Pulling up to Brian and Sheree Segdbeer’s self-built home on Dartmoor, with Haytor on the doorstep and with the wind and rain lashing it down, I couldn’t help but think it was a house made for two wildlife photographers. A house built encompassing and surrounding the very best of nature.
The contrast between the Devonian weather outside and the interior of their house, which they use for the photo exhibitions, couldn’t have been starker. You are greeted by beautifully framed photos of elephants, big cats, birds and a variety of other animals on every wall. You would be forgiven for thinking you were walking through the African savannah.
Indeed, the quality of the images is so high, its like watching the animals live on some kind of David Attenborough documentary, rather than staring at picture taken a number of years ago. Wildlife photography is not something they have been doing their whole lives, however. Brian is self-taught, having originally taken it up as a hobby, while Sheree has learned a lot from him.
Although they both have a number of years of experience behind them now – including numerous trips to places like Botswana and Uganda – this was still very much a hobby rather than a profession until fairly recently.
As a keen amateur photographer myself, I couldn’t wait to get stuck into some of their stories. Sitting at their dining table, my first question was one I had to ask: to find out more about the photo over my left shoulder – a striking image of a lion’s head, so detailed you could have easily counted the individual hairs on his body if you didn’t have anything else to do on a Sunday afternoon.
“I presume that was a zoom lens”, I asked, tongue-in-cheek. “He was only about 15 foot away!”, Brian quickly replied.
Sheree took up the story of how they are able to get so close to these awe-inspiring Kings of the Jungle: “You are in big open sided trucks [in Africa], with just a canvas roof to keep the sun off, and the lions will just come right up to you. We are used to it now but, when we take guests with us, they are just frozen with fear while we carry on taking photos!
‘Lions see in two dimensional, while we see in three. They see the truck as a solid object, so they come and invariably just want to lie down in the shade of the truck! It’s the most incredible experience.” This is something they now manage to experience once or twice every year with regular trips to Africa.
But, at this point, I wanted to go back to the beginning and ask how all this started. “We both have always loved wildlife and both of us are from farming backgrounds. “Brian’s grandfather was into photography and [Brian] has his grandfather’s old collection of cameras. I think it’s in his blood!”
‘I have always loved wildlife and have always loved taking pictures. Then Brian and I got together, and so I had a very good teacher.”
In fact, before the creation of BRS Images, Brian and Sheree’s previous professions could not have been more of a contrast to the open plains of Africa: Brian had previously worked in construction, including work in such jobs as tree surgery. Though this had never stopped him from “always being out and about taking pictures.”
Sheree, on the other hand, had, until very recently, worked in
Ullacombe Farm Shop. “We used to take pictures and people would say when they visited ‘oh that’s lovely’, or ‘could you do me one of them?’. And that’s how it started.”
Brian used to have to go to a gallery to get the framing done for their early customers. Then one day the gallery mentioned there was a national framing competition, but they needed an image to frame and they chose one of Brian’s photos. The framed picture would go on to win regional section of the competition. “That’s when I realised maybe I could do something. However, this was very early on and life gets in the way.”
It was just after they had finished their house in the early 2010s, that they decided that this passion was now going to become their main source of income and employment. A risk that many people would love to take, but don’t always have the courage to follow through. “I learned how to do picture framing because if you’re selling someone a picture, you want to give them a finished product.”
Brian also wanted to take the control of the printing process after a frustrating issue where a printer had printed the same image of his three times, with each one looking completely different to the last.
“I just thought: ‘I can’t have this’. I needed every picture to look exactly the same.”
Brian was no longer going to be just a photographer: he was a printer and framer as well. This was the moment a business was born. The business aspect of their work, however, cannot compare to the exhilaration that comes from their photography, particularly their visits to Africa. In fact, when I asked them where they had visited, they reeled off a list of places that would make up many students’ ideal gap years: they have visited Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania a dozen or so times alone. “When we first went to Africa, it was going to be a once in a lifetime. We’ve now been every year since. We are hooked.
‘Botswana is a very big place but the animals and the landscapes are evolving and changing, you see a lot of the same things but you also see things change. When we go on our own, we will sometimes go out and find some lions, watch them all morning, go back and get lunch and then go watch them again all evening!”
Having gone so often, they now take guests with them on occasion, who do not always appreciate sitting in the same spot for too long!
“It’s like if you were into surfing. You’d think nothing of going to sit on a beach watching surfers for six hours but that doesn’t mean your wife will want to though!”
