Photographer Travels World for Work, But Her Heart Is in Ship Bottom – The SandPaper
When Chris Dei prepares for her commute to work, it will include a plane change at a European airport and take her seven time zones to the east, to Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. An internationally known and acclaimed wildlife photographer, she really is always working because she’s never without her camera. She feels beauty is all around her.
A career such as this, both exotic and dangerous, requires a clear itinerary, with a lot of advance planning before each foray. Logistics for her overseas trips can take months to plan: travel documents, ground crew, support crew for traveling, lodging, food, ground travel vehicles and camera crew support personnel. Then there are different parks to visit to see different wildlife doing different things at certain times of the year. And a good scout is vital to making any shoot a success.
Due to the unstable political environment since the last election in Kenya, Dei has not been there since 2017 and took the time to address some health issues. “I’m giving myself the summer off before throwing on a 30-pound backpack for a trek through two airports; I’ve just had a little back surgery. But I’m exhibiting in Kenya before Christmas, so definitely (she’ll be back to work) before the end of the year.”
It has been a longer-than-usual break in shoots, and Dei is getting restless. “I don’t particularly like not being able to pick up the phone and book a flight on the spur of the moment,” she said. “But I have put a lot of stress on my body doing this work, and it does take its toll. I will say there’s no place I’d rather be than Long Beach Island while I’m waiting, though.”
Dei has been a lifelong LBI lover, starting with family vacations here.
“I came to know the Island as a child, when my mom and dad would pack up the station wagon for the highlight of the summer – our vacation on LBI. The excitement built to a crescendo as boxes of sheets, bedding and cookware were loaded into the car. My dad was a police officer in New York and my mom a full-time homemaker, as was customary in those days, so the effort to save up enough money to take us to LBI for two weeks was Herculean – but he always managed it, and we always had a magical summer. We stayed in Beach Haven, close to Fantasy Island and the Lucy Evelyn, where we (my sister and I) could spend our entire summer allowance in an afternoon.
“My mom and dad always dreamed of having a house here one day, but on one salary – and a policeman’s at that – it was never possible. So we came for two weeks every summer and waited for those two weeks all year.”
Dei and her husband made that dream come true in early 2015 with the purchase of a second home in Ship Bottom. They hope to retire there. “My husband is a civil engineer, and in the early years of our marriage we lived briefly in places as remote as the jungles of South America and the deserts of Saudi Arabia. But New York was always home base, and LBI is where we headed with our own children every summer. My second son even learned to surf here and became so enchanted with ‘the life,’ he eventually moved to Hawaii and surfed Pipeline. But we all always came back to LBI and secretly dreamed of one day having a place to call our own.”
Dei, who always has a camera with her, feels just as passionately about the environment and wildlife on Long Beach Island as in Africa. She can be found in the nearby marshes and estuaries looking for shots just as avidly as she pursues them overseas.
Photography was not always her métier. “My early training was in classical music, and I met my husband when I was a student at the Conservatory of Music in Madrid,” she explained. “After we married, we began traveling for his work, and since it was impractical to move a piano to the places we were living, I bought a camera as an easily transportable creative alternative. Seeing the world through the lens of a camera was an epiphany. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would change my life. I guess that was the beginning.
“There is no doubt in my mind that LBI played a pivotal role in my fascination with, and desire to experience, strange lands and faraway places. Countless hours sitting on the beach as a child, wondering what lay beyond that horizon, later became an insatiable desire to experience it. And the most exotic place in my mind was always Africa.”
Dei’s work as a professional photographer is vastly different from the average job.
“I didn’t work as a commercial photographer, so there was no ‘first job’ to speak of. Back then, before anyone with a cell phone became a photographer, photography was held to a much higher standard. Photographers were represented by agents that acted as the bridge between professional work and the clients who needed it. They took a commission for representing us, and we got a check at the end of the month for sales made worldwide. I was also very busy doing headshots and promo shots for performing artists, mainly from Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music in New York. So that’s how I worked for a long time.”
In addition to her photo safaris, Dei is also busy exhibiting her work several times a year, worldwide. In 2017 alone she showed in The GR Gallery in Stamford, Conn.; was a finalist in the Soho Alternative Process Competition at Soho Gallery in New York; in “Trees,” at the 1650 Gallery in Los Angeles, Calif.; and at the New York Photo Show in Times Square. In other years, she has had multiple shows across Europe and back in her beloved Africa.
The printing of selected images is as vital a part of the creative process as the shoot – and can take longer. Dei can return from Africa with 8,000 to 10,000 images, which need to be cataloged, keyworded, archived and backed up. Post-production can take as long as six months. Then comes the printing process. Dei feels the photo paper is as important as the shot itself and, in many ways, influences the printing process. She works with Belgian-born Antoon Taghon as her printer of choice. He uses the old-world techniques of letterpress printing on handmade papers to showcase her work. With this process, the reproduction of the elephant’s wrinkled skin or the rhino’s beard bristle is “tack sharp” in her prints.
Dei does not stop there. She also uses custom framer Michael Fitzsimmons, who takes the print and hand decks it at the start of the framing process. The print is then allowed to float in the frame above the rag back mat. The final outer frame is strong but minimal, statement-edged with a carved, repeating elephant motif and finished in tones that accent the photo, achieving a museum-quality product, ready to display.
Dei’s mission statement sums up her philosophy on her art: “There is a generally perceived notion that an image is created during a thoughtful exchange of energy between the photographer and the subject. But for me, thought is not the main operating instrument of consciousness at that point in time. Thought slows down, boundaries melt, and there enters a profound stillness where everything disappears. I have never found words adequate to convey the timelessness of that moment. Only silence. And the experience can only be partially relayed by the image that results. I’m simply a vehicle. The essence of the image comes from somewhere else that, really, I have very little to do with.”
To learn more, visit chrisdei.com.
— Judy Collins