Meet Durban’s Skye Meaker, photographer extraordinaire, Davos 2019’s youngest speaker

DAVOS — The subject of this episode had two bits of good fortune. First, to have parents who were mad about the bush. Second, to find his passion – wildlife photography – outrageously early, in his case even before he started attending school. Those twin pieces of fortune brought 16 year old Skye to the 2019 World Economic Forum annual meeting, via the unlikely route as the under 18 winner of the 45,000 entrant World Wildlife photographer competition. After placing some years ago, he had a dry run until the 2018 competition where his patiently acquired pic of a leopard he had followed for eight years scooped the top prize for this young Durbanite. The WEF invited him to Davos and his engagement alongside iconic Jane Goodall made him the youngest speaker at this year’s event. At around the same age as Grade 11 learner Skye Meaker is now, I had a life transforming experience sparked by an overseas trip. So was keen to discover whether the exposure to something as overwhelming as Davos would change him…we kick off the interview from the part in our chat where I asked Skye what he was likely to take home… – Alec Hogg

Davos 2019 – this coverage of the global conversation on change is brought to you by BrightRock, the first ever needs matched life insurance that changes as your life changes.

This is The Rational Perspective, I’m Alec Hogg. In today’s episode Skye Meaker, the youngest speaker at Davos 2019. The subject of this episode has had two bits of really good fortune, first he was well born, he has parents who were mad about the bush and could afford to take him into game reserves, like Mala Mala, his favourite. Second, he found his passion, wildlife photography outrageously early. In his case even before he started attending school. Those twin pieces of fortune brought 16-year-old Skye to the 2019 WEF Annual Meeting in Davos, and it came via an unlikely route. He is the world’s young wildlife photographer of the year for 2018, winner of a 45,000 entry competition. After placing in the competition some years ago he had a dry spell until 2018. But his patiently acquired picture of a leopard he had followed for 8-years scooped the top prize for this young Durbanite.

As a result, the WEF invited him to Davos and his engagements here include speaking alongside iconic chimpanzee lady, Jane Goodall. He was the youngest speaker on the agenda at this year’s event. At around the same age as grade-11 learner, Skye Meaker is now – I had a life transforming experience sparked by an overseas trip. So, I was keen to discover whether the exposure to something as overwhelming as Davos was going to change his path. Let’s pickup from the part of our chat, where I asked Skye what he was likely to take home?

Just experiencing that and learning that it’s not only my way of thinking but there’s hundreds of other ways of thinking on a certain and on different topics that I wasn’t even aware was such a big thing. Like I’ve just came back from a talk about how the pollution in the ocean has just increased dramatically over the past few years, and how we can now track the fishing boats and the big illegal ones. So, we can start helping to save our ocean now. So, learning about things that I didn’t know before was the whole reason that I came here and it was the whole reason that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience it all.

Do you think of the world differently to, say, your mum’s generation?

I say, definitely so. We are the ones that have grown up with the technology. Since the day I was born I’ve always had something digital in my hand. I’ve been fortunate enough to separate myself from my generation in a sense where I do disconnect myself from the rest of the world, social media wise. When I go and do my photography in nature but we, as the younger generation have a lot more ideas, time, and energy, compared to the older generations but we lack the experience and the knowledge, which is why I also came to represent the youth and to try and share that bond and that only if we work together we can actually make a better difference for our planet.

Skye, this competition that you won. That brought you to Davos, how many people enter it?

This year there were over 45-thousand entries. So, out of all that the top 100 gets selected, and out of that top 100 voters for the whole world representing nature and the beauty of it and conservation. There’s a category winner for every category so, I was fortunate to win the under 17 category.

Of the whole world?

Of the whole world and then out of that I won the whole entire category, which is the best under 18-photographer, for wildlife in the whole world.

What pictures did you send in?

I sent in 10 pictures, which is quite a touchy subject for me because I’ve placed the first year, I entered with a picture called ‘Vanishing Lion’ which talked about the harsh reality of how low the lion population in Africa was. Then since I haven’t been able to place, even though I’ve entered every year. Then last year I sent pictures, which I thought showed what I liked to see in nature. The beauty of nature and the intimacy with the animals too, because I want people to look at a photo once and say, that’s a good photo, but then look at it again and think, what does this photo mean? What is it trying to show? And that’s what I tried to show that year and I ended up winning the best under-18 photographer.

What animals?

So, for this year in particular, I focussed a lot on bird. I entered five birds, specifically the Blacksmith Plover. I had two pictures of it but the leopard. I’m very passionate about the big cats and specifically that of a leopard that actually won. The whole competition was a leopard that I’ve been photographing for the last eight years.

How do you get to have that ability to see these animals in the wild? You did mention to me early that your parents have encouraged you to go to the bush from a young age.

Well, I think it’s something where I’ve been fortunate enough that my parents are so passionate about it that it’s just a by product of me going on adventures with them that I’ve able to pursue my photography because it’s not something that every kid will like, ‘I want wildlife photography.’ So, it’s quite a unique situation for me. It’s something that I’ve been brought up and something that I’ve been fortunate to experience.

And your favourite part of the country?

My favourite part of the country is actually CT. I really love that place, but for wildlife photography in particular so, this is my favourite part in almost the entire world, Mala Mala Game Reserve. I find that the leopards are just beautiful and the interactions that you get are spectacular.

How do you take a good picture of a leopard?

Well, it’s actually quite a weird one because there are so many different leopards and from different areas so, they have different behaviours and different traits, and to try and capture that it’s quite difficult for a photographer. So, for me, I like to focus on what I would like to see in the moment and what I feel. So, the inspiration I get from seeing that leopard is how I try and portray in my photograph. So, in my winning picture I saw the peace and tranquillity of the moment, and that’s what I tried to capture.

