Hiding to nothing.

I like to stay the right side of the line between insightful observation and a rant. Make no mistake however, this is a rant.

I remember years ago when Mark Hamblin and I embarked on the Tooth & Claw project being accused of condoning raptor persecution simply because we chose to take an impartial standpoint in our commentary on the issue. So if we didn’t condone the killing of raptors we must surely condemn it? Well no, we are simply presenting the issue impartially. Ah, you’re sitting on the fence then? By the time this scenario had been replayed a dozen or so times, you realise you can’t win.

And so more recently to Frozen Planet. It is to my mind the greatest natural history film ever made and undoubtedly attracted an audience that wouldn’t otherwise engage. OK so they filmed a few seconds of a six-part series in captivity and arguably, cocked up the explanation but is that really the series’ legacy? Last night I sat and watched the spell-binding Earthflight. As has been suggested elsewhere there are factual errors and some dodgy bits of continuity, but have you ever seen such visual splendour?

In a world where the demands placed upon those of us who do their best to create inspiring visual imagery are being cranked up as each day passes, should we really be so cynical, so pedantic even, and crush the very innovation we so need and indeed, crave?

Perhaps as I approach the half-century mark I’m just getting weary but honestly, you do your best to do your bit, you dare to take a risk, put your head above the parapet and what happens? It gets blown off – often by those who sit alongside you in the trenches. So I’m going to make a plea to those who sit in judgement over others – you know who you are – to consider the blood, sweat and tears that goes into some of these media projects and to recognise the sacrifice that is an inevitable part of their creation.

I spent 4 years working on Wild Wonders of Europe. Now don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything but most of that 4 years was sat in meetings, writing strategies and managing petty politics – a far cry from the perceived ‘glamourous’ lifestyle of the nature photographer. Moreover, most of us involved with managing Wild Wonders went without remuneration for that whole period. The same is true of my involvement with 2020VISION.

So back to the plea. Innovation is something to be encouraged, nurtured, celebrated. The pool in which the nature photographer drinks is shrinking but surely that is no justification to criticise those who try to dig a new pool? None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes but the choice is clear to me. We embrace new projects and ideas with all their inherent fragility and foibles or we wallow in the increasingly polluted shrinking pool.

So there we are, my rant for January. But hold on, this is not me feeling sorry for myself – I hope I’m old enough to look after myself. No, this is me rattled and I’ll tell you why. A young man called me the other day with an idea for a photographic project in his local community. “Would it work?” He asked. “What happened if it didn’t?” And then the words that set me on fire: “I don’t want to be seen as a failure.” If our young talent is being stifled because of the fear of critical peer reviews, we’ve got something very, very wrong. I told him to go for it but as I put the phone down I have to say I felt like I’d thrown him into the lion’s den.

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24 thoughts on “Hiding to nothing.

  1. Sad fact is that whilst we have a free press so determined to ensure that we are kept informed of the “truth” nothing will change. I wonder how many people genuinely felt incensed and disillusioned by David Attenboroughs wonderful illustration of how polar bears are born. This from an industry that works on the basis that the truth should never get in the way of a good story.

    Re your young man – it’s another sad fact that as humans we are conditioned from a very young age to fear failure, but without any real mentoring in how to achieve success, which any successful person knows necessitates failure along the way. Perhaps Susan Jeffers classic, “Feel the fear and do it anyway” should be recommended as essential reading for buddding nature photogrpahers.

  2. Unless you have a high profile there are few people who will see you as a failure.
    If you have a high profile and do not fail, a lot of individuals/media will attack you by making small details into great flaws.
    Weirdy-beardy (as my daughter sweetly calls him) got Tooth and Claw (and Caledonia) for me for Christmas. As a struggling photographer, I over-dosed on great images but as a retired government conservationist I was really impressed by the balance you attained and maintained in presenting the situations and the tensions ‘on the ground’.
    If you had taken sides, as you point out, you would have lost contributors and markets. You wrote a considered and thorough study. Journalists often seem to have abandoned writing which is based on considered thought, in favour of cheap attacks on those who have not, or identify perceived shortcomings like the lack of emphasis on the circumstances in which the polar birth was filmed.
    I can rant too!!

