledges there were a number of people that have come before who made his job easier.
“I really benefited from everyone elses work - Ian (a long time volunteer who took photos for PARK), Alex Benitez and Rachel Hogan (Park Managers); they have created and garnered trust in that community through AAA’s work. So much so that someone like me can come in and everyone is comfortable knowing I’m not going to tell their story in a different way.
“It still took time, and some people were a little bit shy - and I respected that. That being said, as soon as we got to the football match, the same people wanted to be on camera, to be seen and to show and express themselves.”
The football match between Silverbacks FC and another local team kicked off on James’ last day. In the searing Cameroonian heat, the Silverbacks would - SPOILER ALERT - emerge winners on the day, two goals to one.
“The match felt like a seminal event, like a little carnival. It was played on this pitch in one of the villages. Locals come from their homes and there’s a little bar across the road where people can watch the game from. From the sidelines there was a lot of emotion, shouting and encouragement.
“It wasn’t like those Mastercard ads where everyone is singing and dancing.
“It was more how amateur football really is - full of passion.”
As you watch Silverbacks FC, you realise that football is the part of the day where you’re allowed to be yourself and express yourself, regardless of where you are.
“They do back breaking work - waking up every morning at the crack of dawn, cleaning cages, filling wheelbarrows full of food, taking them to the apes and feeding them. They are extremely dangerous and intelligent animals, so you have to have your wits about you as you’re doing all this manual labour in 40 degree heat and humidity.
“It's the same reason they ride motorbikes, sing around campfires, or have a drink and dance at the end of the day; what they do is hard work and any form of release you can get from that is so valuable.”
For James, his films - like that of Silverbacks FC - are a gift to the communities that have welcomed him in. He likens it to PARK’S pass-a-ball initiative.
“Passing those balls into these communities creates such an emotive response. The association of giving back, giving them something unique, something that is wholly their own, something that they can express themselves with is immensely powerful.
“The reason I make films is to platform these voices, to give them their story and show them what it looks like.”
And for some, merely a glimpse is enough to realise the potential they truly hold.
Thanks to Ape Action Africa, Chris Whiteside, Ashley Kitchin, Liam Sharpe, Dale Curtis, Clint Trofa, Sir Winz, Ian Bickerstaff, PARK and everyone else who gave up their time to help me make this film.
The eye has become synonymous with PARK. And we’re sure there are many questions about it. Like, where did it come from? What does it mean? Why? So on behalf of the PARK community, we went and found out. Well, what are you waiting for?