It is art, isn’t it, and in art you try to give a story or try to give a message to people who are witnessing it or experiencing it. Do you always try and work something in?

Well, I started off just taking pictures to share memories with my family and friends but, as you said, photography. We don’t just paint, we paint with light. I tried to share what an artistic approach to, not really that artistic but I just want to show the true beauty of what nature is. My job is pretty easy, in a sense where I get to go out and see the beautiful plains of Africa. All I have to do is make it so that I can record it to the best of my ability so, that people that don’t get that opportunity can experience it for themselves.

You said, you didn’t watch David Attenborough being interviewed here by Prince William but a big part of his message was to say that the technology available today really opens up nature to the world. What technology do you use, apart from a camera?

So, obviously I have a cellphone, I’m a teenager, we do have to use that. But I do use computers a lot. Actually, at the school that I’m currently attending, Clifton College, we use our iPads predominantly to learn. We don’t use textbooks anymore. So, that’s more of a greener approach in a sense where it’s easier, it’s quicker, it’s more accessible and it’s one of those things I’ve been brought up with it so, it’s natural for me. So, I don’t really think of it as, I use this technology, and that technology. It’s just, ‘I use technology.’

But what I’m getting at is the propagating, if you like, of your pictures because clearly you don’t just take a picture and then just look at it yourself. You want people to see it. How do you do that?

So, there’s various competitions that I enter to get my pictures out there. I use social media, obviously, so Instagram is a big one for me but I like to show the people in person, it’s quite a weird thing for me. I have a website so obvious I try and get people…

You can tell us what the website is.

Okay, it’s skyemeaker.com so, it’s just my name and through there you can see all of my photos that I’ve taken throughout my journey as a wildlife photographer. I think something that’s really and unique to me and my website is that I do have photos from when I first started to the photos that I’m taking now so, you can almost follow along with the journey that I’ve had, over the past few years of my life.

What are you are you going to do when you finish school?

I’m going to go study BCom accounting.

No, I thought you’d be the next world wildlife professional photographer. What’s your passion really?

My passion and my love are nature and photography physically, but I’ve been told by my parents and it’s one of those things where photography is one of the hardest things to do, to pay the bills. And I don’t want to confuse my passion with something that I need to take photos of to pay the degree. Then pursue my photograph full time because I feel like, with my photography I only take a few good photos in a week, let’ say. But those few good photos are really good because I feel the inspiration that I get from the animal and from the environment and if I’m forced to take a photo every day that’s good, I don’t feel that inspiration. You’ll see that the quality of my work will just degrade so, that’s what I’m trying to accomplish by saying the best of both worlds and try and combine them together.

I guess that is always the artist dilemma and has been for a thousand years but, on the other hand, if you could start selling a few of your photos now, it might make the decision easier.

I have previously sold a couple of my photos. I’ve just auctioned a photo for The Make a Difference Foundation and that sold for $3k so, it definitely is an option for me but the time it takes and the money it takes to go to all of these places and to take the photos. It’s quite hard for a person to live almost a “Normal live.” Because the person that mentored me, Greg du Toit previously mentioned – he spends 11 months away from home and for me that is something, to a lesser extent I want to do, but I don’t want to be forced to have to go 11 months away from home without seeing people and living in a water hole until you get the photo that you want. Although I do want to get the best photos I can, it’s quite the dilemma.

Was that François Pienaar’s ‘Make Difference Foundation.’ How did they find you?

So, they contacted me originally. I’ve heard of his work previously, and it was one of those where I was going to approach them eventually, but thy approached me first, and they just asked a few questions, which I obviously said. It’s such a good foundation and it sold for quite a bit so, I got to see the feedback from it and I got to see the results from the actual foundation, which was something that was super special for me and since then I’ve been giving them a picture to auction off for their charity and this year they’ve just asked me for one of my leopard pictures specifically so, I’m in the process of sending that to them.

Skye, it’s quite extraordinary that you as the youngest person in Davos, are engaging closely with Jane Goodall and icons like that. Do you think it will change your life?

It’s quite weird because I’m so young, that I don’t really know what’s in store for me for the rest of my life. I know that I want to be doing something to better help nature and conservation and I do know I want to do photography but in terms of something like experiencing Davos, and WEF. I appreciate it a lot but I think I’ll appreciate it a lot more when I’m older and out of school and reflect back on it, thinking, ‘this is something that actually shaped what I’m doing today.

What about you’re your pals back home. What stories are you going to be telling them?

It’s actually quite weird because they’ve followed along, they’ve watched all of my links. They have been very supportive of me, I’ve met some pretty fancy people, I’ve done some pretty cool things, and I’ve got to see the snow so, that’s pretty cool and interesting for us because in Durban we are very hot all the time.

Just to close off with. David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, you’ve now met both of them, and engaged with both of them. What’s your thoughts on them?

Beautiful people and they are genuinely the most passionate people about nature and conservation I’ve ever met. They are so genuine that it almost inspires you to be the best person you can be and do the most that you can because throughout their lives they’ve made such a big difference and opened so many peoples’ eyes to problems and the beauty of nature. So, I want to follow in their footsteps as the next generation.

That was Skye Meaker, the world’s young, wildlife photographer of the year for 2018, and the youngest speaker at this year’s WEF Annual Meeting and, yes, he is just 16-years-old. This has been The Rational Perspective, until the next time, cheerio.

Davos 2019 – this coverage of the global conversation on change is brought to you by BrightRock, the first ever needs matched life insurance that changes as your life changes.