One way or another it seems we’re all battling to have our voices heard – or images seen – amongst a growing hubbub, a throng of vulturine media. Competition is taking its toll on many established pros. New ideas don’t stay new for very long; fresh approaches aren’t fresh at all once you start digging and conservation photography, that very laudable idea that visual imagery can contribute to societal values, has in some cases, become the latest photographic bandwagon: a trendy claim to justify self-indulgence. It’s all so damned difficult.
So where is professional nature photography heading? Well, that’s probably a subject for a six-part blockbuster blog, and even if I knew the answer – which I don’t – I’m not sure it addresses my current thought processes. So let’s just stop and think and strip it all back to basics.
Reading David Noton’s piece in a recent edition of Outdoor Photography, I was struck by the simple truth that our pursuit of photographic trophies – those images you can hold aloft and shout about – really isn’t the end in itself but the means to the end. Without the drive that all photographers have to some degree, to secure the images we want, in all likelihood we wouldn’t find ourselves stood on a coastal headland at daft o’clock or freezing your wotsits off in a Scottish blizzard or being so close to a bear that you can smell its rancid breath. These experiences are the real trophies; these are the memories that will etch themselves on your soul for ever – the camera is just the excuse for being there.
So is it just about having fun? In some cases most definitely but I’m not yet 100% sold on that notion – perhaps I just don’t wear frivolity very comfortably. That said, my perspective has changed in recent years. Photography allows us, perhaps forces us, to see the world differently and certainly the experiences I’ve been afforded from standing behind a camera, have shaped what I think, what I feel, what I am. As I reluctantly approach the half-century mark, I’ve learned that the most valuable asset I own is not my image archive but my memory archive, the one stored in my minds eye.
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
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.