  3. If people put as much effort into creativity and actually doing something as they do in manouveing to get their voice heard and objecting, many problems would be solved. Like you I hate the stifling of young talent (or talent of any age). We are in a media culture that focuses on failure and voting people off, we seem to celebrate failure more proficiently than success. The loud critic is usually jealous, sometimes fearful and never productive. In the end the success of the young photographers community project will be if he does it at all. It is more than the critics will do.

  4. Mark Twain was attributed as saying:

    “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

    The clock’s ticking for all of us.


  5. I’m buoyed by your insightful comments chaps (and chapess) – many thanks.

    Perhaps I’m being a tad paranoid but as you all so eloquently point out, we’re nurtured to be so – very sad. Whilst not necessarily advocating the manner in which it manifests, we could do worse than look west over the Atlantic to learn how to encourage those who at the very least, try.

  6. If as you are at times outspoken(whatever that means)
    then some will react adversely.
    I have always spoken out on issues I hold dear.
    You too Pete and commendably so.
    Criticism is either constructive or destructive and depends on your outlook.
    Constructive criticism is very important and when I encounter more than a few criticisms that are painful to contemplate then I do heed them!But it has taken nigh on 70 years to come to this conclusion .
    Your young man cited hopefully has adrenaline rushing through his veins otherwise he will never reach the heights,fear of failure can work to ones advantage depends on personality.
    I have so much enjoyed 2020 blogs etc and do look forward to its culmination ,blood sweat and maybe the odd tear on the way .Well done to all but especially the hands on team Mark.Pete et al.

  7. Pete
    I’m sure you’re right that the community of wildlife photographers is a little too ready to criticise others and knock new ideas and initiatives. “Tall poppy syndrome” it’s sometimes called, and Niall also had a rant about it on his blog not so long ago. It does puzzle me why this should be so, since in most other creative pursuits taking risks and being a little different is generally applauded. It’s what makes you an artist.
    Your young friend must learn to shrug off perceived criticism and his fear of failure, otherwise he won’t achieve anything very original. It’s not a popularity contest. But perhaps it’s more a case of having the right personality trait rather than some institutional conspiracy?
    Mark Twain said it better (thanks Andrew).

    1. To dispute my own argument somewhat, I suppose that very great artists of a more radical persuasion have always had it tough. When Stravinsky premiered the “Rite of Spring” in Paris 1913 there was a riot in the concert hall – but within a few years he was being hailed as a genius. And there are endless examples of innovative artists who died penniless, only to be recognised decades, or even centuries, later. Perhaps they just developed too far and too fast for their core audience. I’m not quite bestowing genius status on you Pete 🙂 but the general conclusion is that controversy goes with the territory. Don’t expect an easy ride.

  8. Pete,

    You were right to encourage the lad.

    I think that takes time, vision and a certain degree of stubbornness (self-motivation) before we learn that our own evaluation of what we accomplish is more important that of over-enthusiastic critics.

  9. History also has examples of ideas being dismissed out of hand in science as well – Galileo and the heliocentric (sun centred) universe for example. It’s sad but I think that for the most part it’s in our nature – there are those of us that are capable of thinking radically and moving things forward, but there are rather more of us that aren’t, and having built careers and what not based on current ways of thinking have little interest in seeing thing change. On the bright side though, we no longer try people for heresy here, and in the developed countries blogs and the like at least give you a chance to get your ideas across. So as long as there’s someone watching, listening or reading that’s capable of thinking “what if” I think that’s all that matters.

