2014: A year for doing?

Although I’ve never fully understood the significance of New Year as a watershed for reflection, evaluation, goal-setting, I nevertheless find myself doing exactly that around this time. 2013 was a busy old year with precious little time to come up for air, but it also turned out to be a bit of a turning point.

Amongst the more notable events in my life was the anniversary of my half-century on this wonderful but crazy ball of rock; my son Sam turning from a boy to a man (at least in a legal context); the progression of the 2020VISION project; the resurrection of the Scottish Nature Photography Festival and an invitation to become a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). Whilst travels and tours took me to North America, Iceland, Norway and Svalbard – all great adventures with stories to match – it was the ILCP invitation which really got me thinking and an event in November finally brought clarity to a scrambled head that has remained scrambled for far too long.

In November I was honoured to be invited to exhibit at the Montier-en-der photo-festival in France. This annual event attracts 45,000 visitors and some of the world’s top photographers (yes I’m not sure why they invited me either). One afternoon during the festival I attended a funeral; a funeral for a Mountain Gorilla. The lawned courtyard in the town centre was carpeted with 200 (mock) gravestones with a gorilla photograph adorning each one and the assembled crowd of 300-plus, stood in sombre silence, anticipating what was to come. The doors at the end of the courtyard slowly opened and into the winter sunshine emerged an ornate silver casket borne by six solemn pallbearers. As the casket was laid down in front of the crowd, Montier’s mayor delivered an evocative and moving account of the dead gorilla’s life. How he had been born into a safe, secure family in a pristine forest; how he had grown amongst other gorillas; how he had matured and eventually had young of his own and finally, how he, and others of his kind, had died as the forest and all the creatures that had evolved to live there, perished at the hands of another primate, one which only thought of short-term gain.

I found myself deeply moved by this innovative enactment; not so much by the plight of the gorilla, but by the commitment of Gilles Martin, the photographer behind the event, and the courage of the local authorities to support such a contentious ‘funeral’ with all its potential for religious and cultural division. The event exposed its audience to raw emotion: THIS is what photographers are capable of doing: THIS is what conservation photography is about – pushing the boundaries, stretching our audience, making a difference. Doing something.

As more and more of us clamber onto the bandwagon that is conservation photography, all pledging to save the planet with our pictures, we’ve probably arrived at a crossroads. I find myself wondering whether ‘conservation photography’ has become something of  a marketing tool, a ‘Fairtrade’ badge that somehow justifies what can be a very self-indulgent pursuit. A lot of nature photographers, myself very much included, talk the talk but do we really walk the walk? Are we prepared to stick our necks out and stage a mock gorilla funeral? Or create a Human Blue Whale with 60 naked women? Or risk our own safety in pursuit of something we care passionately about? Like Britta Jaschinski? or Brent Stirton? Photography is indeed a powerful medium but only if its mobilised.

I’ve spent the last 50 years trying, and failing, to make sense of this shrink-wrapped world: the fact is I just don’t get it. But I do get the difference between right and wrong and as John Muir so famously articulated, conservation is exactly that: a battle between right and wrong. I hold my hands up – I’ve changed my tune a tad during 2013. It’s time to walk the walk, do what’s right, make a difference.

I wish you a contented and healthy 2014 and hope that we can all make a difference.

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14 thoughts on “2014: A year for doing?

  1. Some excellent points there Pete but I did find one thing slightly disappointing. The link to the 60 naked women making a Blue Whale appears to be broken.

    Taxi for one.

  2. Hello Pete

    What an unusual co-incidence of paths; I may be a year behind you but I’ve come to the point this year too of growing weary of analysis, explanation and conceptualisation. I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure out the best way to live but maybe it’s time now just to try doing so having prepared for so long.

    Interestingly, the role models you cite from Montier are individuals rather than projects. I fear that the short-lived experiment we’ve part both participated in in the shape of large cooperative projects may have had its day (although I have to exclude MYN from this which is doing just fine!). I hope to be proved wrong if other projects emerge.

    My best for 2014 (and hope that you can do more “proper photography” for and by yourself)


  3. PS. John Muir’s “right or wrong” analysis is typically simplistic but if we can acknowledge that when the chips are down, conservation is a matter of ethics rather than practically for the vast majority of the population, then we can move forward from a point of honesty.


  4. Hi Pete. Nice words. I could tell from your talk at the Community hall in Boat of Garten last winter your beliefs were fighting your indulgences. Having also just hit the half century milestone I have been having a similar battle. It could be argued that merely existing is detrimental to our over crowded planet. But as I am here I will do my best to do the right thing. Awareness of our delicate eco system. Attempt to educate those around me. Leave no trace. Enjoy our wilderness. Have a great 2014. You are doing great work.

  5. Pete,

    Whilst I enjoyed reading your essay, I can’t help feeling that your emotive comments about the mock gorilla funeral were a bit over the top. Yes I’m sure it was an emotional event but what effect did it really have? I suspect not a lot. Why? Because I’m sure the majority of the people there were conservationists and conservation photographers who already understand the plight of the mountain gorilla.

    What would have been brave was if Gilles Martin had convinced everyone in attendance to have the conviction to travel to Africa and perform the same ceremony to an audience of the people who are destroying the gorilla’s natural habitat for what I expect are their own valid reasons. Do you think they would have had tears in their eyes?

    You concluded that conservation photography is about “doing something”. Preaching to the converted isn’t really doing that is it?

