It was with mixed feelings that I left home in early May for a week on the Western Isles. I’m always happy to be visiting these Atlantic outposts where the only thing to be relied upon is the unpredictability of the weather. I’m always happy for the opportunity to put money into the local economy and to further the economic case for nature-based tourism. In all likelihood however, this was my last visit – the last of many over the years – certainly leading a tour group.
Way back in 1998 via a collection of rather bizarre circumstances, I found myself running a photo tour company in the Scottish Highlands. In the intervening 20 years, along with my wife Amanda, my working partners Mark Hamblin and more recently James Shooter, I’ve been privileged to have travelled to many different parts of the world with hundreds, if not thousands of guests. Those experiences have shaped and enriched my life in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I took my first tentative steps into this rather quirky business.
August 1998. It was a nervous morning as my old mate Mark Hamblin and I sat in my kitchen drinking coffee, awaiting the arrival of our very first guests on our very first photo tour in our very first year of collaboration. We had no track record, no model on which to base the tour content and no idea how we would be received. It was all very wing-and-a-prayer. By late afternoon the guests had arrived and we nervously struck up conversations about anything that came into our heads. Seven days later with a sigh of relief, it seemed like we’d got away with it.
Every 5 years the Cairngorms National Park reviews its priorities and the 18,000 folk who live and work within its boundaries, alongside anyone with an interest in the Park, are invited to contribute their thoughts. As with all democratic processes, the result of this review will please some and disappoint others and for those who don’t get what they want, the National Park becomes a “waste of time.” Such perceptions are predictable but are they justified? Is the Cairngorms National Park a waste of time and more fundamentally, what are Britain’s National Parks for?
In Scotland there is a legislative obligation on the part of National Park Authorities (the people employed to run the Parks) to coordinate the delivery of four core objectives. In short, they are charged with protecting nature whilst also promoting economic growth.
When I was young I wanted to be Clint Eastwood. I don’t just mean I liked him and his seemingly never-ending stream of heroic roles. No, I wanted to be him. I’ve wanted to be a few people during my 53 years on this crazy ball of rock. Archie Gemmill, Francis Rossi and one of the Thunderbird pilots – I can’t remember which one. Even in my early thirties when I got into photography, there were a few people I wanted to be – who wouldn’t want to be Vincent Munier? Good looking, charismatic and sickeningly talented. Je ne suis pas digne.
Everyone reading this has an impact on the planet and its limited resources. Most of western society eats farmed meat, drives polluting cars and owns an unprecedented range of consumer goods. The device you’re using to read this (and the one I’m using to write it), the light on your office desk and the cup of tea sat next to you – they all use energy. Multiply all of this (and lots more) by a global population spiralling towards 9 billion and it’s easy to see why as a species, we have a problem. A big problem.
Imagine a waterhole on the plains of Africa. Now imagine that each buffalo drinking there is a photographer, and that the water is their livelihood. Now backtrack 25 years and picture the scene. Every few days a buffalo wanders by and takes a leisurely drink. The water is clean and plentiful, the mood of the savannah calm and tranquil. A few years on and more animals start to drink; there’s still enough water to go around but the buffalo are more fractious; conscious of the dwindling supply. Fast-forward to the present day and the times of plenty have disappeared. The buffalo arrive in large herds all eager to quench their thirst but the demand for water exceeds the amount available, and desperate to sustain themselves, the herds scatter to eke out an existence from tiny, drying pools. This is modern day nature photography.
Taking on a photo-led book that focuses on just one species is brave. Especially so when that species is painfully difficult to photograph. Eurasian otters are painfully difficult to photograph. I’ve just enjoyed reviewing Otters in Shetland, the recently published celebration of not just otters in general, but specifically those that make their living on Shetland’s rugged and storm-beaten coastline. It is a book that I can only describe as remarkable. Truly. This book has hard work, passion and determination written all over it. This book could not have been produced by anyone other than Brydon Thomason and Richard Shucksmith, two Shetland photographers who have devoted days, weeks, months, years to their craft.
As the rain hammered relentlessly on the windscreen and the headlights barely penetrated the gloom, the sense of trepidation and dare I say it, helplessness, was palpable. After a long day of trains, planes and automobiles, this was not the Icelandic welcome our guests had in mind. I made an inadequate attempt to lift the mood but only as the lights of our hotel came into view with safety and sustenance assured, could I sense a collective sigh of relief.
I’ve been spending a lot of time photographing alone of late. For the most part, I can live with it; it does as they say, go with the territory. But every now and then, it’s good to talk. And to listen. And to learn. I’ve always enjoyed the stories of other photographers, bringing to my attention new techniques, fresh ideas, innovative thinking. I take solace too, from learning that others share the frustrations I felt were uniquely mine.