NILAH AND THE ELEPHANT

Nilah Savage sits atop the elephant she rides to school, her legs little arrows down the beast’s rough hide and a right royal expression on her tiny face.

Nilah doesn’t live in Africa or Asia – she’s from South Wairarapa. The photograph was created by portrait artist Esther Bunning and won Gold awards both in New Zealand and Australia, and international acclaim at the Colour Masters Awards.

Bunning has been wowing clients with her distinctive style of artistic portraiture, especially her creative portraiture for children. She has the ability to a child’s wish list, a scene from their imagination or a favourite item, listens to their stories and makes them photographic reality.

Nilah, who wants to be a wildlife warrior, told Bunning that if she could have any animal, it would be an elephant, so she could ride it to school. Bunning took a saw horse, some blankets, a leather school satchel and Nilah’s animated face and went to work in the studio. Later, she added a plastic elephant which could fit in the palm of her hand. The whimsy extended to Nilah’s little brother, Jonte, who became a warthog from his favourite Graeme Base book, Jungle Drums. Bunning kept shooting while the four-year old leapt and growled at her from all angles, before transforming his face into an animal/boy.

The children’s mother, Megan Savage, says although their father David is a former professional photographer, Bunning’s creative and artistic skills were unbeatable.

“Esther has an eye that is so unique. I have never seen photographs that capture childhood energy and personality so accurately. Another person’s perspective is interesting and refreshing,” Megan says.

Bunning has taken children to atmospheric outdoor locations to live their fantasy, including an archery scene from the novel, The Hunger Games.

Bunning epitomises her own professional style – petite, with flowing hair and a quiet manner, she is rather ethereal.

During a shoot, there’s no loud direction on Bunning’s part; she prefers to let children do the talking, moving, imagining. The loose rein harks back to her own childhood on a Taranaki dairy farm, with three younger sisters and the freedom to indulge in imaginative play.

``Children can come out with the most magical comments,’’ she says. ``When they're not corrected by the adults around them, these statements or comments often give me goose bumps and take on a direction that I can conceptualise; an insight into that child's world, right now.’’

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