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.
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.
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.
Rare. Elusive. Nocturnal. Aquatic. None of these words caused me to brim with confidence as I drove west recently in search of Scotland’s newest wildlife resident. Knapdale Forest in Argyll was chosen as the site for the Scottish Beaver Trial, a 5-year investigation into the impact of beavers on their habitat and their potential as a boost to rural tourism. Back in 2009, 16 beavers were brought from Norway and via a 6-month quarantine and various medical checks, were released into a number of freshwater lochs surrounded by willow, hazel, alder and oak.
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).
I rarely seem to have time these days to read all the magazines that drop through my door; I’m sure it never used to be the case. One headline however, recently caught my eye: “Make the weather in Photoshop”. Apparently, for those who know what’s what, ice, sun, mist and rain can all be plucked from the digital heavens and inserted into an image with no one being any the wiser. Is that what it’s come to? Is that what nature photography is now about?
A huge debt to our lead guitarist’s father, who’d misguidedly invested in a bunch of egotistical hairys, who could barely play but were nevertheless accomplished posers, meant that my dream of becoming a rock legend at 18 was thwarted before it really began. From the ashes of our well intended but naïve aspiration, my working life began but the damage to my vanity ran deep. Without the band, I was deprived of a public platform, an opportunity to bathe in the glory of public adulation. It was a bitter pill for a young man with carefully nurtured waist-length hair to swallow.
I can’t remember the last time that I was so excited about my photography. It’s a bit weird; I’m like a kid in a sweetshop. It’s not that I’m jetting off to the Pantanal or the Canadian Rockies. It’s not that National Geographic is sending me to Antarctica – quite the opposite in fact: I’m staying in Scotland, a tiny country with a Big Story (that’s the exciting bit).
Years ago I met a Swiss photographer who was passionate about the Serengeti ecosystem. He told me to always make sure I was “doing something” for a place, species or issue about which I was passionate. Ever since that chance meeting, I’ve done exactly that, or at least tried to.
I think the time has come. I feel a bit of honesty is due. They say that the first shoots of recovery from a self-inflicted malaise, is an admission of that malaise. For the last 20 years or so I’ve been kidding myself that I’m a photographer. And now, I realise that I’ve been living a lie; it’s time to own up. For as long as I can remember I’ve been feigning interest in all manner of photographic dialogue but in truth, I care not a hoot.
We all have value systems: the internal rules that govern our daily lives and ethical beliefs. My values have been shaped over five decades and are influenced by myriad factors including my upbringing, my friends and colleagues, my exposure to different belief systems around the world and in recent years, by a better understanding of our relationship with Nature. Continue reading “Trees for Life”