Sex on 4 legs…or 2 wings.

I know I’m not alone in search of the holy grail that is mainstream acceptance of the natural history image. Yes I know that conservation is more ‘popular’ than ever and that greetings cards of robins sell by the truckload. I’ve even noticed the trend for well established camera operators to become presenters, such is the appetite of a growing audience for contact with nature – virtual or otherwise.

But let’s be honest: it’s not mainstream, not really. Very little of what I or my contemporaries do, ever gets noticed beyond a very small niche audience. We’re simply not sexy enough. And so it was with great surprise (and cautious delight) that I picked up a copy of HELLO magazine recently (left at our holiday cottage I’ll have you know). Amongst all the glitz and the obscene conspicuous consumerism of the great and the good, an image from the Wild Wonders of Europe collection – yes, a natural history photograph in HELLO magazine! Right in there alongside a more than generous serving of designer-clad celebs sporting the latest shade of orange skin pigment.

So my quest for 2011 is to give thought (or should I say ‘more thought’) into translating this faint ember of hope into a raging inferno. Conservation has been historically conservative in its quest to sell itself. Perhaps 2011 is the year for nature photographers to prostitute ourselves; to do whatever it takes to be seen; to be conspicuous; to be less worthy; to make our subjects sexy.

Any ideas? A very safe and contented New Year to one and all.

Down at the water hole.

When the rains are plentiful, the pools are full and the animals can drink freely, spared of energy-sapping petty spats. But when the rains fail to materialise, the pools diminish and more and more demand is placed on a dwindling supply. You can stay and fight over scraps hoping the rains will return, or you can leave and look for your own pool. Survival depends on that choice.

In the early nineties a drought descended on the nature photography community in the form of the digital revolution, and the subsequent accessibility to many more practitioners. Sure the pool was full, but there were suddenly many more trying to quench their thirst. I was nowhere near the front row so decided to go in search of my own pool. To survive. Most were occupied but eventually I found an oasis and was able to drink. Narrative-based conservation photography was an emerging field at the time and the water tasted sweet. Although others had arrived before me, the opportunities seemed plentiful, tempered only by the unproven case for financial viability. Although I’ve been tempted back to the main pool from time to time, I’m thankful that my little oasis has sustained me albeit on meagre rations.

But my pool and many others like it, has now been discovered and ‘conservation photography’ is becoming quite the thing. Despite the obvious pressures this brings, I for one welcome more photographers thinking about what they shoot, but more importantly what they do with what they shoot. What is unwelcome however, is the green halo competition that seems to be emerging as the increasing crowds gather around the pool.

Outdoor Photography magazine recently ran a feature entitled’ the 40 most influential nature photographers.’ I was humbled to be included, along with several close colleagues and a number of veritable giants of the business. Making such a selection inevitably raises hackles, and whether the magazine’s choice of photographers was appropriate or not, is of course a matter of personal interpretation. But I would suggest that the 40 individuals highlighted – irrespective of their ‘right’ to be there – have one thing in common: they all went in search of their own pool and mostly found it; not so they could strut around wielding their green halo, but so they could survive. Surely anyone who does that, deserves at least some credit?

Of course if we all brought a shovel along, we could make the pool bigger.

Download feature here: 61_71 most influential nature photo2_SW

Cake and eat it…with cream on.

I think it’s fair to say that as a society, we don’t take kindly to being told what to do. We celebrate perceived democracy; we shun the social and cultural straight jacket. At best we’re mildly receptive to persuasion by the establishment. We pretty much choose to do what we want to do, when we want to do it. Yes we can think for ourselves thank you very much.

Until it all goes wrong. And last week it went spectacularly wrong in the form of unprecedented snowfall across the Scottish central belt. Suddenly, our independent, maverick society calls upon the state to ‘do something’. We’re not sure who should do what exactly but calls are heard to stop the snow falling, magic up some (very expensive) snow ploughs, muster the dormant snow police…just do something!

Well not surprisingly there was nothing much that could be done. But not content with resignation, even respect for the power of nature, we needed someone to blame. Someone that could have and should have rubbed the genie bottle and made it all go back to ‘normal’. Stewart Stevenson MSP resigned as Transport Minister after severe criticism over how he handled the difficulties. Overnight a capable (and elected) individual was deemed to be incapable and he became unemployed. Is our society enriched as a result?

Another Transport Minister will come along, and so will another blizzard. Shit happens.

The festive season beckons.

Has another year really passed by? A full 12 months? Are we really staring down the barrel of another bellyfull of ritualistic over-consumption? It would seem so.

