Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 — My top picks

I’ve never visited the Natural History Museum‘s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition before, despite a lifelong love of animals and a long term interest in photography.

Growing up in Norfolk, exhibitions like that seemed few and far between. But even without the obvious inspirations, I remember spending summers sneaking round the edges of my parents’ garden taking snaps of the visiting bird life on a disposable pink plastic camera with zebra stripes all over it. The kind with no zoom and a risk of double exposure if you forgot to wind the film on.

imageNothing like the kinds of amazing prints I discovered in the Under 10’s category of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year gallery, when I finally found myself visiting. What a blessing it is to now live in London!

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Breathtaking. Breathtaking is the word for each of the hundred or so images on display in the darkened room at the back of the museum. Illuminated on screens in several different sections (an unusual way to experience a gallery!). The photographs showcased everything from climate change to urbanisation of species, to aerial landscapes and macro shots of mud in ice.

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I was overwhelmed at the quality of work; particularly from the young finalists. Long gone are the days of disposable children’s cameras with not so much as a ‘zoom-in’ setting, it would seem.

But the overall winner; A Tale of Two Foxes by Canadian doctor Don Gutoski managed to combine technical skills, an important message and ‘the perfect moment’; capturing a powerful, foreboding image of deathly mirroring.

A bleak comment, perceived by the competition judges to the show the greater impact of climate change on native species.

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“This scene is full of symbolic force: the red fox preys increasingly on the Arctic fox as a result of global warming. It is nature, brutal and yet eerily beautiful. Great wildlife photography combines learning with exploration and opportunism and this demonstrates that so well.” Chair of the Jury, Lewis Blackwell.

The scene depicts a scenerio where global warming is altering the placement of the red foxes’ territory; pushing them further northwards into the range of the smaller Artic fox. The result on the food web is that the Artic foxes’ main food source becomes prey to the red fox, making the red fox the biggest competitor, but also the biggest predator – as increasingly, the red fox hunts its smaller cousin.

imageAnother image that evoked a strong sense of the result of rising temperatures and human impact on the environment was Just Jellyfish, a finalist in the Under Water category.

Photographer Thomas P Peschak aligned the shot perfectly to demonstrate an underwater world with an absence of fish foreshadowing what the future may hold if the effects of overfishing and climate change are not kept within grasp. Warmer waters will increase the numbers of Cape box jellyfish, which then feed upon the eggs and larvae of the fish; fish numbers dwindle, which in turn has serious consequences on the fishes’ natural predator: the Cape fur seals.

imageBeing a journalist, the photojournalism category of the competition held several gems for me. Having recently read National Geographic magazine’s exposé on the political dark side of the ivory trade, it was a profound discovery to see the winning story was one by photographer Brent Stirton depicting the story of poaching from the Spoils of War (showing seized tusks), to The Survivor; an aerial shot of the remaining 450 elephants in Chad’s Zakouma National Park.

What interested me about this photo series was the humans at the centre of it. Rather than just depicting the plight of the animals and their surroundings, Stirton told the story of the people whose lives are most affected including those on the frontline of defence and those widowed by rangers who have fallen victim to the ivory trade.

imageThe photojournalism category of the exhibition highlighted another tragic human interference that these gentle giants face; being captured from the wild for use in circuses and ceremonies, as depicted in Emily Garthwaite‘s Chained to Tradition.

imageThe Asian elephant photographed is in ceremonial dress following a six hour procession, parading through bustling streets of large crowds and fireworks during Diwali. A far cry from the lifestyle of their endangered wild counterparts.

Sticking with the photojournalism side of things, I’ve been interested in learning about gorillas and other great apes recently, having watched the BBC series Gorilla Family & Me (featuring Born Free Foundation‘s mountain gorillas) and having researched the work of Ian Redmond and The Trimates for an earlier blog post. So I was intrigued to understand exactly what was going on in Marcus Westberg‘s shot, Gorilla Care.

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My initial thought was that the health check was taking place at a zoo, but on reading the caption, the mountain gorilla in the centre of the room, and her anxious companion (who worriedly watches over the proceedings) are two of four mountain gorillas at the Senkewekwe Centre that have been rescued from poachers and traffickers.

The Centre is now named after a gorilla who fathered the nine-year-old female at the window, watching her companion in the centre of the room have her annual check up.

The four gorillas that reside there have all had traumatic experiences, and for me, the most story-telling element of the picture is the deep felt attachment from nine-year-old Ndeze as she watches helplessly from between the bars of the window. According to the picture’s caption, photographer Marcus Westberg said:

“The deep bonds that exist between these orphans, their carers and [gorilla doctor Eddie Kambale – pictured] is one of the most touching things I have ever had the privilege of witnessing.”

imageThe last photograph of the exhibition that I’d like to highlight is one that brings me full circle to my recent move to the City Neil Aldridge‘s Little Fox in the Big City.

My first night of living in Hammersmith, I woke up in the middle of the night, unsettled in a new environment, and walked into the kitchen to spot a beautiful fox hopping and dancing its way through the car park in the centre of the square court of flats I now live in.

I must have spent about 10 minutes just watching the creature’s manic movements and comical chattering, and felt truly blessed to be watching over at this ungodly hour: probably the only person to witness this fascinating and private ritual.

Having spent my whole life growing up in Norfolk; on the edge of Thetford Forest, I’d never once seen a live wild fox (though roadside casualties aplenty)!), but moving to London I saw a fox the very first night.

The urban fox is a well-established resident, and Aldridge’s striking image captures that entirely.image

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is on at the Natural History Museum until the 2nd May, and includes many, many more striking and impressive pictures than the handful I have picked out here.

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