peter beard guillaume bonn gentleman's journal photographer

Guillaume Bonn remembers his friend, Peter Beard

A year on from the death of Peter Beard, filmmaker Guillaume Bonn recounts the last of his adventures with the legendary photographer

This story goes back a long way. I feel like a dinosaur when I tell it now. It was 1989, in Nairobi, and the head of the Kenyan Wildlife services, a man called Richard Leakey, was trying to solve the poaching problem in the country. Leakey wanted to send a strong message to the poachers of the world, so he decided to build a huge fire and put 20 tonnes of ivory on the top. It was a historic moment — it felt like something truly important was happening.

At the time I was at the French School in Nairobi, and I decided to go to the ivory bonfire with two friends of mine. We skipped Spanish class and pretended to be sick. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the first time I would meet Peter Beard. He was there taking photos for a magazine, and I knew who he was and decided to speak to him. At one point, he said: “you should come to my camp,” which was called Hog Ranch. It was on the outskirts of Nairobi, but it was like it was in the middle of nowhere, a tented camp in the wild — very eccentric and very bohemian.

Over the next few years I spent a lot of time at that camp, sitting around that fire. Peter’s place was like Andy Warhol’s Factory. Anybody who was anybody in the creative world — whether they were a writer, a journalist, a photographer, a model, or just someone looking for a mission in life — would drop by Peter’s camp.

You would arrive at 6 o’clock in the evening for the first gin and tonic of the day. That was when the giraffes would come out, and they would eat just in front of you. Everyone would sit around the fire, exchanging stories about their last adventure or the next book they were writing, and if you were lucky you would arrive and there would be beautiful women at the party, too. Perhaps Peter would have just photographed them on assignment for an English or an American magazine, or they would simply be old friends dropping by to say hello.

Peter was one of those characters you meet very rarely in your lifetime. He was generous with his time, but the thing that really drove him was the demise of Africa, its wildlife, and its habitat. That’s what he wanted to talk about and that’s what kept him interested. He felt that Africa was the last show on earth — the last place where you could really experience something new out of something very old.

I was fascinated by Peter’s work and fascinated by him as a man. The End of the Game, the 1963 book that he had done on elephants still holds its own to this day, and he was ahead of his time on raising the issues that Africa, and Kenya, was facing. But his other work was interesting, too. I showed up one day in his camp. “Elle magazine is coming,” he said, “and we’re going to do this fashion shoot in Turkana. Why don’t you come along?”

Lake Turkana, for someone like me who grew up in Nairobi, was the last frontier. It is an incredibly remote place — I felt like I was going to the moon. I decided that I needed to do something different, and I knew I didn’t just want to tag along. So I borrowed a video camera from a friend, and I started to film the trip.

The clothes at the centre of the shoot were designed by Azzedine Alaia, the legendary French designer, and he wanted to come on the trip. It used to take you two or three days to get to Lake Turkana in those days, and when you got there they’d tell you that it has the highest concentration of Nile crocodiles anywhere in the world. It is infested, and dangerous, and it looks like the surface of the moon — but this is where Peter wanted to do his shoot. He had spent a number of years working on a book on crocodiles in the sixties, so he had been to Turkana many times before. Only this time he brought supermodels and Azzedine Alaia along in his luggage, too. I didn’t know it at the time, but that little video I took on that fashion shoot would carry on for the next few years, and turn into a film about Peter’s life across the world — from Nairobi to Paris to New York City.

Everybody is celebrating Peter now, but in those days he was only really known by a certain circle — a happy few. You might call them the Jet Set now, but they were much more chic than that. No matter where you were in the world, Peter would have friends in high places, and he would meet them for a coffee, a cigarette, a lunch, a dinner, a party. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. But he wasn’t famous.

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