    1. I know where you’re coming from Paul but I don’t think we should under-estimate the indifference on our own doorstep. I often get told that ‘the audience’ should be the young, the old, the wealthy, the marginalised, the disenfranchised…the list goes on. In my view pretty much everyone can be encouraged to care given the right motivation. Changing behaviour however, is the key and that’s just as tricky a job in middle-class France as it is in deepest Africa.

      Gilles and others like him, have at least made a start.

  6. Pete, I agree that making a start is something and that indifference is rife. I’m guilty of it myself until I really sit down and think about the situation. Then I can only conclude that the change in behaviour needed is vast. Following on from the conversation we had this morning, I think we both recognised that the change has to be so vast that all the governments, cultures, religions etc. in the world need to recognise that the only way to conserve/re-wild the planet is to control the human population. As you said, David Attenborough has been proposing this for some time.

    Whilst the work by Gilles and others is laudable and no doubt effective, I have a feeling that it might not be effective enough to convince the powers that be to implement the changes required.

    Sadly, by the time all the power people in the world have the bottle to tackle the problem head on, it may be too late.

  7. Very valid points on all sides here, but we have to start somewhere don’t we? What’s that old saying “great oaks from little acorns grow”.

    I agree it’s a daunting and possibly an impossible task to change the behaviour of the whole of humankind, but we can’t use that as an excuse to just give up and stop trying. Hopefully, by changing the attitudes and behaviour of lots of small groups we will, eventually, reach the masses and have a more lasting and beneficial effect overall.

    This planet is a wonderful place, as are the many and varied things on it, whether they be animate or inanimate and if like me you feel at peace when out in the quiet of an unpopulated, wild area then do “your bit”, whatever that may be, to look after it while you are there and encourage others to do likewise.

    Keep up the good work Pete – your message is getting through!

  8. Thoughtful post Pete. Long response to it. Sorry. But maybe it’s worth the telling.

    I’ve recently been scanning some old work and revisiting some past experiences, and with the clarity of hindsight reflecting on the ways that my outlook on life has been shaped by the experience of getting into the position to make some of those images. But whats also important, and I think indivisible from that experience, is how the images themselves have been able to carry with them some value as they and I continued on through life.

    I went to Africa when I was just turned 17, for several months traveling alone, hitching and curious (this was the 70′s: apartheid in South Africa, civil war in Rhodesia, and I got in about some of it and into some situations I should not have, and saw some nasty stuff, bit of a wake-up call).

    However in Swaziland I wandered across the open rolling hills and came to a little village miles from anywhere and was greeted by a group of raggedy children and their parents and a great friendly interaction took place, and I took many photos and shared tea with them.

    From Swaziland I went to Lesotho, into the mountains, and met some more fine people, did a lot of talking and great deal more listening, and took more images of families, children and young people and the way they lived, and the places they inhabited.

    Fast forward a few years and I was (bi)cycling around the USA, and found myself stalled out in Texas for the winter. Through a school teacher I’d met I took a chance and offered to give a slide show and talk to a Social Studies class of 12 to 14 year olds in a South Texas rural school. These were predominantly African American children. Many were from low-income families, although not all.

    I showed them images from my home in Scotland and some from my African wanderings, and to the teacher’s great dismay the images of impoverished rural African children elicited a rather callous and obviously ‘racist’ response from the mainly black audience.

    There was a chorus of raucous giggles accompanied by comments such as “ho ho look at the poor niggers” and “he’s got his jersey on backwards and one arm of it is missing ha ha ha ha ha” and “man that’s a snotty nose like a car crash (snigger) and “whoa look no clothes, just old raggedy blankets on these coons” ” and so on and so forth.

    This went on until I showed a specific image, included deliberately in the sequence. It showed a small mound of brown earth, fallen leaves strewn about, all autumnal muted colours. In the out-of-focus area behind there was another mound, and behind that another, and another. On the mound in front, carefully in focus, were two baby bottles, and a number, 55, painted on a roughly hewn board.

    And there was silence in the class. Nothing. Not even a murmur. And then one child asked why there was no headstone or name on the grave, only a number.

    And so I talked about poverty, infant mortality in Africa, life expectancy, lack of schooling, drought and famine, civil war, and the complex reality of some young people’s lives. And there came the unmistakable sound of uncomfortable buttock shuffling.

    The next day the teacher told me the class had been greatly affected by the images, and that after I left there had followed a prolonged discussion about child poverty, and that a couple of the children had been very perplexed and a little distressed by the realization of the situation that others of their age had to tolerate. Many of the class were undoubtedly living close to the poverty line as defined in the USA, but even they could see the vast gulf that existed between their experience and some of the children I’d portrayed.

    Now this is not important work, only a few simple images, they wont change much about the world, but that’s really not the point. The point is that being there to take the images changed me, and inspired my subsequent use of these images in a very specific and deliberate way which might just have subtly shifted one or two rural Texan children’s world view. That might not amount to much in the greater scheme of things. But it’s something.

    This unremarkable incident taught me a valuable lesson about photography and its power to communicate and to change, maybe, just one mind. That HAS to be worth something.

    And we can all do that. Very very easily.

  9. I repeat the comment Pete made to me – “Well said, John”!

    A very emotive piece and echoing my own thoughts; there’s nothing like seeing “it”, whatever “it” may be, for oneself to make you realise just what the reality is. However, photography and events like the mock gorilla funeral have the power and ability to communicate situations to people and communities who otherwise might never see them for themselves. I hope such things will make them investigate further and then change their actions in a positive manner.

    Every little helps, or so it’s said – so I’d say YES it IS definitely worth something.


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