Nilah and the elephant..the story behind the image


Meet Nilah…the wishful elephant rider.

Nilah is seven and she would like to be a zookeeper when she grows up. Her favourite animals are whales and elephants…and she would love to ride her elephant to school.

I had really enjoyed the work that I did over 2011 photographing 69 children around the region for the book I produced “Children of the Wairarapa”.  I realised very quickly with this project that children could totally immerse themselves in an activity that they loved doing, or that they were passionate about. I mean, it makes sense – and I guess that could be said for any of us really couldn’t it! The fantastic thing is that children (and adults alike!) can often forget they have a camera focussed on them, and totally get into the mode of the person or character that they want to be. For the book these concepts grew from discussions and brainstorming with their parents, and I began to think, what if I took this one step further, and for the shoot to evolve from discussions with the child…based on their own reality. At their age right at this moment…? And using their words. Their story.

Nilah’s discussion with her mum resulted in this magical quote:  ‘I would ride my elephant to school’. I’ve realised that my strength is being able to run with an idea – I love being presented with the germ of an idea, a starting point, that I then have to create a visual solution for. So what could be a greater challenge than to use my combination of skills, take a child’s whimsy and make it a reality – for them. Bringing to life their current ‘world’, and perhaps making the impossible, possible.

Many of the quotes the children have come out with have been magic – in their own words they manage to convey so much more than a concept, so much about them and who they are at this time of their lives. I literally get goosebumps reading the magic of their words.

With Nilah, I’m imagining her when she’s a grandmother, and her grandchildren say to her…”Grandma, tell us about when you rode your elephant to school” and she tells them a whimsical tale that captivates them…was it real..? did it really happen..? Well the photograph is there proudly displayed after all these years, so it must have happened…or did it?

The shoot took place in the studio. I created an ‘elephant’ of sorts  – i wanted her to feel she really was riding one, although Nilah has no trouble at all using her imagination. I also took some photographs of her being a gorgeous, giggly 7 year old school girl, and with her little brother (hey! he wanted to have a ride on the elephant too of course…) The elephant? well…no I confess its not a baby elephant I hired for the occasion (!) but a wee plastic creature – that I then had the challenge to make it look as  ‘real’ as possible. The final image of her on atop the elephant I used in this instance as I loved the ‘proud’ look on her face, its as if she is saying ‘look at meee! I’m riding my elephant to school.’

All images shot on the Nikon D3, a mix of lensbaby and 60mm (macro) lens.


  1. Great to see the story behind the photo. I love the idea of this being a photo that captures the imagination of children in Nilah’s future.

  2. Thank you Sylvia : )

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. I thought about it a lot when i saw it a infocus, i wasnt sure how or why you had come up with this concept, but It is even more wonderful than I thought it would be, a child led photo. Truly beautiful.

  4. What a wonderful idea and such a fantasic story and experience for Nilah to keep.

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