The best time to shoot photos, on a cloudless day at Kruger National Park in South Africa, is that two-hour period after dawn.
That’s where you might see Sports Illustrated model Natasha Barnard in the future, waiting patiently for one, or all, of the Big Five to pass in front of her lens.
For those not familiar with safari lingo, the Big Five refers to lions, elephants, leopards, rhinoceroses and cape buffalo. Fauna aside, Barnard’s a professed lover of wildlife and aspiring photographer.
It’s a late summer afternoon, and there’s a hint of wistfulness in her Afrikaans voice as she recalls her trip home to Witbank for her birthday in May. She’s in New York City, her home away from home, and discloses urban vermin don’t provide as much inspiration.
“(Photography’s) difficult here because wildlife, to me, means lions and wild dogs and leopards. It doesn’t mean pigeons and squirrels,” she says, with a laugh. “I’ve always been fussy when it comes to photography that I can only relate until I go home.”
She reconnected with her passions with the aforementioned trip home, one that included a visit with her dogs, Mitsy and Lola. A drive up to Kruger was a birthday spoil and it was so much more than just a photographic endeavour. Nature is a sense of identity, she admits.
When Cecil the lion was killed in 2015 in the Hwange National Park, it struck a chord. The popular safari sight was lured off the reserve and eventually shot by an American dentist, and big game hunter, Walter Palmer.
It stirred thoughts of the importance of conservation within Barnard.
“That’s one of my biggest passions, conservation … I’d say I’m very sensitive to my environment, and I have this deep love for animals — you think about getting into conservation,” Barnard shares. “It’s one of those sensitive topics. I’ve struggled with it for a long time.
“I have all these opinions,” she adds. “That’s why I’m so quiet on social media because a lot of my opinions would get me in trouble on social media.”
Barnard does partake in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but reveals it’s a challenge for the “classic models”. With the trend moving towards models who are social media darlings, it’s important to have a message and avoid falling into eat-sleep-selfie mode.
“It’s important to stay who you are and not change for social media,” she says, in a way not intended to throw shade. But she does let out a laugh: “It’s not normal to take pictures of yourself all day.”
Perhaps Instagram will serve as the perfect device when she plans to revisit the game ranger pursuit and open a lodge in her motherland.
Regardless of the challenges ahead with conservation, she says she’s an eternal optimist:
“I’m such a positive person. I’m very grateful for that. I grew up with parents who taught me that you can do anything, you just have to know what it is,” she says. “I’m big on trying to get back to a happy place.
“When it comes to wildlife, I can talk about it forever — even the bad stuff.”