In what I imagine is a crowded field, I asked both Brian and Sheree which moments stick out when they think about all their trips to the continent: “One that I vividly remember”, Sheree said, “we were on Savuti Marsh – which used to be one of the biggest lakes in the world until the tectonic plates shifted and it dried out. Then in 2013, the plates shifted again, the channel filled-up, so all the animals came back and in 2015 or 2016, we saw these vast, vast herds of animals. Thousands of elephants, cape buffalo, zebra, antelope – you name it.”
At this moment, I couldn’t help but think of the opening scene of
The Lion King. Anyway, on with the story: “Then one time, there was this pride of lions who spotted a herd of elephants…drinking at the waterhole. There was this mother and baby about 100 yards behind [the main herd] and we thought ‘oh God, here we go’ as the lions sort of perked up.
‘The mum [elephant] drank and went to follow the rest of them but the baby was still there. But two of the lionesses got straight up and got straight in behind the baby so it couldn’t see them.
‘They jumped up and grabbed onto its backend and pulled it right down. Its trunk came right up in the air and it squealed. It was horrible.
‘Mum, about 100 metres away, whirled round and came charging back over, trumpeting. Then further along, the whole herd turned around and came thundering back. The ground was shaking.
‘The lionesses quickly jumped off the baby, who then charged past mum to the herd which totally surrounded it. They had the baby in the middle and all their backsides were in, facing outward to protect it.
‘It was so amazing to see the extremes: the predators and the preservers of life.”
At the end of Sheree’s story, I almost forgot to ask another question – I was so enthralled with the detail and vividness of the anecdote. This story is a small, but telling, snapshot of life at the heart of the world’s wildlife: Brutal. Unforgiving. Natural. Real. Undoubtedly, finding yourself in the middle of this environment carries some risk, something Sheree and Brian haven’t been immune to. “We were going along this sand road, and one of our guests said ‘Stop! Stop! There’s lion tracks there.’
‘Our guide gets out and goes around to the front of the truck and said ‘Oh yeah there is – and they are really fresh.’ We go about 11 yards further on before Sue, one of our guests, shouts that she can see a lion.We stopped and we were about 15 feet away from this lion! He was quite happy and was just checking us out.
‘Then for some reason I sneezed. I have never done it before. He did not like that. He got up and charged at us and stopped about a foot away. He really looked like he was going to come up onto the truck. Anyway, he eventually turned around, plopped his tail up and just walked away.”
As I am sure readers can imagine: the calmness of Sheree and Brian was in stark contrast to the guests of theirs on their first trip…
After more than a dozen trips to Africa, with hundreds of thousands of images taken over the years, you would have expected that when I asked Brian about his greatest achievement in photography, the anecdote would have surrounded a picture demonstrating the unrelenting power or harshness of the environment they photograph most. However, the answer was a lot less dramatic: “I had always wanted to get a picture of big, female cats greeting each other because when they do it forms a natural heart shape.
‘It’s a very endearing and emotional picture and I had never got it.
It took three years or four years to get it. [Up until then], every time we saw lions there would be people taking photos of big males and I would be looking at the females to see if it would happen and it didn’t. Or someone was in the way or it was the wrong angle or I was in the wrong place.”
Eventually though, Brian would find himself in the right place and the right time with two female cats to which his inner voice couldn’t help but say ‘HERE WE GO!’.
“I took three pictures and it was all over.”
This is the difficulty that wildlife photographers face. Had Brian missed this chance, he may, to this date, not have captured this elusive image. A second or two earlier or later, and it’s gone. For Brian and Sheree, however, this is more than a job or a hobby. This was demonstrated most clearly when I asked them about their goals going forward: “We really want to do an exhibition just on elephants and give some of the proceeds to a charity like anti-poaching patrols. Unfortunately, it is true that Africa is very corrupt. While money does get there [to stop issues like poaching], how much is actually left of it by the time it gets to those on the ground? I don’t know.”
In this simple, short answer – you could tell their wildlife photography means more to them than an income. “There’s always things we want to see which we haven’t yet seen and that’s what keeps us going.”
Indeed, if there was ever proof that ‘Do what you love and you never work a day in your life’ is more than just a nice saying – then Brian and Sheree are it.
For all those that wish to learn more about Brian and Sheree and their work, they will be hosting an exhibition at their house on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd November, to which everyone is invited.
Brian Sedgbeer, Journey’s End Green Lane, Ilsington,
Haytor, Devon UK TQ13 9RB tel: 07944402762 email: