Oh my. Today's interview is truly one of the most wonderful, though provoking profiles we have shared... hands down one of my absolute favourites. Incredible Sydney based wildlife photographer Leila Jeffreys answered all our questions in the most generous, thoughtful and candid way - both Lisa and I have been completely transfixed by her responses. After learning a little about her backstory, it's easy see how Leila's formative years growing up surrounded by nature in Papua New Guinea, India, Perth and Collie, WA have influenced her mesmerising, meticulously detailed portraits of Australian native birds.
Leila sources her subjects via a network of bird lovers, wildlife carers and educators, and has become known within these circles for her respectful creative practice and her deep affection for animals. Along the way, since first launching this form of practice, Leila says she has developed an even deeper respect for wildlife, and is now a passionate advocate for the protection of endangered birds, and education about birds of prey.
Leila typically spends two years developing a body for work for one exhibition, and her next show is nearly upon us. 'Prey' is a series of spectacular portraits of Australian birds of Prey, opening next week at Olsen Irwin Gallery in Sydney. Captured on a large format Phase One camera, the detail in these works is truly mesmerising. The artworks are also printed at human size - 'so that they can be appreciated as equals' Leila explains. 'I think that if you stare into the eyes of a regal bird of prey, you begin to feel a deeper connection and understanding of the species'.
DO CHECK IT OUT if you're in Sydney. There is something so magical about seeing these super high res photographs in person. Leila's unique ability to capture the most 'human' expression in each of her feathered subjects really must be seen to be fully appreciated! She is a master. What's clear, too, is Leila's great affinity with her subjects - she really is a 'bird whisperer' of sorts. 'When I was editing my first budgie shoot the images took my breath away' she recalls of one of her very first bird shoots. 'Here were birds, immaculately groomed, looking directly down the lens with pride'.
We were very lucky to capture Leila behind the scenes recently, photographing a dearly loved rescue magpie called 'Penguin'! Penguin lives in Sydney with the Bloom family, and has become so tame, she actually fell asleep on her perch during Leila's photoshoot! The resulting photographs capture Penguin's unique personality and quirky almost 'human' traits so perfectly - we love the incredible image where Penguin 'plays dead' for the camera, lying comfortably on her back with legs in the air! You can follow Penguin's antics with her new found human family on instagram (@penguinthemagpie) - it is truly a MUST FOLLOW - the most amazing instagram account ever!
Prey by Leila Jeffreys
10th to 28th September
Olsen Irwin Gallery
63 Jersey Road
The common thread that I can see looking back on my childhood is that we were always surrounded by wildlife and we always had pets.
I was born in Papua New Guinea and lived in Goroka, which is a small town in the Eastern Highlands Province. My earliest memory was Albert, an orphaned possum, who was given to my family by a neighbour. He was very much part of the family, although being nocturnal he would make a racket at night. I remember so clearly how buttery soft his fur was, and the delight in having him sit on my lap.
In Perth, where I primarily grew up, our Dad was the type of person who would stop the car to help anyone who had broken down, or to help injured wildlife. He was always helping. One memory in particular was when the lake near our house in Como was deliberately poisoned, Dad went out and gathered as many sick birds as he could and we nursed them until the lake was clean. Not all the birds survived and that experience gave me great empathy for animals.
A few years later my Mum (who also loved animals) spotted a beautiful house in Riverton which was advertised as a bird sanctuary and we moved there. The house had a large atrium and we had budgies that flew freely in it, but I remember one budgie in particular would sleep with me. I set up a little spot for it to roost in my room but instead it would fly up to my pillow preferring to sleep cheek to cheek.
I was always quite in tune with the needs of animals and remember worrying about our budgies being bored when my brother and I were at school, so I taped recorded their singing and would play it for them… they were essentially having a conversation with themselves but it worked. They were fascinated by it, you could tell by their head tilt, their intense concentration and then the subsequent break out into song.
Living in Riverton was pretty idyllic. We had a green canoe that my brother, friends and I would take out onto the river, which was trimmed by paper-bark trees and dotted with mud islands. We would paddle from one island to the other having all sorts of adventures.
