Although I’ve never fully understood the significance of New Year as a watershed for reflection, evaluation, goal-setting, I nevertheless find myself doing exactly that around this time. 2013 was a busy old year with precious little time to come up for air, but it also turned out to be a bit of a turning point.
Amongst the more notable events in my life was the anniversary of my half-century on this wonderful but crazy ball of rock; my son Sam turning from a boy to a man (at least in a legal context); the progression of the 2020VISION project; the resurrection of the Scottish Nature Photography Festival and an invitation to become a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). Whilst travels and tours took me to North America, Iceland, Norway and Svalbard – all great adventures with stories to match – it was the ILCP invitation which really got me thinking and an event in November finally brought clarity to a scrambled head that has remained scrambled for far too long.
In November I was honoured to be invited to exhibit at the Montier-en-der photo-festival in France. This annual event attracts 45,000 visitors and some of the world’s top photographers (yes I’m not sure why they invited me either). One afternoon during the festival I attended a funeral; a funeral for a Mountain Gorilla. The lawned courtyard in the town centre was carpeted with 200 (mock) gravestones with a gorilla photograph adorning each one and the assembled crowd of 300-plus, stood in sombre silence, anticipating what was to come. The doors at the end of the courtyard slowly opened and into the winter sunshine emerged an ornate silver casket borne by six solemn pallbearers. As the casket was laid down in front of the crowd, Montier’s mayor delivered an evocative and moving account of the dead gorilla’s life. How he had been born into a safe, secure family in a pristine forest; how he had grown amongst other gorillas; how he had matured and eventually had young of his own and finally, how he, and others of his kind, had died as the forest and all the creatures that had evolved to live there, perished at the hands of another primate, one which only thought of short-term gain.
I found myself deeply moved by this innovative enactment; not so much by the plight of the gorilla, but by the commitment of Gilles Martin, the photographer behind the event, and the courage of the local authorities to support such a contentious ‘funeral’ with all its potential for religious and cultural division. The event exposed its audience to raw emotion: THIS is what photographers are capable of doing: THIS is what conservation photography is about – pushing the boundaries, stretching our audience, making a difference. Doing something.
As more and more of us clamber onto the bandwagon that is conservation photography, all pledging to save the planet with our pictures, we’ve probably arrived at a crossroads. I find myself wondering whether ‘conservation photography’ has become something of a marketing tool, a ‘Fairtrade’ badge that somehow justifies what can be a very self-indulgent pursuit. A lot of nature photographers, myself very much included, talk the talk but do we really walk the walk? Are we prepared to stick our necks out and stage a mock gorilla funeral? Or create a Human Blue Whale with 60 naked women? Or risk our own safety in pursuit of something we care passionately about? Like Britta Jaschinski? or Brent Stirton? Photography is indeed a powerful medium but only if its mobilised.
I’ve spent the last 50 years trying, and failing, to make sense of this shrink-wrapped world: the fact is I just don’t get it. But I do get the difference between right and wrong and as John Muir so famously articulated, conservation is exactly that: a battle between right and wrong. I hold my hands up – I’ve changed my tune a tad during 2013. It’s time to walk the walk, do what’s right, make a difference.
I wish you a contented and healthy 2014 and hope that we can all make a difference.