A successful restaurateur and hotelier in Bali, he devotes his creative passion to capturing heartfelt images of wild animals and making a deep connection to the natural world.
Born in Connecticut in 1984, James Joseph Sebastiano moved to Florida with his family when he was only a year old, and that’s where he attended school and graduated from college. After he earned his degree he moved to Amsterdam, Netherlands, where he lived for 4 years and then took up residence in Bali, where he currently owns and manages 5 vegetarian restaurants and a hotel. “In school I took a photography course and learned how to develop black-and-white photos,” he recalls, “and that kindled my passion for photography. Taking pictures of wildlife in its natural state is now the primary focus of my creative energy, and it’s my true connection to the living world.”
Q: What camera and equipment do you generally use?
A: I shoot with a Leica S2 and a Leica M-E. All of the photos in this portfolio were shot with the 180 mm lens on the S2
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: Photography for me is a way to express the present moment. Each photo captured represents a moment in time that I was fortunate enough to share in that place, with that subject. It’s a beautiful thing.
Q: Would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast or a professional photographer?
A: I am following my passion and I enjoy being in the present moment with my camera while experiencing something new… whatever that makes me, I am.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, or as an art form?
A: I played around a bit with photography in my late teens and early 20s, but it was nothing serious. The passion has really grown in me starting about 5 years ago and I’ve been addicted ever since. Learning, reading, travelling, going to exhibits… It’s amazing how powerful a camera can be.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: I have not really had a hands-on mentor, but I would say that I am heavily inspired and influenced by Nick Brandt and Sebastiao Salgado. They are my two favorites. I took a manual photography class at university, but that was it.
Q: In what genre or genres, if any, would you place your photos?
A: At this point in time I find I’m really into taking photos of animals in nature. I traveled to Africa three times last year. I fell deeply in love with the nature there and you can really feel the connection to the animals… there is definitely a sense of “oneness” between us.
At this moment in my career and life I see myself being interested in truth and in pure life. Often I find this in the eyes of beings…whether in the eyes of a child or a lion. So wherever I am able to find and see these things is what interests and motivates me.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: When I was searching for a camera, I knew that I wanted a piece of equipment that would allow me to portray my experiences in the clearest and most accurate way possible. That Leica is the best at such things is beyond question.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: It’s really quite simple — it‘s about trying to capture a moment and share it with others.
Q: You mentioned that you shot all the images in this portfolio with a Leica S2 and the 180 mm lens. Aside from the camera’s outstanding image quality and extended dynamic range and the reach of the lens, what features or characteristics of this equipment did you find especially useful in executing this project?
A: I found the reliability and consistency of the lens to attain levels I have never experienced before. I’ve never shot with a lens that I could count on as much as this one. I also found that the clarity of the image quality is breathtaking… that’s the key for me, being able to show an image as close as possible to the way I actually saw it. This lens achieves that.
Q: Evidently you shot all of these inspiring animal images in Africa, and the one human appearing in this series is a picture of a young kid who looks like he’s setting in a ramshackle vehicle of some sort in rather squalid surroundings. Were all the animal pictures taken in Zimbabwe, and why did you include this incisive portrait in this series of wild animals?
A: I shot all these images in Kenya, in the Mara, except for the kid in the car. I took his picture in Zimbabwe while volunteering at an orphanage. I went from the Mara to Zimbabwe on that same trip, and there was something in the way he moved and acted that reminded me of the movement of one particular lion I’d seen. I saw the same look in his eyes as I saw in a starving lion; it touched me deeply and I felt compelled to include this image.
Q: What are a couple of things you picked up in your manual photography course at university that have stuck with you and proven useful in your evolution as a photographer? Also, what is it about the work of the two accomplished photographers you cite that you found inspiring?
A: To be honest, the only thing that stuck with me was my amazement of the development process and the love I found for photography. I only took one photo in that class.
Both the photographers I mentioned show things in a way that you or I will never see them — they show things in the way they see them, and it’s beautiful. Their works are breathtaking.
Q: You said that one of the reasons that you enjoy taking photos of animals is that you “fell deeply in love with nature” as well as a connection to the animals and a sense of oneness. How do you attempt to communicate these feelings and emotions through your images, and how do you know when you’ve been successful in doing so?
A: I communicate this by not attempting to “set up” any of my shots. Indeed I didn’t set up any of these shots (it’s hard to tell a lion or elephant what to do!). Rather I shot the photos of the animals as they were when I approached them in their natural state.
Q: At this point in your life you are “interested in truth and pure life” and you often find it “in the eyes of a being…whether the eyes of a child or a lion.” It has often been said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. Do you believe that’s true?
