This post was published in the first issue of LUMO magazine and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publishers.
I can’t comment for other working photographers but the Good Old Days when my phone rang regularly with big fat juicy commissions, the days when clients came to me almost waving a cheque in my face, they’re now gone and I know they’re not coming back. Gone too is the worth of charging around the planet cherry picking images of charismatic megafauna and blue chip landscapes. A quick search of Alamy’s online image library will reveal no fewer than 30,000 polar bear images and a similar number of Utah’s iconic Monument Valley. Does the world really need any more ‘hero’ images which whilst undoubtedly spectacular, lack context and impact? The digital era has changed everything and The Good Old Days are fast becoming just a distant memory.
Back in 2005, against this shifting, and rather alarming, backdrop, I sat down and seriously considered how I could continue as a photographer. I don’t mean from a financial point of view necessarily but from where would I derive my fulfilment? How would I continue to fuel my need for creative satisfaction? How could I still get my pictures noticed – and published? The industry was changing at an unprecedented rate and I couldn’t imagine my place in the emerging order. It was a tricky time so I decided to change my job description.
Technology has revolutionised the photographic world and working professionals, as well as hobbyists, have had to adapt or else die. But no matter what gadgets and gizmos hit the market, no matter how sophisticated the image-recording hardware becomes, as a species we’re hard wired to listen to stories. The best insurance for any photographer who wants to stay in the game then, is the ability to tell compelling stories. But where do you start? I started where I knew the lie of the land – physically, culturally and politically – in my own backyard.
Effectively confining myself to Scotland was a tad worrying at first. I was fearful of that wanderlust that most photographers have in their genes, the yearning to travel and explore. I also had to bite my lip hard not to revert to the scattergun photography that I’d enjoyed for so long and that my colleagues were still pursuing. No more sea eagles in Norway; no more brown bears in Finland; no more sumptuous breakfasts in Yellowstone following a dawn shoot. It was a bitter pill to swallow. In truth however, the more time I spent working a limited range of subjects and locations with a fixed story-telling objective in mind, the more creative my photography became. Adopting a photographic straightjacket, far from being restrictive, became both liberating and truly exciting. Crucially though, working to a self-initiated brief, allowed me to start exploring stories in which I had a personal interest, an emotional investment even.
Tooth & Claw was my first big project in 2007 and was fired by a deep-seated fascination by our relationship with predators. A series of stories about our attitudes towards eagles, pine martens, seals and further afield in Scandinavia, bears and wolves, culminated in a book and a touring exhibition. Ironically Tooth & Claw led to a commission from Scotland’s environmental advisory body, which at the time was formulating a rescue plan for the Scottish Wildcat (www.highlandtiger.com).
These were exciting times – I was working as a photographer but in many ways, my images were just a currency I was trading in; the real product was communication. Almost without me realising it, I’d become a Visual Communicator and as a conservationist, I immediately recognised this was much more effective than trophy hunting individual images which had no glue to hold them together.
A few years on and I found myself sitting in a hide with Swedish photographer Staffan Widstrand. I’d long admired Staffan’s work and it transpired that we shared similar ideas about using visual imagery as an effective communications tool. A few months later, with colleagues Niall Benvie, Florian Moellers and Roz Kidman-Cox, Wild Wonders of Europe (www.wild-wonders.com) was born.
Wild Wonders was a project without precedent. No one had ever attempted to harness the skills and energy of 70 of Europe’s top wildlife and landscape photographers. For two years it was a logistical nightmare as we sent each photographer on different assignments, every time to a country other than the one they lived in. We made mistakes, we learned valuable lessons along the way, but we also demonstrated the power of collaboration: working together to achieve something that could never be achieved by working alone. And again, this was not about photography, it was about communicating the natural treasures of Europe to an audience that at the time, knew less about it’s wild self than it did about the plains of Africa or the mountain ranges of North America. It was about using photographic stories to open people’s eyes to what was around them.
For me Wild Wonders was a real adventure but it had its downsides: it took me away from Scotland and the management burden meant that apart from brief assignments for the project itself, my photography effectively stopped for three years. I nevertheless saw the value in the principle and with the agreement of the other Directors, I exported the Wild Wonders model back to the UK and started work on 2020VISION (www.2020v.org), another multimedia project, another photographic story. 2020VISION became my life for three years and helped fuel the conversation here in the UK, about the need to ‘rewild’ our landscapes; to understand the crucial services that we get free from the natural world. As with Wild Wonders, 2020VISION had a flagship book, an outdoor touring exhibition and a theatre tour, but perhaps more significantly, it played its part in an ongoing change in mindset about why we all need wild nature.
These long-term photography journeys are ‘heart’ projects. They keep you awake at night; they deprive you of regular income so they keep your bank manager awake at night too; they impinge on your family life and they can at times, dull your photographic senses, dilute your creativity. So why bother?
Photography for me has never been about cameras or software. In fact, I’ve never been that interested in photography as such. Don’t get me wrong, I still love taking pictures, I love working in great light and getting up close with wild animals, but the photographic process – the technical side of things – leaves me cold. What excites me about photography is what it can do. And what it can do is make you think, make you feel. And it can do that much more effectively tied to a compelling narrative; images glued together by a common theme. A story.
So again, why bother? Because when you’re passionate about a species, a place or an issue, you have to bother. If you don’t nothing will change.
Tooth & Claw, Wild Wonders of Europe and 2020VISION brought me a huge amount of satisfaction but the administrative burden was onerous and although my passion for photographic story telling is undiminished, I need to get back to being a photographer. In the field. In the wild. I need to rediscover what it was that brought me to nature photography in the first place.
My latest story then, SCOTLAND: The Big Picture (www.northshots.com), is much more of a personal crusade, working alone to tell a story that I think needs telling about a country that I care about. My home. And that’s the point here really: As photographers, we don’t always have to take on the big stuff. We don’t necessarily have to travel to faraway wilderness reserves, spend lots of money or work with big teams of people. Using our images to tell important stories has to start from within, from a personal passion. And that often leads to a very long and fulfilling journey to the most important place on Earth: Home.