Growing up on a secluded farm in Zimbabwe, noted wildlife photographer, Melonie Eva never had an inkling she would one day make a living with a camera.
A recent resident of the 108 Mile Ranch, her young life in Africa was filled with fearsome animals, the atrocities of the Rhodesian Bush War and just plain survival.
In a way, it prepared her for an exciting, and often dangerous career, chasing down wild animals across the globe, with a camera.
Melonie, 36, has been published in National Geographic, Africa Geographic, several hunting and fishing publications, on calendars and postcards, among a long and impressive list of publications. She has also won several awards for her work, including one from Africa Wild and Nature’s Best Photography.
Noting it’s comparatively early in her career to have achieved what she has, and she says she owes it to unique circumstances, a bit of luck, and her agent – world-renowned photographer, Carol Polich – who Melonie says drew from her own mistakes to send Melonie down the right channels.
Melonie got her first camera at the age of seven as a reward from her photographer father, Kenneth Eva, for winning a running marathon. The simple point-and-shoot camera came with a large cumbersome flash, which needed bulbs replaced constantly, but it served her well, producing snapshots of life on the farm and promotional photos of her father’s produce, which were sent to distant buyers.
Those photos later parlayed into commercial photography offers from a number of companies.
Photographing wildlife was natural for Melonie who says she grew up on the back of a Land Rover, manoeuvring around elephants and other magnificent animals of the African wilds.
Her family lived off the land, hunting for their meat, but in harmony with nature and with a strong belief in good conservation practices.
Her mother, Priscilla Eva, always seemed to have injured or orphaned wild animals in the house, healing their wounds and nurturing them with food and love.
Priscilla learned her veterinary skills during the Rhodesian Bush War, when she was given medical training for humans in order to help neighbours in times of emergency. Melonie says attacks on farms were frequent during those days and her mom would be called to tend to the injured, with her children in tow.
Her own father was shot and severely wounded in 1979, and it sent him into a coma. He awoke six months later when his wife was in labour.
They were dangerous times, but work on the farm had to proceed. When her mom had work to do with the tractor, she’d hide her children in the bush with their two Australian cattle dogs, and Melonie’s brother armed with a gun. Her mom had the baby strapped to herself, and a gun within reach as well.
Melonie’s familiarity with the African bush land and its animals naturally led her to managing a safari area. During this time, she took on the responsibility of rescuing and raising two orphan black maned lion cubs. The pair, which she named Tala and Gareth, lived in her home until the age of one, clawing and playing as domestic kittens do, but with far more damaging results.
Another of her notable rescues was of her future agent, Polich, who had her vehicle hopelessly stuck in the mud while out photographing on her own in the African wild.
Melonie winched her free, but over the course of the next few days, she also bailed her out of several other predicaments.
Among Polich’s many troubles was, she had been robbed. As a measure of safety, Melonie offered to take her on safari on her family’s farm, where she led Polich to photographic treasures, including dinosaur fossils and elephants.
The two became friends and business associates, then Polich discovered Melonie had a talent for photography, made evident by pictures which hung on her walls at home. She offered to be her mentor and agent, and so began Melonie’s career in photography.
“It’s so hard to get into the industry normally. I just happened to rescue an old lady in the mud.”
Since meeting, the pair have gone on a photo safari every other year, interrupted in 2007 when Melonie nearly burned to death in a gasoline-fuelled fire.
One arm was considered for amputation and she lost a lung in the accident. The next two years were spent in rehabilitation, and the medical bills piled up.
This time Polich came to her friend’s rescue. The pair collaborated on a book of their photographs, Portraits of Paradise, which sold 12,000 copies, and part of the proceeds were used to pay her bills.
When it comes to photography, Melonie considers herself a purist in a world where good quality cameras are inexpensive, anyone can take a decent shot with a cell phone, and photos are regularly manipulated with digital image editing software.
“Photography is losing its pure form and becoming graphic design. I don’t use Photoshop. I sit in the field as if I’m using film.”
She chooses to chase the perfect lighting conditions and wait for, “that goose-bump moment,” when a leopard or something else spectacular appears in her sights.
“Then I’ll shoot like crazy, be it one minute, or whatever. That’s what makes the days of waiting worthwhile.”
While on photo safari, she’s been charged by a young bull elephant; had a lion brush by her tent and have its steamy, rank breath penetrate the fabric beside her face; been caught in sand storms; and worked in 40 C – both above and below zero.
It speaks of the lengths she must go to for the extraordinary shots she demands of herself.
What she regards as her “Wow” image is one of a bison in a frigid blizzard; she calls it Survivor. It won 11th place in a photo contest, among 35,000 submissions, and has sold several copies.
Her most successful has been Aslan, a shot of a lion sitting in a bush of pink flowers, which she says has attracted considerable attention. Both will be featured in a collection of Melonie’s work she calls, Untamed Expressions, which she is showing at Parkside Art Gallery, April 26-May 25.
There will be 48 images on display in the gallery, and at the opening reception, scheduled for April 16, from 6 to 9 p.m., she will have several of her publications out for viewing, along with a selection of prints, postcards, note cards and lens cloths with photo prints.
Melonie is looking forward to speaking with people about her images, and will also make herself available at the gallery during the same weekend to assist people with the use of their cameras and answer more questions about her work.