ECOS 40(2): Book Review: Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Portfolio 28

Natural History Museum, 2018, 160 pages
£25 Hardback, ISBN 9780565094287

Review by Rick Minter

I’m a regular at my local wildlife art gallery. I can vouch for the buzz created by the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition – a highlight which brightens up the winter months. The rooms are busy with engaged and animated visitors. The costs of hosting this showpiece event must be proportionately high, but no doubt worthwhile to the host venue. It is heartening to see people so immersed in wildlife images and the stories they convey.  

It’s a long story but I’m experienced with leopards. Alas I was underwhelmed by a centerpiece of the exhibition – a portrait picture of the resting head of a female leopard. I found it soppy. It was weak in comparison to many other photos I’m exposed to, showing the athletic grace of Panthera pardus. Ok it was winner in the under 17 young photographer category, so in context it is indeed impressive. But as usual I was branded a misery by my family. They all loved the portrait of this lounging cat, with a close view of the whisker array, and the head tucked against its paw. This dozing cat is seen in stark contrast to its life as a stalking ambush predator, although large carnivores are resting, conserving energy, like this for the majority of their time. My family’s reaction proves a point. We all have our own responses to these images, and allow them to tug our emotions in different ways. What is too sentimental to me can be joyful to others.

Another cat photograph, or rather a series of them, featured jaguar. The wildlife photo journalism section allows a series of pictures to discuss pressures on the natural world and some of our responses to them. The impact on jaguars from poachers and ranchers is featured, and a hopeful picture shows a woman in Yucatan, Mexico, with two helpless orphaned jaguar cubs ready for a refuge where they will be reared and taught as predators, with the possibility of release to the wild.

Elsewhere in the photojournalism section are images which will make you rage. A sun bear looking pathetic and dispirited, imprisoned in a filthy cage behind the scenes in a Sumatran zoo. The category winner is a shocking scene – a long-tailed macaque, struggling with its clown’s mask and hat, suffering this tortured existence in Java. Its ‘owner’ trains it for street shows and keeps it chained. The income from a performing macaque can help a family send their children to school. Local charities are working on reforms and help to reduce the suffering of these monkeys. Alternative income is needed to cut the problem at its roots.   

Another category features urban wildlife. A kingfisher is perched on a metal rod, above a perch pool at a sewer outlet in Sweden. A red fox scavenges amongst the haunted wastes of Chernobyl’s restricted radioactive landscape – a symbol of wildlife reclaiming its place. In the behavior section a common loon prods a hardly visible damselfly nymph towards its chick – this sized meal is all the chick can manage at this early stage of life on a British Columbia lake shore. The mud-rolling mud dauber in the invertebrates section beats any fantastical flight scene from Star Wars. These are moving and thought provoking glimpses of wildlife in its own other world.    

In the Creative Visions category a photographer has literally inverted our focus on flamingos. Pictured in the Kenyan Rift Valley, the water-level view concentrates on the intense tangle of red legs below the water line, while the softer pinky heads and bodies are left blurred. What is this micro-habitat we forget beneath the bodies and bills? A salty quagmire is revealed as a secret realm of nature.

Finally, a note on technology. I spend much of my time deploying camera traps while my son dabbles with drones. This fast changing technology allows important study of wildlife at new and different angles, and in places hard to reach. We can view and monitor nature more effectively with these cameras, placed in situ or flown responsibly, but they are only as good as their operators. Skill, experience, creativity and sometimes some luck, will dictate results, as with other camera kit. Should there be separate categories for drones and camera traps in Wildlife Photographer of the Year? It’s a tough call. In fact the results from these cameras are integrated through the sections. In ‘Animals in their environment’ A high-level drone looks down on a bed of crabeater seals, strewn broadside on a small ice floe at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. They are resting and in retreat from predators. The even spacing is remarkable and could only be captured by this view. Cristobal Serrano the Spanish photographer emphasizes he flew the drone with low-noise propellers.

The camera trap photographs all stress how arduous it can be to await the perfect picture. Mammals are mostly stealthy, and they can be super-alert to a smelly object like a brick sized camera thrust into their habitat. A resulting photo of a young brown bear in Slovenia proves the point. Adjacent to a rock, and staring into the lens, the bear looks relaxed with the forest panorama behind, like it is propping up the pub bar. It fact it took 14 months to get the shot, even with cameras placed on a trail used by the bears.

As ever the mix of photographs from Wildlife Photographer of the Year are wondrous, uplifting, sickening and arresting. Your emotions will be stirred.

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Minter, Rick “ECOS 40(2): Book Review: Wildlife Photographer of the Year” ECOS vol. 40(2), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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