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 football moment
The 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.