Originally published as a column in Outdoor Photography. © Niall Benvie 2011
Not withstanding the boom in environmental education during the last three decades or so and the proliferation of books and web content about the natural world for children, I doubt very much if the incidence of hard-wired naturalists in the population is any higher now than it ever was. These are people who, without any particular encouragement or guidance, are naturally drawn to the wild, exhibit strong affinity for it and by extension have a perspective on culture that is sometimes at odds with that of mainstream society. Professor Howard Gardner, originator of the theory of multiple intelligences, has characterised such people as “nature smart”: he cites John Muir, Rachel Carson, Edward O. Wilson as well-known examples. If you’re reading this magazine, you may well be “nature smart” too. That’s your aptitude in the same way that other people are “body smart”, “people smart” or “music smart.”
Given the relatively small number of “nature smart” people in a population it is easy to feel isolated, especially when young: I have met many people over the years who complained that when they were at school, they were too the only one passionate about nature and felt socially marginalised as a result. Fortunately, the internet lets nature smart children today connect with their own natural community and enjoy the camaraderie of others in a mocked minority.
I firmly believe that nature photography is one of the best ways for these young people to express themselves, both as individual practitioners posting images on-line and as groups of photographers working together in the field.
I spoke recently to Sebastian Erras, leader of the “youth group” of the GDT – the Geman Nature Photographer’s Association. “Young photographers need a platform for their work to be seen by a wide audience: this way we can grow as photographers.” He acknowledges the need to connect with peers who share the same interest. “The social dimension is important too as it is easy to become isolated by your interest. Our community is spread across the world – but thinly! We want to mix with people our own age for some of the time at least. It would be good to go on workshops and photo tours but they tend to be expensive so we end up relying on each other for the exchange of ideas and techniques.” Indeed there is a strong case to be made for providing cut-price tickets for students and other young photographers to top flight events like WildPhotos as a way to cultivate the next generation of talent as well as for sponsored places. Camera equipment suppliers are also missing a trick if they don’t foster good relationships early on with potential customers who have a long buying future ahead of them.
Photo competitions often have a youth section and some, like the British Wildlife Photography Awards actively encourage participation. Interestingly, the gap between “adult” and “junior” sections in terms of the technical quality and creativity of the entries gets narrower every year: clearly, a “universal high standard” is becoming accessible to all. What youngsters may miss, however, is exposure to the broader dialogue about nature photography’s practice and purpose provided by the conferences associated with big competitions.
Many young photographers concentrate on photographing their local patch. “If there were youth groups of nature photographers in different countries it would offer the possibility to make more exchanges,” confirms Sebastian. Local knowledge is essential for productive trips and costs can be greatly reduced when staying and travelling with friends in other countries – as I and other professional photographers do. When the return visit takes place it is intriguing to see how overseas colleagues tackle places and subjects you thought you had already photographed to death.
Travel, confidence, camaraderie, self-expression and the humility that a connection with the natural world brings; all these await the young nature photographer. But there is one more compelling, if prosaic, reason that conscientious parents of nature smart children should channel them towards photography; it will look good on their personal statements. It seems that nowadays it is no longer enough to have good grades from school; universities and employers want to see evidence of application in other fields, of unusual interests and self-guided learning. The skills of problem solving and planning, the imagination, hard work and perseverance that go into producing fine nature photography are qualities that we as a community of nature photographers may take for granted but which will mark out the successful young nature photographer from most others in a year group. Scottish photographer, Fergus Gill, has just won the Veolia Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year title for the second year in a row and is now studying biology and geography at Glasgow University. Has nature photography changed his life?
“I think it has, of course. More particularly, seeing and photographing the Aurora borealis in Scotland when I was 11 hooked me on photography and over the years being a photographer has deepened the passion I have for nature. My life has been richer and more interesting than it would have been without photography and nature itself provides a great deal of inspiration in my day to day life, even here in Glasgow.”
Given the convergence in standard between “young” and “old” in photo competitions, perhaps it is time to see a narrowing of the gap in prize money to reflect this. The combined pot for adult and junior overall winners in Wildlife Photographer of the Year is £10500. If the split was more equal than £500 / £10000, that would be a serious encouragement to young photographers.