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.
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.
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.
Four hours ago I was stood barely upright on Stac Pollaidh, one of Scotland’s most characterful mountains. Such was the ferocity of the wind at my back, I almost needed to crawl into the lee of the hill to gain some respite and a chance to drink in the spectacular views over Inverpolly Forest. Of course ‘forest’ is an ironic and misleading term as there is barely a tree to be seen for miles and miles…and miles.
Benviebooks: For people who know their art from their elbow.
Oh yes that’s clever.
It’s not often that you feel compelled to smile whilst reading a book on nature photography. That book has to be out of the ordinary and by implication, so does its author. When friend and colleague Niall Benvie sent me his latest eBook, You Are Not a Photocopier, I knew I’d need a cup of tea and a few choccie digestives (sorry Niall but if you’d wanted me to accompany the reading with Charlotte’s chocolates, you should have sent some).
One of the traits that makes us human is the ability to plan – to look into the future and envisage the consequences of our actions. We’re obsessed with planning. Businesses plan cash flow and marketing strategy; charities plan fundraising and volunteer recruitment; even nature reserves have management plans dictating which species should live and those that shouldn’t. And as individuals, in an effort to make the best use of our time and resources, many of us plan to the nth degree. As a society we don’t like to leave anything to chance. We strive to ensure wherever possible, positive and sustainable outcomes. It all makes sense but with all this detailed planning going on, you’d think that we’d have a pretty comprehensive plan in place for our future as a species. Not so. This is the elephant in the room, the plan that no one wants to make.
Without realising, I’ve been dashing around Scotland for the last 20 years with my head wedged firmly between my buttocks (too much detail?). I’ve not intended to be blind to the landscape in front of me but rather than look, see and ‘feel’, I’ve rather tended to simply consume. Recently however, I’ve forced myself to explore the Scottish landscape afresh; to put it in a wider perspective; to understand and appreciate it better, or more fully.
I have to apologise: I might have brought you here using a misleading header for this post. I’m sorry. I do want to talk about Help for Heroes, but environmental and social heroes rather than the military type. For some, there is no more worthy an act than sacrificing your safety for your country. For me, it is just as important to celebrate the selflessness of those who give their time and expertise to make our communities – and therefore the world – better. Continue reading “Help for Heroes”