According to the ancient Greeks, procrastination was extolled as something essential for completion of a coherent thought process, and even recommended. This is somewhat easy considering their slaves were doing all the chores, but I am a firm follower of their principals, and this is the reason for the very late review of the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
The quality of the work every year bears all the hallmarks of the competition’s owners. BBC for the quality of imagery and the Natural History Museum for the depth of knowledge both historic and scientific; the winners are not only to be commended for their skill, but more so for their intimate scientific knowledge of their subject. Each image represents one small part of a much wider project, and one image in a competition doesn’t do them justice in any possible way.
The winner, chosen from over 48,000 entries from 98 countries, was Paul Nicklen, who had not one, not two, but three awarded images (disappointingly, two of which are very similar in content – more of this problem later). This is something to be marveled at. One was only runner up in the underwater worlds category, but because another of his own images was better. His journey into the project started merely because he realised that there was some fascinating things about penguins that were yet to be photographed. He subsequently endured freezing temperatures and very harsh conditions to capture what he did.
The context and story surrounding each image were what made some really shine. Kim Wolhuter’s ‘Dog Days’ was of an African wild dog puppy sitting on a dried up waterhole. Kim actually lived alongside the dogs in an effort to protect and preserve the pack. They took time, but eventually accepted him sufficiently to allow him into their den with extremely young puppies. On some days he ran with them as they hunted, and slept wherever they slept. Ultimately it came to very sad end, as he was responsible for efforts to curb the spread of rabies through the pack. After four years with them he was forced to personally euthanise every single member of the pack bar one as they gradually succumbed to the disease. The photo he entered is amazing on any level, but the context was the where the power lay.
It is the context where the competition can sometimes fall short. The landscape section is always to be found lacking. There is no rhyme or reason to enter a long exposure of a coast, a medium format shot of a volcano from a helicopter equally vacuous (Miguel Illana and Hans Strand respectively). They look ok-ish, it doesn’t say anything, and the context is, frankly, boring. Landscape art is something that has always been significant over the years, from Renaissance Italy’s depictions of land wealth to Poussin’s utopian ideals, subverted later by Constable. Other sections of photography explore the genre conceptually in fascinating methods, Simon Norfolk being a brilliant example. It is ridiculous to have such skill on display at the wildlife exhibition, yet absolutely no intent to create something conceptually interesting.
The landscape photographs belie the true nature of the self-professed wildlife photographer. They are not artists, they consider themselves portrayers of truth, but anyone with half a brain can see that just about all photography is art and certainly not ‘true’. All we are left with in the landscape section is lovely pictures, but tedious conceptual emptiness.
Animal photography is slightly different, as it engages on a more personal level. We are shocked, delighted and inspired by the work; it is very powerful. The world in our hands section is arguably the most important; this is where the real issues are discussed (admission of self-interest here, as a photojournalist I am naturally drawn to these stories involving human interaction with the natural world). Paul Hilton’s ‘The End of Sharks’ is shocking to say the least, and the title is entirely justified.
The winner of this section wasn’t great – aside from bearing alarming similarities to Andy Rouse's 'Bear at the Top of the World' (similar photos actually appear twice in the competition, both using a fisheye lens of a Polar Bear in ice looking bored or lost or hungry or whatever). Don’t get me wrong, the plight of the polar bear is symptomatic of some serious problems, but they aren’t the only animals up there. It has sadly become boring; a photographic cliché of a conservational cliché. From 48,000 photos surely there was more variety available?
This is much more a criticism of the judging panel than of the photographers. The images are excellent. I just don’t understand why they chose two extremely similar polar bear entries taken on effectively identical lenses, and the same goes for the very similar penguin entries (albeit less so seeing as the execution of the images was so strong).
All in all though, it was a very enjoyable and inspiring experience. The work looked fantastic backlit in the darkened room and the images were given just praise in their presentation. As we become ever more desensitised and oversaturated by photographs in the world, it is increasingly hard to impress in these competitions, yet this is one that just has the edge for me every year. The photographers go to increasing lengths and extremes to get their shots, and the results are clear. I highly recommend a visit.