  10. Thanks guys, all very interesting. I’m not for one minute suggesting that I, or any other photographer, should be publicly celebrated – that’s not what this is about. What I do find disheartening are those who are critical without foundation, and seem to be hellbent on exposing some sort of hidden agenda. As I say, for me it’s not a problem as such but for an anticipated reaction to stop somebody doing something they’re passionate about, that’s a sad reflection on our culture.

  11. Well of course heads put above the parapet get shot at; sadly it seems to be the price of entry. And you’re right that fear of failure shouldn’t be a show-stopping deterrent. My own experience is that the things I go into feeling the most risk of failure are the very same ones with which, afterwards, I’m most pleased when they have gone right, when I’ve pulled it off. Not that that makes it any easier to still the trepidation when the next insurmountable opportunity comes along.

    But there’s another theme here and it’s the troubled one of honesty. Were the makers of ‘Frozen Planet’ really trying to pass off the shots of polar bear cubs as “in the wild”, or in the excitement did they just forget to make it clear that they were set up in a zoo? If it were a sin of omission then of course it’s forgiveable – a minor error of judgement shouldn’t spoil what I agree was an astonishing and eye-opening series. But if it were a sin of commission – done with malice aforethought, deliberately to deceive – then it deserves opprobrium and seriously mars the integrity of the Beeb. I subscribe to the former explanation – it’s more usually cock-up than conpiracy, after all – but sadly plausible explanations of normal human frailty don’t make the same headlines as an allegedly equivocating Auntie.

    But your central theme is spot on, Pete – if honest mistakes in pursuit of endeavour are panned to the point of preventing us trying in the first place, we’ve got it sadly wrong. To continue the literary theme – ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Substitute whatever verb you prefer and the sense remains much the same.

  12. Hello Pete

    That’s Human nature I am afraid and it is part and parcel of the nature photography world. One of our mutual friends has recently brought out a book and a fellow professional wildlife photographer privately emailed him with a nasty and vindictive comment about its contents and wait for it, he had not even purchased the book. You wouldn’t mind if he had spent his hard earned money on buying a copy but to criticise it after not even buying it.
    Shame really but this world certainly attracts them.

  13. Hello Pete

    Long ago at the start of my “career” I decided, as an act of emotional self preservation, I would listen to everyone’s ideas about what I did but take heed of only perhaps a dozen: esteemed colleagues and the people who actually bought my work and allowed me to keep making it. The worst that can happen to a tall poppy is that its head get’s swiped off; if it has set seed – spread its ideas – then something else will regrow. I believe that we are, individually, conduits for ideas that are “out there” and realised through us: they are not something from within us. If we can take greater satisfaction through seeing an idea realised than the individual glory from our perceived ownership of it, we’re on the road to contentment.

    BTW, as someone whose book reviews haven’t always been sycophantic, I have to dispel any suspicion that I am the guilty party in Danny’s letter about, I suspect, Chris Gomersall’s rather lovely new book, a copy of which I have received from the publisher.



  14. Hello Niall and Pete

    Sorry Niall I can state it wasn’t you. You are one of the good guys in this industry and you wouldn’t be so vindictive.

    This photographer is supposed to be well educated with a good background and comes across on blogs like yours and Pete’s as well educated but in reality is just like these cretins that criticise the BBC for filming a captive Polar Bear or the cretins that criticise Pete and Mark for a wonderful project on Tooth and Claw or the cretins that criticise Wild Wonders of Europe as a job for the boys or the cretins that criticise 2020 as again just a job for the boys or the cretins that criticise the young lad for thinking of a project that is different. Our friends book has made a difference on a small scale and has generated nearly a hundred new members for a local wildlife trust and this cretin thinks this is bad practise. Well god help us if this cretin gets a voice which he is trying to get on blogs and posts like yours. I am kind of old school and I am not an educated man which according to this cretin makes me illiterate but I know one thing and that this kind of person is not what this industry needs. We can all hide behind other authors quotes but don’t say one thing and then do something else on another photographers blog.

