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Animal Instinct

Close up of a blue shark Franco Banfi


Suddenly, the leopard seal is aware of the diver. Dropping the wounded penguin it’s been chasing, it turns its full attention to the man with the camera. The 661-pound predator covers the distance between them in less than a second, coming eye to eye. If it wanted to, it could kill him right now with a single bite of its powerful jaw.

For Franco Banfi, life-or-death situations like this one are a pretty standard day on the job. They have made the 55-year-old from Lugano in Switzerland one of the world’s most in-demand underwater photographers.

Over a career spanning 30 years, Banfi has seen every dangerous thing the liquid world has to offer and photographed them in close quarters: crocodiles, sharks, giant squids, stingrays—the list goes on. His motivation is simple, he says: “I prefer species that are difficult to photograph. I’ll risk my life for them.”

nullFranco Banfi

Banfi discovered underwater photography in the early 1980s. “Some friends back home convinced me to dive in Lake Lugano,” he explains. “The world underneath that surface instantly fascinated me.”

Underwater photography—a means of capturing this world—became Banfi’s passion. He taught himself the technical aspects, and also read up on as many species of marine life as he could.

“To get noticed as a photographer you have to do what no one else has done before,” he says. And that’s exactly what he set out to do, swiftly establishing his own modus operandi.

“I don’t dash off for the lucky shot; I try to gain the trust of the animals first,” he says. “When dangerous or shy ocean dwellers tolerate your presence, your images take on an entirely new dimension.”

nullFranco Banfi

At 25, Banfi sold his first photo to an Italian diving magazine. At 34, he won the underwater photography world championships in Cuba. Since then, his photos have become a staple of respected wildlife magazines like National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, and Stern.

According to the photographer, the art of getting close to an animal is a mixture of science and experience. “Every species reacts differently,” he says. “But there is one rule for survival that almost always applies: Show the animal respect, but never fear.”

It was this rule that saved Banfi’s life during the recent encounter with the leopard seal: “I stayed where I was and held the camera out to him. He swam away.” There are always exceptions, however: “When an anaconda gets aggressive, it’s better to disappear,” he says. “They’re primitive, and once they start attacking they don’t stop.”

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