May 23, 2012

In Dixon’s eyes, cheetahs always win

There are two strange things about the photograph of William Dixon taken at Harnas Wildlife Foundation in Namibia.

There are two strange things about the photograph of William Dixon taken at Harnas Wildlife Foundation in Namibia.

First, the cheetah hugging him is giving the kind of slurpy, ear-drenching smooch we associate with golden retrievers. Second, Dixon’s on the wrong side of the lens.

Over the last half-dozen years, the 48-year-old pharmacist has turned himself into a wildlife photographer, with striking results. He’s gotten shots of wild animals in Africa and photographed rehabilitated creatures in preserves from London to Nevada. He’s devoted vacation time to feeding and caring for his beloved cheetahs, and he gives 20 percent of his photo proceeds to wildlife conservation groups.

Dixon shares his Weddington home with a lone cat: Alexander the Great, a spotted Bengal he says had a bit of leopard DNA added to his line generations ago. But Alexander shares his landlord’s heart with cheetahs, the fastest cats on Earth:

Dixon had loved big cats since watching the 1974 TV series “Born Free,” and he finally saw them up close in 2005, when he took an African safari led by famed wildlife photographers Joe and Mary Ann McDonald. But he didn’t decide to share his art with the world until he saw a YouTube video. (This is it: http://bit.ly/K8Bgxc.)

“A little girl was drawing a picture of a cheetah to raise money for Cheetah Conservation Fund, to help avoid extinction,” he recalls. “She made $64 selling it on eBay. That made me want to donate, too.”

Art from the heart

So he created William Dixon Photography to show his work, which can also be found at FastFrame in Matthews. And he discovered the love of his lensing life – the slender, elegant felines with a black “teardrop” design around their eyes – in 2009, when he volunteered at Cheetah Conservation Fund. (Like Harnas, it’s in Namibia, a country in southwestern Africa.)

“They’re the underdog cat: not strong like lions, not stealthy like leopards,” Dixon says. “Almost everything can beat up a cheetah. Its whole livelihood depends on being able to run up to 70 miles per hour for about 300 yards and chase down prey. And then, if a lion comes along and runs a cheetah off the kill, it goes away hungry.”

Dixon has become a traveller besotted (bespotted?) with acinonyx jubatus. He has a stuffed cheetah that purrs like Chewbacca when squeezed, and he has stuffed himself with facts about the creatures. But maybe that would happen to anybody who walked into a compound of cheetahs with a bucket of donkey meat and tossed them dinner, as he did at Harnas.

“You can’t show them fear,” he says of his volunteer experiences, which have also included work with baboons and lions. “You stand your ground when they charge you, which they will. You always have to be careful. But they are just so beautiful.”

(He’s been bitten only twice: by an overeager monkey “trying to get a fruit bar we weren’t ready to give him” and by a mongoose, who bit Dixon’s knuckles as he took a Coke can away from the animal.)

Cheetahs are also endangered, of course. The amount of hospitable land declines annually, and Dixon says their genetic diversity is now so low that one disease could attack almost all of them. “When I found (this) out,” he recalls, “I wanted to be an ambassador for them.”

Dixon’s midlife change might surprise folks who knew him when he was growing up in Wilmington or attending pharmacy school at UNC Chapel Hill. He happened to be dating someone from Charlotte, so he moved to this area 25 years ago after graduation. (He now works at a CVS drugstore in Waxhaw.)

As a little boy, he’d lugged around a Polaroid Instamatic camera. His mother bought him a serious camera when he went on a tour of Spain at 16. He stuck with traditional film until 2002, when he returned from Italy with so many photos that he incurred a $1,200 developing bill. He bought a digital Nikon D-100 for his 2005 Africa trip and has since switched to a Nikon D2X.

Turning vacations into a vocation

“In high school, I used a darkroom,” he says, remembering the now-neglected film developing chamber. “I never took any formal photography classes, (but) there’s a big difference between book knowledge and practical knowledge.

“Still, you end up asking yourself, ‘Is my art worthy? How does it stack up to other people’s?’ I’d love to know how good I could be if I did this all the time. But if you want to make a living at photography, that’s a whole different issue.”

Judy Horn, who runs FastFrame, has a high opinion of him. She took to his work at once – she owns his photo of an African crowned crane – and says, “The thing I like most is that he has a great passion for what he does; I love the fact that he’s worked for cheetah conservation. A lot of his photographs appear to be not just photographs, but a whole lot more. The detail is unbelievable; you feel like you’re right there. They’re very artistic.”

Dixon’s portfolio includes nature shots – often made on his wildlife trips – and pictures of common animals: dogs, horses, chickens. (He shot photos of rescue dogs in York, S.C., in hopes of finding them homes, a validation of his belief: “You should find ways to make your work meaningful.”)

Yet nothing engages his heart as much as his encounters with beasts most of us meet only in zoos, from a safe distance. He’ll go back this autumn to Harnas, an experience he describes as “camping on steroids,” to volunteer for four weeks.

When he last volunteered there, doing the rotating chores assigned to all such visitors, Dixon played soccer with lions – that is, he kicked a ball and let them chase it – until a giraffe loped onto the field and broke up the game. He cared for five baby baboons; they were initially scared to death, but one crawled into his lap to sleep at the end of a week of interaction.

“Going to Africa is an adventure, but there’s also such simplicity to it,” he says. “In America, you’re staying in tune with the stock market or posting on Facebook, all that garbage. But when you’re cradling a baby baboon in your arms, you understand what’s really important.”

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