From a leopard slipping through a Mumbai alleyway to giant cuttlefish courting under the sea, the striking images featured in the current Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition are at once beautiful, technically astounding and, often, incredibly moving.
Before the widening rupture between humans and nature, creating images of animals was of the utmost importance: animals were among the first subject matter for painting. In his essay Why Look at Animals, the late and renowned art critic John Berger argues that animals “first entered the imagination as messengers and promises”.
Wildlife photography joins in this ancient representative tradition, giving new life to animals as symbols and storytellers for the natural world.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the annual competition run by the Natural History Museum of London. From modest beginnings in 1965, with fewer than 400 entries, it has developed into one of the largest and most prestigious photographic competitions in the world.
This year, the competition received over 42,000 entries from almost 100 countries. From these, an international jury selected 100 images across 18 categories, constituting the touring exhibition. It’s currently being hosted, for the third time, at Geelong’s splendid National Wool Museum. This is the only Victorian venue to host the exhibition, under the direction of Padraic Fisher and senior curator Georgia Melville.
In Geelong, the images are complemented by The Dead Zoo, a subtle addition to the exhibition space of taxidermy displays drawn from the Wool Museum’s own collection. There’s also an ambient soundscape produced by Joel Carnegie, and the parallel Geelong by Nature exhibition, a local wildlife photography competition.
Both competitions underscore what a demanding pursuit wildlife photography can be, requiring an enormous commitment to capturing the perfect shot. Think long hours spent in freezing conditions, with a constant regime of pushups just to keep warm – a scenario endured by Andrew Parkinson while photographing mountain hares on a Scottish icefield!
This enthusiastic persistence is increasingly enabled by the proliferation of non-specialist equipment, such as smartphones and the GoPro camera, as used by Tim Laman – the overall winner of Photographer of the Year for his six-photo series Entwined Lives. Taking in a sweeping treetop view of the Indonesian rainforest, the vertigo-inducing portrait of an orangutan is spectacular.
Like many of the entries, the photograph’s grandeur is a culmination of artistry, originality and technical excellence. The visually sumptuous images are coupled with engaging tales of the exotic locations, and the supreme effort and persistence involved in their creation – along with a healthy dose of serendipity and great timing.
With a direct gaze that seems to reflect our own, Laman’s subject also conveys a sense of intimacy and solitary pathos; significant, perhaps, if one considers the endangered status of the Bornean orangutan.
With the growing accessibility of portable or remotely activated gear like the GoPro, there’s a sense of ongoing growth and democratisation of photography competitions. Through this, we are given scope for deeper immersion and understanding of a natural world subject to, and often imperilled by, the inexorable footprint of humanity.
A case in point is the winner of one of the photojournalism categories, Australian Paul Hilton’s image of a mass of illegally hunted pangolins, seized before their intended export while frozen from Sumatra and laid out to thaw. Reminiscent of spiral seashells in an abstract, almost monochrome composition, the details of their tightly curled bodies emerge only on closer inspection.
It’s a striking image, but one with a tragic back-story. Few people, before seeing this exhibition, are likely to have even known what a pangolin is, and certainly not that these small, critically endangered mammals are the most-trafficked animals in the world.
The combination of artistry and a strong environmental narrative is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition, and one that undoubtedly motivates the photographers themselves. Featured entrant Douglas Gimesy, another Australian photojournalist, cites changing people’s behaviour as a central driver for his projects.
In his tender image Caring for Joey, Gimesy underlines the ongoing issue of high-speed kangaroo road deaths on Kangaroo Island in the hope of advocating for improved governance and community awareness. It’s a sentiment that surely resonates with photographers and visitors to the exhibit alike, as they contemplate the wild theatre of our natural environment, and the diverse species that share in it.