In the past decade, environmental issues such as climate change, deforestation, wildlife poaching and more recently plastic pollution, have gained greater prominence in the world’s news agenda. For example, a year ago any story about the harm of plastic waste to the environment would have been discarded by news editors as quickly as a plastic fork. But when the BBC’s Blue Planet II confronted millions of viewers with footage showing an albatross killed by something as seemingly innocuous as a plastic toothpick, the scale of the reaction quickly raised the issue to the top of the news agenda.
It was only a few minutes of footage but the images needed few if any words to explain the significance of the issue: a British scientist surrounded by plastic regurgitated by albatross chicks; a sperm whale with a plastic bucket stuck to its jaw; a pilot whale carrying her newborn calf in her mouth, poisoned by her mother’s milk due to the ingestion of industrial chemicals and microplastics dumped at sea. These images delivered the visual impact needed to make sense of the written scientific data that frankly most people struggle to understand.
Previously, the BBC’s natural history unit had skirted around many of the environmental issues they had often confronted in making their award-winning programmes, preferring to the keep the cameras sharply focused on the beauty and wonder of the natural world. But Blue Planet II was different with this unflinching footage of visual proof to back up presenter Sir David Attenborough’s direct appeal to audiences to do more than just be shocked by what they had seen.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but just a few weeks before Blue Planet II went to air, another uncompromising image of threatened wildlife, this time a dehorned black rhino killed by poachers, filled the world’s front pages in print and online. The occasion was the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and the image by Brent Stirton was named the overall winner. It is unquestionably the most prestigious award in wildlife photography, but never in its 53-year history had the competition awarded the top prize to a photo of an iconic species depicted in such a tragic and shocking state. Past winners tended to be photos that people would find heart-warming or ideal for hanging on their living room wall, but Stirton’s butchered rhino was a significant departure from the past.
To the outside world, Stirton seems to represent a new breed of wildlife photographer, one who is prepared to reveal the dark side of the natural world where species and habitats are facing extinction due to the unceasing growth of human population and the global economy. In fact, Stirton and other photographers have been working on stories like rhino poaching or the decline of marine life for decades, but with little reaction from the public. Now, that seems to be changing as more and more photographers realign their focus to concentrate on environmental stories. In effect, wildlife photography has transformed into a more photojournalistic style, now commonly described as conservation photography.
Steve Winter, a specialist in photographing the world’s big cats, sees his role as far more purposeful than simply taking appealing stock photos of these iconic animals. ‘I need to tell their story,’ he says, ‘as just getting beautiful tiger images won’t help to save them, nor inform readers about their present situation. My images need to also be the caption in a way – hopefully – so the reader knows what’s going on without words.’ This is more than just another way of saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’; rather, it is an example of how conservation photographers are driven by a need to tell a story and provoke a response, particularly if they feel they are documenting something unseen or unknown.
Like investigative reporters, conservation photographers sometimes work undercover, particularly when tackling a subject that’s mired in criminality. Brent Stirton describes those scenarios like this: ‘There are times when I am in disguise or I will dress up as someone who is not a photographer, or make a very clear attempt not to be a journalist, but that’s when I’m dealing with people who are clearly breaking the law.’ In such situations, he will also use less conspicuous camera gear, smaller models such as a Fujifilm X-100 or a Canon M5, which ‘looks like a tourist’s camera but gives me a professional file.’
Winter and Stirton have spent a large chunk of their careers concentrating on a handful of species, often returning to the same story to assess how the situation has developed. Others, like Paul Hilton devote themselves to a specific part of the world, covering a wide range of environmental stories in the region.
Hilton, who describes himself as a conservation photojournalist, is based in Hong Kong, itself a major hub of the illegal wildlife trade. From here he never has far to travel to find a story, whether its covering the relentless logging of Indonesia’s rainforests, industrial scale shark finning or pangolin poaching. He says: ‘I’ve spent a large amount of my career photographing the atrocities to wildlife and the environment, from shark finning to palm oil expansion into some of the last great forests of Asia. It’s the front line of the war on the environment and its wildlife.’
