Photo by Jenn Bradley
Photo by Jenn Bradley

Jan Latta,

Wildlife Photographer &
Founder of  True to Life Books
– as told to The Silver Women

Women who inspired you as a young girl?
Mrs. Brown, a wonderful schoolteacher, inspired me. She encouraged my art and said I would have a creative life ahead of me. But, to pass my exams, I had to improve my terrible arithmetic and appalling spelling. She tutored me after school hours, so when I applied for an art scholarship, I received it. Thanks, Mrs. Brown.

Women who inspire you now?
Jane Goodall. What an incredible woman. All the years she spent researching chimpanzees only to be told by male scientists that everything she discovered was wrong. But, she was right, and proved them wrong! I was lucky to meet her a few times. She has a soft, quiet voice, but she must have had a great inner strength to live in the wild with the chimpanzees.

Do you think older women are valued or celebrated enough?
Older women are not valued or celebrated enough; we are often ‘invisible’. But that is changing, and the next generation of women will be celebrated, and they will receive equal pay for equal work. They will nudge into the ‘males only’ workforce and prove how strong they can be.

Have you made career changes over the years?
Yes, many. I started as an art director in advertising, then a creative director. When I decided to create books for children, I became a wildlife photographer to tell the animals’ stories with photographs. Then I had to learn to be a children’s writer, design books, create videos, negotiate the print production and the business side of publishing. Finally, I had to learn to be a public speaker.

“I hope in my small way I have inspired children to be the ‘caretakers’ of the endangered animals in the world. The survival of the species depends on them.”

Through the decades!

20s: Married and divorced. We met in our teens and we were too young to marry. I started work as an art director at the advertising agency SSC&B Lintas in Sydney and later in London. I spent a few weeks wandering around Europe with my camera, then back to Sydney again.

30’sI married a man who worked in advertising and we lived in Japan for a year, it was wonderful. I wandered the streets of Tokyo amazed at the Japanese culture. I was fascinated by woodblock prints, so I learned the difficult art of plate etching. There was a job opening for a TV program in Tokyo, so I applied to be the ‘behind the scene’ production person. But, after a camera test, they wanted the ‘blonde with the boobs’. I was terrified being in front of the camera but managed to co-host the show every Friday night.

40’s-50’s: My husband’s company asked him to start a new agency in Hong Kong, so we left Japan. I worked at another agency as a creative director and was fired on the spot when his agency started to poach some of their clients. 

Then came a dramatic turning point in my life. My husband said he was gay and wanted to live as a homosexual. I left the marriage. I had no job, no visa, no money, but I decided to stay in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a very exciting city, it pulses with energy, and with time and talent, you can make anything happen. After struggling for a few years, I started a small boutique publishing company with two English partners. I had to work seven days a week to pay the rent, but it was a very exciting time. We had 5-star hotel clients so I traveled all over Asia. When I was designing a photo essay for Regent magazine, Karl Amman’s photographs of Africa mesmerized me. I had to meet him. I flew to Africa and mentioned to Karl I wanted to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. It was a dangerous time with the rumblings of war, but Karl managed to organize the trip for me.

The trek up the mountain changed my life when I came face-to-face with a mountain gorilla.I was shocked that only 600 mountain gorillas were left in the world, so decided on a career change –help the survival of endangered animals by creating books for children – so they could learn about endangered animals.The first book was on the gorillas, followed by the endangered rhinos. Then life was about to change with the Chinese handover. Our advertising clients were nervous and without their advertising revenue, we lost our company. Ten years of work gone forever.

Late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s: I packed up and went home to Australia. When I started my search for a stimulating job, I discovered the term, “overqualified” which meant too old. Decision time. I decided to spend all my time creating children’s books and talking at schools and literary festivals in Asia and Australia. I traveled ten times to Africa to photograph the wild animals, twice to India for tigers, the Borneo rainforest for orangutans, the mountains of China for pandas, Uganda for Dr. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees, Sri Lanka for leopards and Costa Rica for sloths.

Photo credit: Karl Ammann

“Traveling alone is often a great challenge, living in a tent in Africa, or a leaking mud hut in India, but the thrill of seeing animals in the wild is life changing. I had the most magic moment of my life when two cheetahs came up to me in Africa. I wasn’t afraid because I believe cats will react to human emotions, so I wasn’t in any danger.”

What have been your greatest challenges?
Conquering fear when I’m close to wild animals. One night in Africa, (I was the only person in the camp) I was eating my dinner when a lion chased a wildebeest right through the middle of the mess tent. I was terrified and didn’t know what to do, but the Maasai came to my rescue. They walked me back to my tent, and I was safe.

 In the rainforest of Borneo, a huge male orangutan kept staring at me. When he charged, I was ridged with fear, but I decided to stand perfectly still as he lumbered pass me. Later I realized he was looking at a female orangutan just behind me, so he wasn’t going to hurt me, he just had mating on his mind.

Up close with a rhino

What are you most grateful for?
My parents. We were not well off when I was young, but fun was made out of menial chores. We went camping each year and my first experience living in a tent. It was great fun. I’m grateful to Karl Amman who taught me to be a wildlife photographer, and Mzee, his chimpanzee, who taught me how to behave around primates. I’m grateful for the support of my friends and writers who have helped me through many insecure times.

“Two divorces made me a strong independent woman. I had to work hard for what I wanted to achieve. Another event that changed my life was the face-to-face encounter with a mountain gorilla in Rwanda, Africa. It changed my life and my career.”

Walking with my favorite elephant Tara in India

Thoughts on aging,
The downside…I look at photographs when I was young and think, “where did you go?” I’m not as active now due to injuries, and each year I have additional problems with my damaged spine. But pain is not going to stop me traveling, and I go to Asia once or twice a year talking to school children. That is very rewarding. Next year, back to Africa.
The upside…Age is just a number, I want to act and feel any age I want. I’m lucky because I’m talking to school kids all the time and they keep me young. Over the years I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’d like to think that now I’m a wiser person, I have learned to be patient and I can solve problems with ease.

Festival presentation in Singapore

Your advice to young women of today?
Men are starting to accept the role of women in business, and the importance of the female ‘voice’. The glass ceiling might still need a hammer to crack it open, so be ‘twice the man’ and make it happen!

-Jan Latta xo

Images courtesy of Jan Latta unless credited otherwise. 


Book/Novel: Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick,
The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal by Cynthia Moss,
Dr. Jane Goodall 
and her work and of course, all the wonderful books & stories by David Attenborough.

Song: Score from “Out of Africa”
Film: Too many to list, but I must confess I’ve seen Out of Africa four times.
Scent: Armani to wear and Lemongrass is a refreshing perfume in soap, and a great aroma when cooking.
Flower: Roses
City or place: Maasai Mara, Africa
Food/Meal/Cuisine: Japanese
Skincare product you can’t live without: Clarins body lotion  & Clarins Double Serum
Artist: Matisse

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