    Sorry for the rant but I will fill you in on Thursday.


  15. Just to clarify, Niall, I haven’t received any vindictive e-mails from you or anybody else about my book. I think Danny must be talking about another.


    “The pool in which the nature photographer drinks is shrinking but surely that is no justification to criticise those who try to dig a new pool?”

    The problem is that too many photographers of the nature persuasion only found ‘the pool’ by looking where all the others were gathered. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if all it results in is derivative and unimaginative work and (sometimes) becomes a ‘problem’ for the natural subjects we all profess to care about then it’s worthless (Donna Nook comes to mind).

    Chris G mentioned “the community of wildlife photographers” – I’m not entirely sure that such a thing exists today. And thats the problem. It may have existed pre-digital when the bar for entry was much much higher and sharing of experience and information was a regular and natural occurrence amongst people who respected each other’s hard-won successes. Not now though. As far as I can see, it’s a large bunch of individuals some very serious and others less so, and a host of emulators. Many of the former take a pragmatic approach and respect their subject matter (and their colleagues), but sadly others amongst the latter could care less so long as they get ‘the shot’. Of course that’s a sweeping generalisation, and we all (me included) probably inhabit various of those categories depending on the prevailing circumstances we find ourselves in (I know I certainly do).

    And the problem now for the latter group is that the game is changing. Large scale, innovative projects are starting to appear, and the reality is it’s not easy to emulate them. It’s bloody difficult. You can’t just follow the herd, dip in and out as you feel like it. It needs imagination, commitment, conviction, and a willingness to take risks. And as Pete has realised through wrestling with WWofE and Tooth & Claw it’s not something that’s easily achievable alone. You need teamwork, and that requires a degree of leadership, and investment in time, emotion and energy, and money. It also requires a considerable amount of trust. Just ask yourself this simple question – how many of the critics could put out the call to bring together a ‘team’ and have a significant group of skilled peers respond and say “I’m willing”? Very few I suspect. If they could they’d be doing it, and they’re not.

    The way I see it, and I may be naive and misguided, is that there’s a shedload of stuff still waiting to be done with nature photography and the environment. The technology is advancing at a rapid rate, enabling new ways of telling old stories, and exciting ways to actually unearth previously unseen stuff that will be central to the stories we tell in future. This might be achieved by using new capture technologies, or maybe just thinking differently around the opportunities offered by the new media outlets. So not only do we have new tools to actually tell a story and engage an audience, we’ll have new narrative possibilities to explore in the world around us, a world that’s changing fast. The game is perhaps changing too quickly for all but the very best of the one-man-bands to keep up to speed with, so it will need collaboration with one’s peers just to maintain a competitive toehold. If you feel strongly about telling the stories of the world around you, many of you will have to collaborate. Or you’ll be left behind.

    Will pursuing some of this stuff be risky? Too damn right – it takes precious time, often unpaid, it takes trust, and it takes foresight. And adopting new and cutting edge but immature technologies always presents problems. But then so does pushing for new ways to tell stories, which might bring you head to head with the ‘traditionalists’, which is never an easy thing to contemplate, but is often a good thing to do. We all need shaking out of our complacency from time to time.

    Think this is all waffle and self-justification (I am heavily involved in 2020V after all, and put in a lot of hours for WWofE)? You need to get out more. Never heard of ‘crowdfunding’? Does Kickstarter mean nothing to you? Best go google and find out then, think ‘trust’ ‘collaboration’ and ‘innovation’ as you do so.

    As I write stuff like this blog post I find it useful to stop and wander off to read something else and take a new and fresh perspective. I found this ten minutes ago: http://mikijohnson.com/will-you-be-my-collaborator/ which articulates it all pretty well. I’d draw your attention to the specific part where the author has to defend her call for collaborators to be (initially at least) unpaid. She’s asking potential co-conspirators to do what she’s doing – take a risk, have some trust, make a foray into uncharted waters. And that’s somehow been seen as exploitative and unfair and requires her to elaborate and justify her position. Ring any bells?