Then there was the ‘farm’. This is a pocket of bushland left to my Dad and my Uncle by our Granddad. We spent many weekends camping here, with the call of the Black Cockatoos being the soundtrack to the bush. Since my Dad died, the property belongs to my brother and me, so we have placed a covenant on the land to protect it forever as it’s an important habitat for endangered Carnaby, Baudin and Red-Tailed Cockatoos as well as a home for quokkas which are rare on the mainland.
Mum was born in India so we visited family there often and had one year in particular living in a small village called Nasrapur: that was my jungle book experience. We lived in a house that bordered the forest. My parents arranged for a wonderful retired school teacher called Barbara Lister to come to teach my brother and me. During school hours she was ‘Mrs Lister ‘and after 3pm she was ‘Aunty B’. Apart from following the normal school curriculum she tapped into my love of nature and lessons included making candles out of beeswax, observing the way Kingfishers would catch their food on the river, making a small garden with our own irrigation system (which was devoured by the local buffaloes to my great disappointment).
The wildlife there was extraordinary. There were the regular monkeys that would sit on our balcony but we would stumble across chameleons and of course an enormous variety of birds. We even once saw two wild cobras doing their mating dance in a field; I remember feeling no fear, only excitement at witnessing something so special.
Dad had a Pentax Spotmatic SLR and he was a great photographer. I’m not sure if that’s where my interest started, but I did have a lovely teacher in high school who taught us photography and from that point on I was always taking photos.
After Uni I really had no idea what I wanted to do, but I was obsessed with music, so a few friends and I moved to London and worked in a record shop; we had a ball. We lived with a guy that wrote for Mojo Magazine and my education of music old and new flourished there. During this time I was always the one with camera in hand, documenting our lives.
I returned from the UK to work at 78 Records in Perth, which is a great, independently owned record shop, and it was during my time there that I started to feel like photography could be a career for me. I researched and found that the TAFE course in Ultimo, Sydney was known to be the best, and I had friends that were living in Sydney. From memory there were 1,500 applications and only 30 spots available, so I was very fortunate to get in.
After my studies I tried to work as a freelance photographer thinking that I could combine my love of music and photography to specialise in band photography. I got some photos in Rolling Stone Magazine and NME etc. but to be painfully honest I was terribly nervous photographing people, so I changed career direction and worked my way to becoming a photo editor in magazines, and then took on more managerial roles.
Yet the photography bug never quite left me. By now, my husband and I had bought a flat. I was really enjoying making it a home and I got quite obsessed with the idea of photographing a budgie printed large for the wall as a nod to my childhood.
That set me off on a two year project working with The Budgerigar Society of NSW and a brilliant man called Warren Wilson who helped me trial different ways to photograph the birds in a studio style setting. I would design different types of ‘bird studios’ and get my Dad to make them for me. In the end the design that worked was like a miniature photographer’s studio…little door for a budgie to walk through, a perch for it to hop onto, a back roll of paper as the backdrop behind him, windows for me to light and one wall being black cloth with a hole for the camera lens. It was just a matter of getting the budgies used to it. It was important to make the budgie relax because great portraits can only be made when a bird is comfortable.
What started as a personal project led to an exhibition thanks to Karra Rees from CCP in Melbourne (Centre for Contemporary Photography), who sent my work onto a gallery, which took me down the path that I am currently on.
The transition to having birds as my subject matter came at me from so many directions, primarily my childhood experiences, but also as an adult my interest in birds just grew and grew – I travelled to Andalucía, Spain to hang out with an ornithologist and learn about the birds that live and migrate there.
I’ve been to Christmas Island (CI) a couple of times and attended their excellent ‘bird and nature week’, tagging birds and listening to people like Tim Low (Australia’s leading biologist and author of several books including ‘Where song began’ – my favourite book at the moment), Janos Henickie (scientist) who initiated the CI project that studies several highly endangered seabirds on the island and Mark Holdsworth who is dedicated to bird conservation and runs the Orange-Bellied Parrot Recovery project, and was one of four Tasmanians nominated last year for Australian of the year.
