New Frontiers

OK if you don’t take kindly to unashamed promotion, you better stop reading this post right now.

We’re now offering our (updated) New Frontiers AV show for dates late 2011/early 2012. Now, I don’t talk much about cameras or biology or conservation. I do talk quite a bit about me though: well not just me but all of us, and our changing relationship with the natural world – nothing heavy, just stuff to get you thinking. And I tell you a bit about my life over the last 15 years – again, nothing overly indulgent, just what I’ve been up to and how my experiences have shaped my thoughts and attitudes. Oh and there’s a few images thrown in for good measure – some of them quite good I think. And music too. And video. And some funny timelapse stuff. And questions for me to answer along with questions for you to answer.

All in all it’s a visual journey, one which I’d be pleased and humbled to take you on. For dates, availability, fees and a full size pdf of the flyer below, please mail: emma@northshots.com.

What do they say? f8 and be there? I’ve never understood that but hope that a few of us can get together and carry the journey forward. And perhaps cross a few New Frontiers in the process.

What’s it like to be a nature photographer?

I wish I could remember the answer to that question sometimes. Like many others (I know because I’ve heard the complaints) I seem to spend more and more time behind a computer screen. OK, mine is a warm office with great views and a regular supply of milky coffee (a throwback to my childhood) courtesy of my lovely wife Amanda. But it’s NOT what I signed up to!

Last weekend I spent a few days with colleagues Mark Hamblin, Niall Benvie and videographer Raymond Besant. Were were working on a 2020VISION assignment in north-west Scotland. OK the weather wasn’t great but do you know what, I could feel the blood pumping through my veins again; the creative urge that brought me to this business in the first place surged back to the surface. But most of all, I was getting a wildness fix.

Standing alone at Achnahaird Bay as a hazy dusk descended, I got a call from Amanda with some very sad news – a friend of ours had died very suddenly. Shocking though the news was, I could not have chosen to receive it anywhere more comforting. Wildness is not just somewhere that serves up spectacular imagery, it’s where we came from; it’s our home. I know our friend would have empathised with such a view.

Change in the water?

We don’t do change very well: as a species I mean. Our manicured, orderly landscape bears witness to that, with any hint of ‘wilding’ touching a raw rural nerve and challenging our control of a landscape that was historically perceived to be for the exclusive use of one species only: us.

And so the beaver, an ostensibly innocuous water rat, has found its way into the news; not necessarily as an agent of ecological change but as a carrier of cultural change. The beavers of Knapdale in Argyll, although not universally welcomed, have at least arrived through ‘official channels’, those prescribed by European legislation. The beavers presently running amok in the Tay catchment however, are seemingly escapees of unknown origin and questionable genetics. They are not official beavers welcomed by an official policy by well…officials. Predictably therefore a divisive dispute is raging over whether the unofficial beavers should be left alone or rounded up and popped into captivity.

I have to say I’ve read numerous reports and find it difficult to disagree with either view. Scottish Natural Heritage, although often accused of a lack of flexibility, have their hands tied both by legislation and by strategic obligations. They have ruled that the beavers must be captured. Equally, the growing fan base for the itinerant beavers also offer valid arguments in terms of animal welfare and opportunities for ecological research. It’s a tricky one for sure.

What is perhaps predictable is that this won’t be the last dilemma of its kind. As the potential for the spread of non-native species increases (not that I’m suggesting the Tay beavers come under this category), against a backdrop of growing concern for the functionality of our ecosystems, and perhaps, the tendency towards societal extremes at the expense of pragmatism, deciding which species live where and to whose benefit, will become more and more difficult.

Managing change – brought about by beavers or otherwise – has never been easy and therein lies the social science of conflict resolution. There are people who study this stuff, they’ve become experts in it. They’re not conservationists, foresters, farmers or ecologists and that’s their strength. They know little of beavers but change isn’t about beavers, it’s about people. And resolving conflict relies on knowing about people and the ability to effectively communicate with them. I can’t help thinking that somewhere amongst all the talk of beaver legislation, ecology and welfare, there’s a role for a professional communicator, a manager of change, a resolver of conflict, a mediator – call it what you will.

It happens to be beavers in the Tay just now, but red deer, seals and pine martens, they’re all symbols of our changing relationship with nature. Perhaps that change needs some innovative management?

Is it a good time to bring up wolves?

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

Good enough for that French guy…

OK I’m a fan. He’s good looking with a French accent that Givenchy would die for and he takes some damned good images. Vincent Munier, wildlife photographer and annoyingly good bloke. As much as anything I love his wishy washy blue-cast winter images with no real punch, very little colour and therefore out of kilter with today’s demand for strong primary – often garish – colours.

I know his recent books have come in for a bit of criticism outside his native France, for what is perceived as dull and lifeless production. But I disagree. Yes they’re sombre but they’re full of atmosphere and intrigue; they almost put you there and doing that is what a good image does. Now I’m not French, good looking or blessed with anything other than a working class Midlands accent, but if wishy washy is good enough for Vincent, it’s good enough for me.

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.

All things to everyone

How many times have I heard it. How many times have I said it myself: “You can’t do everything.” The trouble is I want to. In some ways I need to. But I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that I can’t. Something has to give.

I’ve had 4 great years with Wild Wonders of Europe and the project is far from done; but I am. Time, energy, passion, inclination – these are all finite resources which will only go so far, and with a half-finished book on my desktop (amongst many other things), WWE is one ask too far for the coming year. I wish my fellow directors every success in moving Wild Wonders forward in the manner it deserves.

Project photography is very demanding and when working with others, compromise is a pre-requisite. Perhaps that’s the next lesson I need to learn. Perhaps we all do.

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.

New Frontiers talks.

Just a quick reminder of the upcoming dates/locations for the New Frontiers talk – I’d certainly like to see as many folk there as possible – I’m sure the organisers would too!

15th: Dundee Photographic Society, St. Pauls Church Hall, Nethergate, Dundee, 1930hrs.

25th: Swavesey Camera Club, Swavesey Village Colleage, Swavesey, Cambs. 1939hrs.

26th: North Staffs.RSPB Group, Wade Hall, North Staffs Conference CEntre, Hartshill, Stoke. 1930hrs.

28th: Wirral Photographic Association, Vauxhall Sports Club, Rivacre Rd., Ellesmere Port. 1330hrs.