It is also a war where many of the protagonists are well-armed gangs, and requires stealth and calculated risk to get the pictures. Hilton’s undercover camerawork featured heavily in the award-winning documentary film, Racing Extinction, which gave a tense view into the organised crime networks running the illegal wildlife trade. When shooting scenes of cruelty or mass death, such as the bodies of 4,000 pangolins seized from a ship, Hilton admits to maintaining a degree of professional detachment from his subject. ‘It’s almost like I am not there, as if I’m watching the scene unfold on TV or on-screen,’ he says. ‘I feel very detached, but it’s after the fact that I really try to confront and understand what I’ve just witnessed. It can be soul destroying at times, and sometimes I do feel like walking away and not documenting these wildlife atrocities, but at the same time, it’s so important for the world to see and often it’s just me with a camera.’
This sense of acting alone and being the sole witness may seem like a burden at times but it adds weight to the importance of the pictures. Also, many conservation photographers work in tandem with NGOs, research scientists and charities which place great value on the importance of photography to support their own investigations and findings. Hilton himself has worked alongside Rainforest Action Network, WildAid, Greenpeace and Wildlife Asia for his stories.
ACTIVISTS FOR CHANGE
For many conservation photographers, their role is about more than just finishing the story and getting it published. Some, like Jo-Anne McArthur, are also leading activists for change. Toronto-based McArthur is the founder of We Animals, a publicly-funded photography project documenting human relationships with animals. McArthur supplies her pictures to animal welfare and liberation groups and doesn’t baulk at entering fur farms at night or battery farms and slaughterhouses to get the pictures that will uncover illegal practices and animal abuse.
‘We scale fences. We walk through unlocked doors. We climb through open windows,’ she says. Her work gained international prominence when she was the subject of a documentary film, The Ghosts in our Machine, and more recently for her touching photo of a young gorilla, in the arms of her keeper, being transported to a sanctuary in Cameroon. This image was the winner of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of Year People’s Choice Award and depicted one of the few positive stories to emerge from Africa’s gruesome bush meat trade.
Finding the ‘good news’ stories to complement the endless images of environmental devastation and wildlife killing are also part of the conservation photographer’s remit. It is a path that Neil Aldridge has pursued for the past five years. ‘I have tried to concentrate on finding the ‘silver lining’ stories amongst the abhorrent mess of the rhino poaching crisis,’ he says, ‘the stories of poaching survivors, the stories of devotion from person to rhino and, in Botswana, the story of regrowth, rebuilding the rhino populations that were once lost.’
Aldridge’s ‘silver lining’ stories also win awards: in 2016 he received numerous commendations for his silhouetted image of Thandi, a female rhino who survived a horrific poaching attack to remove her horn. The little rhino’s story and Aldridge’s image gained attention on news and social media, ultimately leading to the creation of a charity in the rhino’s name to raise funds for the rescue and rehabilitation of other rhino poaching survivors.
Telling stories of survival and acts of compassion; the compulsion to investigate and expose; the belief that photography can right a wrong; a desire to save a species or vital ecosystem – these are some of the primary motivations behind the work of the world’s conservation photographers.
It is an area of photography that is destined to attract more practitioners in future because there are many more stories still to be told and more people to convince.
ACCESSORY: Walking boots
If you’re in the field all day where the terrain underfoot varies considerable, choice of footwear is vitally important. A classic pair of lightweight leather walking boots is hard to beat and the Scarpa Ranger series is a favourite with hikers and walkers. The Scarpa Ranger II Active GTX (£150) features a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex lining and a Hi-Flex midsole for optimum balance of support and walking comfort – ideal for getting off the beaten track.
CAMERA: Compact pro-model
Top-of-the range DSLR cameras can handle the punishment of extreme weather and hard knocks. But their bulk and weight can be a hindrance. The alternative is a robust mirrorless camera like the Canon EOS M5 (£700 body only) which is far less bulky yet still delivers a high quality image file with its 24.2 megapixel APS-C image sensor. An ISO range of 100-25,600 is more than enough for low light conditions as well as the sunniest days.
LENS: Standard zoom lens
Photographers on the move have no time to change lenses, so a zoom covering the working range from wide-angle to a standard focal length are the preferred first option. The Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM (£1,200) includes an optical stabiliser to counteract vibrations.
We Animals by Jo-Anne McArthur • Lantern Books • £26
Trading to Extinction by Patrick Brown • Dewi Lewis • £35
Photographers Against Wildlife Crime by Keith Wilson • geog.gr/pawc • £40
This was published in the April 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.
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