Through my experiences of being in the company of these kinds of inspiring people as well as the wildlife carers I have met along the way, I developed an even deeper respect for wildlife. That propelled me into photographing the personalities of our feathered friends.
When I was editing my first budgie shoot the images took my breath away. Here were birds, immaculately groomed, looking directly down the lens with pride. It was a very exciting time.
While I loved the budgerigar project, they were aviary birds, and I am very much driven by our native wildlife, so my next project was working with wildlife carers. I spent two years photographing Australia’s Cockatoo species.
I am always observing birds, watching and learning about them and the different species groups, understanding why they evolved the way they did. It’s through this observation and interaction that I see their character and that’s what I try to capture.
I met a wonderful bird called Penguin the magpie who lives in Newport NSW. My photos of Penguin were taken for fun.
Penguin had fallen from the nest and was rescued by the Bloom family. She is free to come and go, and has made their home her home. She is very protective of her adopted family. She will squawk and protest if you are a new visitor but once she realises that you’re a welcome guest she will happily hang out and play with you.
Spending the day with her was so much fun that I arranged to go back and visit the following day with my husband and son. My son loved how Penguin would lie on her back for a tummy scratch. The Blooms are extraordinary people, Cameron is a professional photographer and he and his wonderful wife Sam have raised three gorgeous outdoorsy sons, and now one charismatic magpie. Penguin has the dream life. While other maggies are roosting in the trees through the cold hard winter she chooses to warm herself by the fire.
Another extraordinary bird is Soren The Wedge -Tailed Eagle, who is in my upcoming exhibition. Wedgies are Australia’s largest bird of prey, and initially meeting Soren was an intimidating experience because he is very commanding. I remember him getting up to fly off and the gust of wind produced by his wingbeat almost bowled me over… but then as I spent time with him I discovered that he’s a gentle giant with a comical swagger and bounce when he walks.
He is looked after by Paul Mander from Broadwings Raptor and Training Conservation Centre near the Gold Coast, and has a very important job. He is used as part of a conservation programme to deter other species of birds from destroying property and kicking their sugar addiction (which comes from raiding sugar packets left of balconies in hotels - it is very bad for their little livers to process). The lovable Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo is a common offender. Soren comes along, camera attached to his back and he flies around the flock of cockies. What is clever is that he never harms them, it’s just his presence. The flock knows there’s a predator in town so they move on.
I think the other reason why meeting him was so special to me, was because Wedgies are only protected in two States in Australia, and have been seriously persecuted through intentional trapping, shooting and poisoning for over 100 years, as well as losing their trees to land clearing. I always fall for the underdog. Farmers think they steal their livestock, but education is seriously needed here as studies show that only 3% of a wedge-tailed eagles diet is from livestock. Primarily they live off carrion (decaying meat) and in Australia we have no vultures to clean up the mess so the role of a wedgie actually prevents the spread of disease. They are a farmer’s best friend and the younger farming generation is starting to learn about this.
There is just so much diversity in Australian birds. Some birds of prey are typically stern and formidable, while others are shy and affectionate. Overall there is a more serious feel to this show than the previous two, simply because that reflects the character of the birds.
This series does have some colourful characters like Pepper, a gorgeous Southern Boobook Owl who was rescued and rehabilitated, yet continues to return to Broadwings every time she is released; a cheeky Kestrel called Bandit with a penchant for stealing tea bags; and a rescued Goshawk called Trinity, a victim of habitat destruction as a result of land clearing; plus many more.
I photographed the series with a large format Phase One camera so the detail captured is stunning and I print my artworks at human size so that they can be appreciated as equals. I think that if you stare into the eyes of a regal bird of prey you begin to feel a deeper connection and understanding of the species.
It takes me two years to complete a series. One of the reasons for this is because I like to work with wildlife carers and rescue birds as I want to tell their story. If a bird is injured and comes into care I photograph it before it is released back into the wild. I also work with permanent care birds that can’t be released due to injury, and I work with wildlife parks and zoos. It’s a slow process and an expensive one as different species are only found in certain parts of Australia. It’s not uncommon for me to jump on a plane just to photograph one bird with all my equipment in tow.
