If we were asked to list Johnny Fenn’s accomplishments in one paragraph we would struggle. The former Gurkha army officer turned photographer, adventurer, elephant polo player and all round good guy took some time out of his busy schedule to catch up with us at The Royal Geographical Society in Kensington. 

Johnny, where do we start? Tell us a little bit about your background…

“I went straight from school in Lincolnshire to join the army. I’d been playing for Northampton, Richmond and for England U19s and only really joined the army to play rugby. I had no idea what the army was going to be like – I didn’t have a particular regiment or even a plan.

“While training at Sandhurst I came across the Gurkhas - they used to play enemy during infantry training and were pretty darn good. I saw these guys and thought – gosh they look interesting and in 1998 I was able to transfer across to the Brigade. At the start I only thought I was going to be in the army for three years and I ended up doing 25 years. Longer than I expected to do but it was a real hoot!”

What came next once you joined the Gurkhas?

“In 1999 I had my first tour with the Gurkhas and was stationed in Brunei for two years. I then came back to the UK and eventually ended up back at Sandhurst as a Company Commander and soon became Chief Instructor of Old College - Prince William was one of the Cadets that I mentored.

“From there I did a couple of staff jobs in the UK, then I went out to Nigeria as the British Military Adviser to West Africa for two years and as my last job in the army I was the Field Director of the Gurkha Welfare Trust in Nepal, based in Pokara. I left the army in 2012 and became a photographer straight away – that’s where I am today.”

How’s your Nepalese then, a little rusty?

“Mērō nēpālī ṭhīk cha. Ma dvārā prāpta garna sakchan…”

Errr, can you translate that for me?

“It means – ‘my Nepali is ok. It gets me by’. As part of Gurkha officer training you head out to Nepal for three months to learn the language. You spend two months in the classroom and then one month on trek with three porters who speak nothing else but Nepalese. You’re stuck up in the mountain so you’ve just got to get stuck in.”

Was it during your time in the Gurkha’s that you got into elephant polo?

“The Gurkhas have always put forward a team for the annual World Elephant Polo Championships as they are held in Nepal. It’s been going on for 35 years now! There were some funding changes recently and so in 2011 I got a call from the organiser, a friend of mine, asking if I could help to fund the Gurkha team. It was a no brainer and I’ve played ever since.”

How does one play Elephant Polo then?

“With a very long stick…” 

Ok, talk us through the sport in general. Is it as physical as normal polo?

“It feels like it! An elephant is obviously a lot slower than a horse but it’s still very physical and tremendous fun. Each player has a mahout - an elephant keeper and rider that bonds with the animal from a young age. It’s their incredible connection that means all control of the elephants is done steering with their feet behind the ears and by flapping a handkerchief over their head.” 

So what are the tactics, where do you play your different sized elephants?

“Well, you don’t necessarily want to play your biggest elephant in goal. It’s actually more about which players are good with a long stick. You’re more likely to put them on the larger elephant but then it’s important to put your best players on the smaller elephants, which are faster. There’s a real buzz when the games kick off and it’s really quite competitive!” 

What about the elephants, do they love it as well?

The elephants are sometimes more keen than their riders. They’ll pick up the ball with their trunks and throw it around and before the game starts they’re banging their trunks on the ground as they want to get going.

Johnny Fenn Beaufort & Blake

Do you spend quite a bit of time in Nepal then?

“Yes, I travel twice a year to Nepal to take photographs for the Gurkha Welfare Trust. I also run workshops out in Nepal – it’s a 10-day course where I take photographers out from the UK and teach them how to take photographs in tricky environments. All photographs we take out there are donated to the trust at the end.”

Joanna Lumley is an important part of the Gurkha Welfare Trust, have you worked closely with her at all?

“I actually first met Joanna in 2011 whilst I was still in the army. She had come out to visit a school in Nepal that she had donated some money to.”

Is she good fun?

“Yeah, Joanna is awesome. She’s properly the real deal! You bump into some celebrities and they can be a little sniffy and fake but she is great and we’ve become quite good friends. She actually stayed in our house out in Nepal when she came out to the open school.” 

We know that you’ve photographed Joanna Lumley along with quite a few other famous people, who has been your trickiest person to date?

“Well, Prince Phillip comes with a reputation for not enjoying having his photograph taken. I went to photograph him for Buckingham Palace and his staff told me that he will only allow three photographs – I could only press the button three times! I set up to take his portrait, took three photographs and he immediately stood up and walked off. – despite that, he was very friendly!”

Are you one of the official photographers for the Royal Family then?

“I think because of my previous employment and security clearance; I’m a good fit and have photographed the Royal Family on various occasions. I’ve photographed Princess Anne, The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh…I could go on. Still yet to meet Prince Andrew though.” 

What’s the most dangerous environment you’ve taken photographs in?

“I went to Tripoli in Libya two years ago, photographing for a private security company. On the brief I was told I was going to be inside their compound documenting where they live, the training, some portrait shots and generally what they get up to. When I arrived the security team said they wanted to go out and photograph some of the petrol stations as local militias had been using them for their flat-bed trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons. I thought to myself ‘that’s not really in my brief?’ but eventually agreed.

“We left the compound in a white sedan as our usual convoy of bullet proof Land Cruisers would have stuck out like a sore thumb. We had two local Libyans in the front with slightly blacked windows in the back and bag of weapons just in case.

“We arrived at the petrol station and with the windows still up I began photographing some of the militia’s equipment. I quickly realised this wasn’t safe at all! We were out in the middle of Tripoli in a non-bullet proof sedan with militia roadblocks everywhere – it was cowboy country. So, I’m taking these photographs and I’m spotted. This guy starts walking over and it was at this point I’m thinking ‘we’ve really got to go’. Luckily with some serious manoeuvers the local Libyan driver managed to find a hole in the traffic and help us get away. It was pretty hairy!” 

What projects have you got in the pipeline at the moment, hopefully none as dangerous as your time in Libya?

“Well, I’ve probably got enough photographs for another book so that might come next. I’ve actually got quite a lot on this year with trips to Norway, Mozambique, Somalia, Poland, and an exciting trip to an unexplored region of south-east China. Of course I’m back to Nepal in November.”

You’re a well-dressed chap, what does style mean to you?

“I think dress is still fundamental. I’m very conscious of ensuring I’m dressed appropriately for the situation I’m in. It’s been very difficult transitioning from being an army officer to a photographer as in the army you have specific tailors that your regiment is associated with and you’re expected to dress in a certain way for certain events.

“I must admit - it bothers me if one of my assistants hasn’t quite got the dress memo when we’re visiting a client. It ultimately reflects badly on me. With exploring you’re often wearing technical gear but with the likes of elephant polo style is important. In fact, we’ve won best dressed almost every year we’ve been going. Having the Beaufort & Blake shirts this year made us the smartest by far!”

Last question, what’s the one essential item of clothing you pack for travels?

“It would have to be a scarf as it can help hide a multitude of sins. Something like this is perfect (see above) as it can come in handy as a clean pillow cover, you can use it to carry your dirty laundry and if it gets cold (when you’ve got ears like mine) you need something to cover them up.”

To see more of Johnny Fenn’s photographic work we would recommend purchasing ‘Life and Light in the Middle Hills: A Photographer’s Perspective of Life in Nepal’

Twitter: @JohnnyFennPhoto
Instagram: @JohnnyGurkha

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