Love in a flash
She began taking snaps as a teenager, but it would take over 15 years for her to take the plunge and focus on her passion. Paper has met up with Nina Siemiatkowski, the marketing director who fell in love with the savannah, quit her job and turned her dream into reality.
You know that feeling you get once in a while. When you shudder and call into question all the ‘urgent’ emails, the long-drawn-out meetings and the phone that never stops ringing. Even the watery brown liquid dripping out of the coffee machine seems to taunt you. Is this it? Forever?
For Nina Siemiatkowski, the idea of doing something different hit in spring 2012. By then she had been working at a big international company for six years, most recently as marketing director.
“It probably looked like I was driven by my career, and I was. I was keen to influence and change things, and when I was offered the job of marketing director at the age of 29, I could hardly believe it was true. This was my dream job! But when I got the job, something happened inside me. I worked ridiculous hours and began to question my whole existence. Is this the right path for me? Does what I do feel meaningful from a broader perspective? Of course, these thoughts are quite natural when you’ve been somewhere for several years.”
So how did you answer your own questions?
“I realised I needed to do something different. Either a similar job in another industry, or maybe the time was right to focus on my dream of becoming a photographer, which I hadn’t had the courage to embrace before. My circumstances had changed. I had saved up some money and the drive was there.”
Was it easy to quit your job as a marketing director and reinvent yourself as a photographer?
“No, I had a fantastic career and I was well established in my field. Life was all mapped out and it felt scary to upset that. But I decided it was now or never, and that ‘never’ felt more frightening.”
So what happened next?
“I studied photography for a few months and took shots day and night. In the summer of 2012 I travelled to Kenya and it was there that a project began to take shape in my head. This then developed into the Book of Leon project, part one of which is photographic documentation of a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.”
Why a project about lions?
“I’d previously been on safari in Tanzania and the whole experience left me on a complete high, like falling in love. I was fascinated by life on the savannah and when I got home I started reading up on all the animals. The more I learned, the more interested I became. Lions were the animals I found most captivating. Humans and lions have developed in parallel and we’re so alike. We live in families, and social relationships are important to both of us. The lion is also iconic to us, standing for strength, courage – everything we want to be. The lion is our competitor, but humans have come out on top. Today there are only 20 000 lions left, compared with twice that figure 20 years ago, and a report shows that this downward trend is continuing.”
Now Nina looks at me and says:
“You look dejected. Don’t be. It’s clear what needs to be done to reverse the trend. It’s not over yet! And that’s what I want to get across in Book of Leon.”
“Book of Leon contains life and death, and many will see my images as a little pared back, because I’ve intentionally avoided the classic golden sunlight. I want to show the truth and hopefully get more people interested in the lions and their plight.
Over the years, the photos have also been a way for me to engage in situations where questions about the environment, animals and nature are high on the agenda.”
In what way?
“A year or so into the photo project, I began to miss marketing, and it struck me that I could make use of my previous experience. Many of the organisations that work on nature conservation have incredibly talented biologists, but they’re not as good at getting their message out to a broader public. I now work pro bono on marketing for groups such as Panthera and Rewilding Lapland.”
What are you trying to say through your photos and your involvement with these organisations?
“My core message is that the situation is far from irreversible. There are so many great organisations and people working to make lions more secure and get their numbers up. But they need our support. Donate some cash instead of getting a coffee. If everyone throws in the towel, nothing will get done, but together we can turn the tide and save the world’s last wildernesses and their wildlife.”
I can imagine many people thinking why save animals when we need to save people? What do you say to them?
“I understand their thinking, but the world is all interconnected. If we work with the local population and create secure jobs for them, this will lift more people out of poverty, which in turn leads to better conditions for living close to wild animals. Problems such as poaching and poisoning of lions and other wild animals occur when the locals start to fear for their own safety and survival. When, for example, your last harvest is eaten by elephants, or your cow is taken by a lion, the natural human reaction is to eliminate the danger.
I would like to see more of the organisations that work on combating poverty also getting involved in wildlife and nature conservation, because it affects us humans so much.”
Finally, do you still feel your career change was the right move?
“Absolutely. I’m working more than ever, but I feel more exhilarated by it. I now see considerable meaning in what I do.
Now part one of the Book of Leon project is complete, but I want to continue telling a story about a pride of lions in each of the seven countries that still have more than 1 000 lions left. I also hope to publish a children’s book about lions and their future. If anyone can really make a difference for our last wild lions, it’s our children.”
Lives in: Stockholm.
Family: Husband Sebastian Siemiatkowski, co-founder and CEO of Klarna, two children.
Background: Stockholm School of Economics, various positions at Swedish Match, including marketing director. Full-time photographer since 2012.
About Book of Leon:“It’s partly a photo project in which I follow prides of lions over time, and partly a way for me to engage with various organisations that work to conserve wild animals and the landscape.”
On the difference between working in the commercial sector and as an artist:“Working as an artist is still new to me in so many ways. Selling myself, for example, is still a big challenge. Give me a juice and I know how to make it sell – but promoting myself and my art is a whole different ballgame. It makes me feel so exposed. ”
Text: Linnea Mellberg Photo: Nina Siemiatkowski