Before I came to Las Vegas, I did not expect to find flocks of pink flamingoes or large tiger sharks on the Strip. But this array of unexpected incongruities is now my favorite aspect of this desert city that venerates the exotic. On this Friday evening, I am going in search of the nearest experience to visiting the great African plains that can be found in Las Vegas.
As I arrive at Rotella Gallery inside the marble atrium of The Forum Shops at Caesars, I am just in time to witness the official unveiling of a new large scale work by Scottish photographer David Yarrow. When the cloth is dramatically pulled away, the figures of South Sudanese cattle herders and their horned white beasts are revealed emerging from clouds of mosquito-repelling smoke. In the foreground, a figure balanced on a lookout stand gazes out across the scene, backlit by the white haze.
It is a dramatic image of a location rarely visited by outsiders. The recent civil war and the condition of the local roads deter most. But David Yarrow belongs to that rare breed of dedicated photographer willing to take the risks and endure the physical hardships necessary in the pursuit of an image that will stand out in an era of visual overload.
Standing in front of the South Sudanese scene, Yarrow describes the journey that led to the photograph. After driving two hundred miles on water-ravaged roads from the South Sudanese capital of Juba, a final waterway had to be crossed on foot, where the odd crocodile had been known to take unlucky travelers. But in this remote area where violence is not uncommon, humans pose more of a threat than the wildlife and at one point Yarrow found himself being interrogated at gunpoint. He noted that while accommodation costs might only be $1 per night, security costs can be more like $1,000 per day.
As an aid to bridging the cultural divide, Yarrow brought along photographs of shaggy Scottish Highland cattle, and he recalls the Dinka herders' response was: "Your cows are crazy cows!" Another item that generated much local interest was a lightweight aluminum ladder that allowed Yarrow to photograph from a vantage point above his subjects, silhouetting details against the smoke.
Yarrow tells us he is always looking for the perfect combination of angle, light and composition that will allow him to achieve his goal of "one moment of excellence." His audience laughs when he declares that in this process, he "takes more bad pictures than the rest of you put together." This Gaelic charm is no doubt a key ingredient in overcoming all obstacles to achieve the photograph before us.
As I head out into twilight on the Las Vegas Strip, although it is not yet summer, I can feel the heat in the dry air. I could almost be on an open plain in South Sudan... almost.