From advertising to wildlife photographer: How I found my true calling at 50

"My life among the lions"
Jan Latta kissing a chimpanzee

This is an edited extract from Jan Latta’s memoir Doing it My Way.

I was 50 years old, and on a precarious trek through the jungles of Rwanda, when I first glimpsed my true vocation. Until then, I hadn’t been sure.

I’d left school at 14 and married my first husband at 21. I’d worked in advertising in the 1950s, which was a bit like Mad Men but far less sexy. Patriarchy ruled and sexism was rampant. One day we were divided into four groups to come up with campaign ideas. When my idea was chosen, the managing director said, “Jan, that’s a great idea. We’ll get one of the men to do it.”

I did well, though, finally working in the exciting world of Hong Kong advertising, and building my own publishing company (and my second marriage) there. Even so, I think I had a niggling feeling that this wasn’t ‘it’.

While I was running my publishing company, I worked on a photo essay by wildlife photographer and conservationist, Karl Ammann, and his work affected me deeply. I couldn’t stop thinking about the wild and beautiful African animals in his photographs.

I decided to follow my instincts and booked a ticket to Africa. My official reason was to interview Karl, but I couldn’t wait to see all those wild animals for myself, up close.

Jan Latta holding a baby orangutan.
Jan Latta was drawn to Africa by her deep passion for animals.

On that first trip, I met Karl and his wife Cathy, at their home. I remember looking across their garden as a cheetah walked through. This was Moto, Karl’s cheetah, and he allowed me to stand behind him and touch Moto’s forehead nervously. It took my breath away.

Back in Hong Kong, all I could think about was returning to Africa, and I didn’t have to wait long. Soon after, I received a fax from Karl about the possibility of seeing gorillas in Rwanda. I asked him if it was safe. It was 1994 and there was a war raging, but I was assured the area we were travelling to was protected by the army.

We flew to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and started the journey up the mountain. The scenery was beautiful – deep, lush greenery, thick with mystery, was a stark contrast to the military roadblocks. The trek was a two-hour climb over rough terrain. I struggled up the slippery slopes. Sometimes I had to crawl across a tangle of vines with no ground underneath. I tried not to look down.

Finally, we stopped, and waited silently. A little gorilla peeped over the vines at me. It was an unforgettably glorious moment. Then I saw a mother and a huge silverback. I was truly awestruck. That was the moment, I think, that changed my life.

As I came down the mountain, I was saddened to think that only 600 mountain gorillas were left in the world, and I wished there was something I could do to help.

Two elephants in the wild.
Prior to becoming a wildlife photographer, Jan had worked in publishing and advertising.

As 1997 dawned, Hong Kong was preparing for the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty. Many of my clients pulled out of the region and everything came down like a pack of cards. I lost everything.
I returned to Sydney, my mind still full of images of those gorillas, and of Karl’s animals. I needed a change and I wondered whether I could build a new career as a wildlife photographer.

I shared my crazy dream with Karl and he became something of a mentor. He told me that instead of taking photography classes, I needed to come to Africa and learn in the wild, make lots of mistakes and get myself in a lot of danger. I had to know everything about the animals, he said. I had to study their habitat, their behavior, their tracks. “You have to know how to examine dung,” he added, “because that’s also a guide.” I took his advice.

All these lessons were swimming around in my head every time I went into the wilderness. Getting up close to wild animals can be dangerous, but it was always deeply moving to connect with them. At Tanjung Putting National Park in Indonesia, I had an encounter with a mother orangutan who started walking towards me with her tiny baby. I had just put two bottles of water on the wharf: a warm one I didn’t want, and a cold one I did want. The mother felt the warm bottle and threw it away. Then she felt the cold bottle. With her gigantic hairy hand, she unscrewed the top and drank every drop! It was such a wonderful interaction, I didn’t mind at all that she had finished my last bottle of cold water for the day.

Another time, I was walking with Karl. I heard the cheetah purring before I saw it. He came up and allowed me to hold under his throat to feel the vibration of this really loud purring, and then a second cheetah came up, a little nervous, its purring quite loud too. It was wonderful.

Jan Latta cuddling wild cheetahs.
By following her passion, Jan had magnificent experiences with the wildlife in Africa.

They’re so elegant, cheetahs. They’re like mannequins the way they walk. It was a wonderful experience. It was like being in love. I wasn’t scared at all. It didn’t occur to me until some time later, when I was in a traffic jam, that the wrong thing could have happened. But I truly feel that it doesn’t matter how big the cat is, if you’re calm and it’s a wonderful experience for you, they will pick up on that. If I’d been frightened and screaming, maybe things would have been different. I have certainly had my share of hair-raising encounters.

I always travel alone. In the beginning, it was terrifying, living in a tent in the middle of nowhere, but you get used to the roar of the lions and how close they might be to the tent. One evening, just a few years ago, I was the only traveller in the camp and I was having dinner with the camp manager in the mess tent. Suddenly there was this incredible crash. We both looked around and saw a lion charging through the middle of the tent, chasing a wildebeest. I didn’t know where to put myself! I stood perfectly still and the Maasai came running down. They know the behaviour of lions, so I felt reasonably safe with them.

When everyone calmed down and my heart had started working again, I said to the manager, “How am I going to get back to my tent?” Because the pride of lions had surrounded my tent.

A lioness bathing a lion cub.
Jan Latta had close encounters with some of the wildlife.

He said, “Not a problem”. The Maasai walked to my tent, swinging their torches, illuminating the pride of lions that was standing around us. Rigid with fear, I tried to be as invisible as possible between the tall men. One lion was just beyond my tent, his eyes glowing in the torchlight. I grabbed hold of one of the men and said, “We can’t keep walking, look, it’s too dangerous.” And in his wonderful way, he said, “It’s okay, Jan, you are closer to the tent than the lion is.” I think that’s been my scariest moment, although, I’m quite convinced the animals sense that you are full of wonder and mean no harm.

I created and published 13 True to Life wild animal books for children over the course of my decades as a wildlife photographer. Looking back, I think the path to my true calling as a wildlife photographer and successful businesswoman has been a winding road of experiences that has made me strong and independent. The more I explore, the more I believe I’ll know.

Two mornings after I had the frightening experience with the lion, I was with my guide in the early morning, and I saw a golden lioness. She was quite a distance away and she turned around and looked at me. She started coming towards our Jeep. She walked right up to it and looked up at me, and I looked down at her. Then she walked the length of the Jeep and right into the bush.

The guide said to me: “You didn’t take the photograph,” and I said, “No. To have that experience, that eye-contact with a lioness, was wonderful. It was enough.”

Jan Latta’s most recent book is Doing It My Way (True To Life Books).

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