    Johnson’s is only one voice saying the word ‘collaboration’, but I’ve read many similar comments from others.

    And so to your young man (who in reality is OUR young man) who says “I don’t want to be seen as a failure”. All I can say is, if it doesn’t work the critics may see failure, but thinking people will see a potential innovator, and congratulate him for having had the gumption to give it a go. Johnson’s article says it better than I could:

    “6. Learn from experience: The barriers to entry for almost every industry have crumbled in recent years—if there’s not a freemium web serviced doing what you need yet, there will be in a year. That means the new model includes lots of experimentation, and potentially lots of failures. Those who succeed will be able to take them in stride, learn everything possible from them, and then carry those lessons forward to the next experiment.”

    Bottom line is – if you’re doing something wrong you’ll often get laughed at; and if you’re doing something right you’ll often be criticised, especially when you’re trying something new. And, if it works, you will ultimately be emulated.

    Does a slight probability of failure mean it’s not worth trying. Well, you decide, after considering what my old dad used to say (he was an avid fisherman who fished in horribly greasy-sided, hair-raisingly scary pot-holes in remote and virtually inaccessible highland rivers, usually all alone, and catching more salmon by playing his dangerous hunches than any other fisherman I’ve ever met). He’d say to me:

    “Don’t be a feartie son, go out and get wet, if there’s no rain, there’s no rainbow”.

    And you know what, that rainbow might just have formed above one slowly-filling little pool that you’re the first one to discover……………..

    (*feartie: Scots language term for ‘someone who is afraid’)

  17. Buongiorno Pete,

    So much has been said already on this excellent post…but so what. In fact, that beginning typifies a personal appraoch that has evolved over many years.

    I grew up in culture (as in bacterial) where, at school, anyone who did anything creative (sing, act, play music) came in for mockery. Some sank, afraid of opprobrium whilst others flourished and donned an ‘F -you’ mantle useful in the rough and tumble of later years. That decrying of endeavour is not just a Welsh characteristic but a British cancer. In the US any businessman of worth is expected to take risks and to have gone through at least one bankruptcy…in the UK, the risk is/was heavily penalised. Dare to be different, that flower standing tall and you become a target.

    There are witterers everywhere but the wonderworld of nature photography has more than its fair share…much of it is based upon resent or the green-eyed monster. Your critics have not one tenth of your ability as a cameraman and, when it cvomes to the necessary drive and ‘cogliones/cojones’, they are hugely under-endowed.

    Long ago, I found it helped to have a small group of friends and fellow travellers who appreciated what one was tring to do and from whom you could be guaranteed painful honesty when needed and quiet praise when deserved. Their opninions matter to me but no others do. Out there, on the miasma that is the internet there are gripes and groans, anonymous reviews written by people whose style you recognise and so it goes. But such things are never to one’s face for the capacity to give back better than you get is also a useful one, I find!

    Trouble is that the internet, with is supposed democracy encourages comment but the illiterati with nothing to say should do the decent thing and shut the firkin up. Dream on for it will not happen.

    Rest assured Pete, there are those of us who see, admire and applaud your ventures with their successes and the nearly so… it is better to have tried than never to do so for fear of failure. There are some excellent and courageous colleagues out there but more than a few of restricted talent, tunnel vision… but great self-love. It makes these inadequates feel superior to criticise and also to forget that they lack even an iota of originality! Rant, yes and no apologies!

    As the Rev Spooner might have said….Too many “Westminster bankers” around.

  18. Actually John, I think that was probably one of the truest things spoken. Let’s face it, if Great, great, great……..grandad Ugg had not decided to go out and take a chance in the world, we’d all still be living in caves in the dark!!
    Change and something new, can be seen as threatening at the time, but soon becomes the accepted norm, once a few people have got a grip of it.

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