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.
HMS The Still Image was a fine vessel in her day, safely conveying a select group of passengers to ports stocked with bountiful produce. To board her you had to be in the photographic elite but once you had a ticket, you’d be well looked after, your images respected, valued and capable of providing a healthy living. And then, one day, the omnipresent sun disappeared behind a cloud and a few stowaways sneaked onto The Still Image (I was one of them). And then a few more and a few more. The gallant vessel ploughed on but now more slowly, burdened as she was with extra passengers. As word got around, more and more piled on – a few with valid tickets but many simply lured by the tenuous promise of an easy passage to an easy career in a photographic Shangri-la. The storm clouds gathered and the once spacious, comfortable cabins were now packed full with hungry, ambitious and in some cases, unscrupulous, photographers. They all wanted a slice of the action and who could blame them? With limited space and dwindling supplies, passengers started to squabble like fractious children, like vultures fighting over a rotting carcass.
And so here am I today sitting astride the prow of The Still Image watching the water rise and pondering. The lifeboats have been launched and photographers everywhere are scrambling to save themselves as The Still Image slowly sinks under its own weight. The days of plenty are no more. The promise of a sun-kissed utopian life with a camera in hand is an empty one. The photographic elite have been consumed by a voracious swarm of ‘award-winning’ fresh talent and face a future of uncertainty that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
On the horizon is a distant land, unknown, unchartered. The lifeboat has one more space but even if I jump in, where will it take me? Back to port with all the others and the inevitability of more infighting? The distant island looks tempting, a risk yes but one worth taking? I know that I’m not alone on that prow. Many photographers I speak to today see uncertainty ahead of them. Who is the audience for my images? What do they want from me? How much are they willing to pay? I’ve not heard too many convincing answers to any of these questions. There’s no doubt that demand for visual imagery is still high but competition has seen prices plummet and petty one-upmanship become commonplace. It’s difficult to retain dignity faced with an empty dinner table.
So what of that distant island? Will the innovators, the pioneers, the storytellers, turn their backs on the lifeboat and strike out in a fresh direction; build a new life founded on a new product or service? I hope so. The seas might be infested with sharks but surely better run that gauntlet than face a slow, painful demise scrapping over that rotting carcass.
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