This article was commissioned for the first issue of a new magazine, Bird Art & Photography, by its editor David Cromack. It was about a subject I don’t normally feel comfortable writing about: me.© Niall Benvie 2010.
Any one who claims the title “conservation photographer” has a lot to live up to. He or she has to believe that photography really can be something other than entertainment, that it can be used to lobby for pro-environment policies. It’s akin to an act of faith and without it we’re just another brand of nature consumer. My own “faith” has wavered over the years: why, in spite of millions of images of natural beauty, of the awareness of the fragility of eco-systems and our reliance on them, why do societies continue to favour economic growth ahead of conserving biodiversity? What good have all these pictures done? But the alternative is simply to give up, to accept that the Sixth Mass Extinction will happen on our watch and try to make ourselves feel better by buying more stuff. That’s not an option that appeals to me.
One of the things that keeps my faith are the “miracles” I have seen performed by extraordinary individuals who use photography to access people in positions of power, to inform their thinking and bring about positive outcomes. Robert Glenn Ketchum, Michael “Nick” Nichols, Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager, James Balog, and Patricio Robles Gil have not only made beautiful images during their careers but through the force of their passion and commitment to their subjects have had their voices heard by the people who can make a difference.
I met a number of these people, and became aware of the power of conservation photography, when I was invited to speak at the inaugural meeting of the International League of Conservation Photographers at the World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage, 4 years ago. Amongst the other speakers was the Swedish photojournalist Staffan Widstrand whom I had met a number of times previously. On a day out to the Kenai fjords at the end of the conference, we hatched a plan that would become the most ambitious nature photography project to date, involving over 60 photographers visiting over 40 countries: Wild Wonders of Europe was born.
Wild Wonders is unashamedly celebratory: its aim is to put the best photography of the most spectacular natural wonders to be found in the 44 countries west of the Urals in front of as many European citizens as possible. To show them that you don’t need to go to the tropics or America or Africa to see spectacular wildlife and landscapes; to remind them that there are things on our own doorstep worth caring about. And it has many good news stories to tell. With support from corporations including Nokia, Epson and Nikon, and important media partners in the shape of National Geographic and Bayard Presse, the project is of a size that it has the potential to reach a huge audience through its street exhibitions and av shows, as well as articles, books and the website, when it starts to roll out in 2010 – the International Year of Biodiversity.
With a splendid team in place, including Pete Cairns and Florian Moellers, I resigned my directorship of Wild Wonders two years in just as it was becoming a full time job without, at that stage, any certainty of remuneration. Indeed, this is the dilemma faced by many photographers who would like to swim away from the side of the pool towards the deeper waters of idealism: how will I continue to sustain my career and meet my financial commitments? Well, the good news is that it can be done – I am doing it now – and indeed, your chances of success will be much greater if your work is driven by passion rather than market awareness. The latter, anyone can glean from the internet: the former is a much rarer commodity.
Throughout most of my 17 year career as an outdoor photographer and writer, I’ve shunned well known sites, preferring to retire into less exposed corners of Europe. Since 1997 I’ve made over 20 trips to Latvia and in more recent years Estonia, drawn by wild bogs and forests and a prevailing cultural attitude towards wild nature more in tune with my own than the one I find at home. These trips have been made feasible by the kindness of friends and strangers there – some of whom have made reciprocal visits to Scotland. I went to Latvia, initially, to learn about and photograph European beavers, just at the time when the public consultation process about re-establishment in Scotland was beginning. Although my pictures weren’t special, they were adequate to carry the stories I wrote with the cooperation of local experts. The beaver story was quite widely published but the real legacy of that first trip was the realisation that I had found somewhere that felt just right for me, that had an abundance of familiar wildlife I’d never experienced at home. Each trip let me get a little deeper under the skin of the place. In purely economic terms, my Baltic work has earned less than I might have made from a trip to photograph polar bears. But that’s not really the point: I’ve had a chance to let more people learn about the biological importance of this area of Europe. And through the network of biologists that started with Janis Ozolins in Latvia I made a fascinating journey over the next decade that took me to Norway, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland, Estonia, Finland and, in a curious twist, led me to re-examine my own country from a fresh perspective.
As any photographer with young children will know, the conflict between business and family life can often be best resolved by working productively closer to home. And so, in recent years I have started to travel less and less, concentrating instead on what I can do locally and within Scotland. While my work in the Baltic region was driven by a passion for place, today’s is squarely about the issues I feel most strongly about: children’s estrangement from wild nature; the need to value the local; and the erosion of our stock of natural capital. But rather than simply shooting pictures and writing stories about these issues, most of my work is now done collaboratively as part of externally funded projects. If, as I have lamented before, photographs of the natural world make no difference to its treatment it is perhaps because they are usually presented without context, like random words over-heard above the hub-bub of commerce. Of course they will be ignored.
It is no longer enough for photographers to work away by themselves if they want their voice to be heard: Wild Wonders of Europe provides an excellent example of what can be achieved by a group of like minded people working towards a common goal and the next big project in the UK, 2020Vision, will build upon WWE’s success. This project, which highlights the vital link between healthy people and healthy ecosystems in the context of a wilder Britain will engage not only photographers but writers, videographers, sound artists and editors to articulate the concerns of the scientific community to the widest audience – and to speak directly to those who formulate policy.
While 2020Vision has a core team of seven, the other two projects I work on require fewer of us. Rewilding Childhood is being developed as a resource for anyone who is concerned about our children’s relationship with wild nature and aims to provide inspiration and ideas for parents and children alike. Although we launched it three years ago, it is only now that funding is forthcoming and the project can move forward. In contrast, Meet Your Neighbours was put together just last year with an American photographer, Clay Bolt. Using the clean look of the outdoor studio – where subjects are photographed in the field against backlit white backgrounds – we plan to engage photographers in different parts of the world to give the celebrity treatment to wild creatures on people’s own doorsteps. The message: “this is where you live, these are your neighbours, come and meet them.” These are the primary “wild encounters” most people have on a daily basis and as such it is vital that space is left for these animals and plants to thrive and to provide pleasure and inspiration.
It is not only professional photographers who can use their work to influence ideas. Recreational photographers with other jobs are actually in a better position to work on projects whose first objective is to inform and inspire rather than to earn royalties. But in order to do so effectively, there needs to be an emphasise on making narrative pictures that tell compelling stories as well as expressive ones that are simply beautiful too look at. If you have already discovered your passion you will know already the stories you have to tell.