Robert Garner, a local photographer and mammal keeper at the Fort Worth Zoo, dreamed of going to Africa ever since he was a kid. He finally realized that dream in 2009, when a group of do-gooders hired him to travel to the Congo to shoot pictures for a book. The Oklahoma-based humanitarian group that employed him works in conjunction with the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund, an international gorilla conservationist group.
Now he’s trying to get back to Africa. Members of the group he traveled with in 2009 are headed back to drop off humanitarian aid and medical supplies to several orphanages there. Garner wants to help them out and relive his experience, but he’ll have to foot the bill himself this time. To raise funds, he’s offering his photography services and selling his prints and other merchandise on his website.
“I Fell in love with the country and saw how desperate the situation was over there,” he said. “The last time I went, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back. I figured I survived it, so I shouldn’t press my luck.”
But the opportunity was just too good to pass up.
Garner, who has been to the South American rain forests multiple times, usually sticks to photographing nature and occasionally moonlights as a band photographer for acts such as Katsuk. But in the spirit of getting back to the Congo, he has already lined up maternity pictures, child portraits, and other subjects he probably never imagined he’d be shooting.
His last trip made a huge impact on him. The region has been embroiled in war since 1996. More than 7 million people have died in that country — more than the collective casualties of World War II. He was able to witness first-hand the destructive force of the war and meet the people affected by it. He also traversed some of the most remote regions in the world with gorillas and other animals featured in H. Rider Haggard novels in their native setting.
But his trip wasn’t exactly a stroll through a nature preserve. The war is pervasive. Though he never seriously felt threatened, he said that once in Africa he was constantly detained and questioned by armed guards from both rebel forces and the national army.
“We’d get detained and have to bribe our way out,” he said.
Both fighting forces, he said, want to appear to be the good guy, so they tend to leave Westerners alone (once lightening their pockets).
Garner figures that $5,000 will get him to the Congo. That number figures in the exhaustive traveling itinerary, which includes a plane trip to Washington D.C, another plane ride to London, a flight from London to Nairobi, Kenya, another plane to Rawanda, then a car to the outer reaches of the Congo, then another plane, and another car ride.
Once in Africa, he’ll mostly be staying at the orphanages that the group is stocking with supplies. He said he also wants to go on a nature safari through Kenya if time and money allow it.
Part of the money he is seeking will also go towards a Gorilla tracking permit. Local authorities only allow a certain number of naturalists, photographers, and ape-lovers within a certain distance of the gorillas at one time. And they only get an hour of gorilla-gawking.
On his website he’s selling prints anywhere from $10-$150, and various other custom merchandise such as mugs, key chains, and iphone covers with his pictures on it. Anyone can donate money through his website as well.
“My dad just ordered an apron with a picture of a gorilla on it,” he said.
He has until the end of May to raise the funds.