I’ve had a tricky few days – snowed out from home (rather than snowed in); freezing diesel and ailing parents on my mind. Against this backdrop I set off today to use my camera – it sometimes seems like a real novelty! Gingerly picking my way down ice-laden Glenfeshie, I met a neighbour who stopped to pass the time of day. “Have you done it all?” she enquired. “Done it all?” I asked. “Christmas!” she beamed. I politely avoided a response but later, whilst standing behind my tripod trying to make the most of this wonderful scene, I reflected on what my neighbour meant by ‘it all’.

I’m 48 next month and if I live until 100, I’ll never understand modern Christmas. By ‘it all’ I hoped she meant giving thought to relaxation; reflecting on a prosperous and varied life and looking forward to spending time with those I don’t normally spend time with. But I don’t think she did mean that, and the queue outside Tesco’s car park tonight would suggest not either.

Measuring success.

In this month’s Outdoor Photography magazine, Niall Benvie makes a fair and valid point that nature photographers shouldn’t measure ‘success’ simply by their financial performance. He pleads the case for recognition, legacy and the ‘value’ of experiences.

Whilst not claiming to be anything other than on the bottom rung of the success ladder, I have until recently overlooked the ‘value’ of time spent in the field. Moreover when that time is spent with family, close friends or appreciative tour guests.

Our recent photo-tour to Skye came at an inconvenient time for me. Having attended several major conferences and with notes made at innumerable 2020VISION meetings still piled high on my desk, the tour was something I could have done without. But do you know what? I worked with great buddy Mark Hamblin – something I’ve not done for a long time; the guests were superb company; the weather was good in the most part; we had a laugh and we visited some great locations. I even got some pleasant shots myself. Although I got paid for guiding the tour, the money is irrelevant: it’s a week that I’ll remember, along with many others, for a long, long time. Priceless.

At a crossroads?

Niall Benvie’s blog is always a thought-provoking retreat (click here to read) and often allows me a cup of tea, a digestive and 5 mins. of escapism along an interesting road of parallel thinking.  In his latest post he discusses the ever-changing definition of ‘nature photography’.

The range of responses underlines our need to pigeon-hole this particular genre of imagery, something that both bemuses and frustrates me personally.

More and more photographers are thinking not about what they shoot and how they shoot it, but about what they DO with their images; how they package their product. I’m not convinced of the need to define nature photography, but of the need for it to work on behalf of its subjects. Let’s not get too hung up about what it is, let’s channel our energies into exposing our work to our audience. If in doing so we move them on an emotional level, I for one don’t care what we call it.

Individual or species?

This month’s Outdoor Photography magazine carries an interesting piece by Peter Moonlight on the number of photographers now visiting the Donna Nook grey seal colony in Lincolnshire – anecdotal evidence suggests upwards of 200 on a busy day. The site is managed by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and they are increasingly concerned about the impact of irresponsible photographers on pup abandonment.

So how do we define ‘irresponsible’? Every photographer I know that’s been to Donna Nook blames someone else and claims that their finely honed fieldcraft or professional status exempts them from being ‘irresponsible’. But if we define the term by the causing of disturbance – no matter how insignificant- then every photographer who visits, is ‘irresponsible’ whether they’re prepared to admit it or not. For the record, I am one of those implicated.

The ‘problem’ is not unique to Lincolnshire’s seals. Wherever there is an opportunity to get close to wildlife, it’s inevitable that a photographer/filmmaker will take that opportunity. The images find their way into the public domain and more photographers visit. Their images get seen and so on and so on. But I’m not sure we can have it both ways.

Even at a political level there is a mandate to encourage public engagement with nature. Those responsible for fulfilling that task often rely on imagery as a catalyst to cajole that engagement. That is exactly what has happened at Donna Nook – with tens of thousands of people now visiting the main seal colony each year; it’s a PR success story.

The irony of course is that the UK grey seal population has increased dramatically in recent decades – not because of over-zealous photographers but certainly in spite of them. Ditto Bass Rock’s gannets and Wales’ red kites.

I’m not condoning irresponsible photographers and for what it’s worth, I won’t be visiting Donna Nook until management changes, but we can’t expect to celebrate Britain’s wildlife through the medium of imagery and then reel at the consequences.

It’s all over.

Tardy blog updates mean two things:

1. No new pictures to show.
2. No new pictures to show because I’ve not left the office.

Actually that’s not completely true but as cold air wafts through the office window, I reluctantly conclude that summer has passed me by and a new season is beckoning. To be fair August is a dreadful month in my book. Often wet, always midgy and little in the way of inspiration. So summer might have been a non-event but the wonderful hues of autumn are not far away – bring it on!