A: I do believe that’s true, but I only believe it happens when both the photographer and the subject allow it to happen. That being said, I believe you can feel that in some of my photos, and not surprisingly those are the best ones.
Q: How do you think the Leica S2 optimizes the clarity and accuracy of the experiences you capture? And by the way, what are some of the reasons you chose the very elemental Leica M-E as your choice in the full-frame format, and do you think it is also suitable for capturing images of wildlife in its natural habitat?
A: I find the Leica S2 to be more of a high fashion photography camera, but I thought to myself, why not try it in the wild. It turned out to be a great choice. I don’t really use the M-E for wildlife; that’s more the camera I walk around town with. Leica cameras have the best quality, plain and simple — they’re the best in every way.
Q: Can you tell us something about how you physically traveled around Africa, and how you determined what sort of places to visit to enhance your chances of capturing these impressive and compelling pictures? Did you have to camp out in the area to be there at the right times of day, and what arrangements did you make to ensure that you were safe and in reasonable comfort?
A: I live in Bali, Indonesia. I travelled from Bali-Dubai-Nairobi- took a small plane from Wilsons Airport to the Mara and camped out for seven days on three separate occasions. We drove around in a Land Cruiser and had Masai guides who carried spears for protection. It was definitely an adrenaline filled trip! In the picture entitled “Lion Stare Down” I shot that image from a jeep and we were about four meters from it. I sat and watched the lion for a while and as I took out the camera his eyes focused in on me at the same time I focused in on him through the lens. When the Masai saw the way the lion was looking at me we had to take off quickly. I will never forget looking in that lion’s eyes.
We also had a few instances where massive herds of elephants approached us rather quickly and we had to speed off, but all in all it was pretty safe.
Q: There seems to be quite a gulf between your roles as a restaurateur and hotel owner in Bali and being a passionate photographer roaming around Africa in search of wild animals. How do you think both these aspects of your life compliment each other, and do you think each enhances the other?
A: I think that it is a yin and yang relationship. I am so busy in my day-to-day life that it really makes it difficult for me to be “present.” I am also going from one place to another — meetings, calls, brainstorming — a lot of stuff is happening. Photography is perfect for me because while I am taking a shot I am 100 percent present; it’s like mediation for me.
Q: I very much like the image labeled “2 Lion Sneak” because it is the antitheses of the typical “posed regal lion” picture. The attitudes of the two lions are amusingly disparate and the whole feeling is random and real in its expressiveness. Do you agree? What’s actually going on here, where was this picture taken, and why did you call it “lion sneak?”
A: The lion in the foreground was abnormally skinny and unhealthy; the Masai said he would die soon. Right after he said that, I saw this lion sneaking up from behind him. For a second I actually thought that the other lion might actually attack, so I picked up my camera. I was happily surprised that wasn’t the case. It’s actually the same 2 lions appearing in the double lion photo. In fact the double lion photo was taken about 1 minute later.
Q: “Double Lion B&W” is similar to the previous picture of two lions, but the feeling is quite different. While it is clearly a “moment in time” rather than a posed portrait it somehow feels more grand and serious, partially because it is presented in black-and-white, which emphasizes the form. What were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release, and why and how did you output it in black-and-white?
A: I like black-and-white — I actually prefer it. But sometimes colors are just so majestic that I have to keep them in the photo. I changed this photo to B&W in the post-production process using Adobe Lightroom. I changed it because I felt the lions spoke for themselves; they didn’t need any help from color; it’s beauty in its minimal form.
Q: “Elephant Walking” is one of the best images of an elephant in its environment I have seen in quite a while. It’s kind of a visual ode to the natural world. Do you have similar feeling about this image, and why did you compose it in this way?
A: I composed it this way because the elephant felt curious to me; you can see it in the eyes. In combination with him being on the side of the image and the golden glow of the ground I do get the sense this is where the elephant belongs.
Q: Have you thought about exhibiting these images in galleries or publishing an online or in-print book on African Animals In The Wild that includes these images? Have you ever thought about shooting other animals in their natural state in other locations, such as Australia, Asia, or North or South America?
A: I would love to travel everywhere and take as many images as possible. I feel called to go on trips at times and that’s when I go. I have thought about showing these images in galleries and have already done so. I would love to make a book as a next step, but that will take a while.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as landscape photography or portraiture going forward?
A: For the time being I love taking pictures of nature and wildlife, but lately I’ve been drawn to city landscapes as a “form in the wild.” I’m interested to see where that leads but for now, I still prefer wildlife and my visual connection with animals in the wild.
Thank you for your time, James!
– Leica Internet Team