A long deadline is also required because I get so emotionally involved. To decide what ends up in a show is a combination of an emotional connection that I feel with a bird having spent time with them, and the composition has to work, and then it also has to fit into the series. There are many portraits that I love that I let go for the greater good of the show.
The set up varies depending on the subject, there’s my portable bird studio; if I work with Josh Cook from Birdwork NSW (he’s also a WIRES carer) he is Dr Doolittle. There’s something about his gentle, kind nature that wild birds just listen to him. They stay on the perch in an open room, it’s very sweet to witness. Phil Payne over at Eagle Heritage in Margaret River, WA is another gentle carer that I think speaks ‘bird of prey’ as the birds will sit for him.
I was also spoiled this time around too because Paul Mander from Broadwings (who I am convinced is more ‘bird of prey’ than human - as the birds always look to him for instruction) built me a shed which I used as a studio for all my QLD trips. Of course sometimes you just get lucky and meet subjects like Penguin that are just one of the guys on set helping out on the day. Actually I remember Penguin was so relaxed she started to fall asleep on the perch… that’s happened to me a few times.
There are varying levels of interaction with the birds. Some I spend a lot of time with, and I photograph them over a year, others I meet only once due to the fact that I have to fly in and out on the same day.
The actual process of taking their portrait is never longer than 30 minutes at a time as I don’t want to tire the birds out. I am always guided by the carers I work with.
It can vary so much. If I’m very lucky at the break of dawn I go bird watching with a friend – it is a special way to start the day being amongst the trees observing the wildlife.
There is always admin work, in particular emails which can be hard to keep on top of, as well as updating the status of my print orders, paying bills… I’m always editing photo shoots, reviewing test prints, trialing different portraits, editioning prints and then rolling, packing and arranging delivery.
Visiting my wildlife carer friends helps break the monotony of the admin work but without a doubt the best work day for me is when I’m actually on a shoot, although often that means travelling which entails a lot of preparation and planning first.
1. BirdLife Australia quarterly magazine. Beautiful wildlife photos and fascinating articles - they break news like the discovery of the Night Parrot (Australia’s most mysterious bird that had not been seen alive since 1912) recently found by Queensland naturalist John Young after a fifteen year quest.
2. Australian Geographic for its photography and stories about natural Australia and Australian people doing extraordinary things.
3. OzAtlas – Atlas of Living Australia, a free app in collaboration with all Australian Museums and the Commonwealth Government to create a national database of Australia’s flora and fauna. It allows users to submit species occurrence records and images and is a wonderful source of inspiration.
4. Pizzey & Knight Birds of Australia Digital App, which I use to identify birds, learn about them and listen to their unique calls.
5. Instagram. I follow artists, designers, wildlife carers and birds like Penguin who have their own page.
Photographer Trent Parke for his emotive images, photographer Simon Davidson for documenting a world so beautifully that I don’t know about. Bianca Chang for her work with paper.
Vincent my son, he’s a kind boy and he loves animals!
Getting the cover for Australian Geographic Magazine.
A dream project would mean that budget would not constrain ideas. If that was the case I would love to work on a worldwide endangered bird species series. Photographing one bird from each country to highlight the importance of caring for all species because they play an integral role in the health of the planet.
After my exhibition I am going to MONA in Hobart with some girlfriends, I can’t wait!
Marrickville where my husband, son and I live. James and I have lived here for over ten years, and while it is seriously lacking in trees it is a suburb with an interesting mix of people that includes lots of creative types and hard working folk. Give it time and I hope the trees will return to make it a great neighbourhood.
Mamak in China Town, they make the best roti in town.
I’m an early riser. I try to do some form of physical activity in the morning. Then usually just hanging out with James and Vincent and unfortunately there’s always a stack of housework to get back on top of after a busy week.
Irrawong Reserve, Pittwater. Bushland only 22kms from Sydney CBD with walking tracks, a waterfall, wildflowers, sugargliders and cacophony of birdsong… and if you’re very lucky one Noisy Pitta that stops in to say hello on his migration path every year.