The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London is one of my new favourite ways to escape city life and immerse myself in the splendour of the natural world.
In March this year I had my first opportunity to visit the annual exhibition (then displaying the finalists of the 2015 competition), and was blown away by, not only seeing the incredible images up close and displayed together so thoughtfully, but by the wealth of wildlife-related issues, crimes and political traditions that they explored. Returning again for the 2016 display, I wasn’t disappointed!
Upon entering the gallery (situated in a different part of the museum building this year), visitors are greeted with the sentiment that it is the Natural History Museum’s mission ‘to challenge the way that people think about the natural world—by exploring the origins of life on Earth, showcasing our planet’s biodiversity and questioning our impact on the environment to build a sustainable future.’
The entry board so accurately describes the exhibition as a powerful visual reflection of a shared ambition to inspire change. I must admit that it certainly gave me plenty of food for thought as every caption provided an important opportunity for mapping out the relevance of each image to the overall goal of the Natural History Museum, which states that proceeds from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year ticket sales will go towards supporting the work of their 300 research scientists and the care of their 80 million specimen-strong collection.
My top 10 standout images from this year; the ones that really captured my heart and imagination (though ALL are worth seeing and appreciating for their craft!) are as follows:
10. The pangolin pit by Paul Hilton
Winner of the single image photojournalist award this year, Hilton’s photograph tells a shocking story of the world’s most trafficked animal; the pangolin. Given Appendix 1 protection at CITES this year, the pangolin is killed for its meat (a symbol of status) and for its scales, which are used in traditional Asian medicine. These 4,000 dead pangolins were photographed in shipping container probably destined for China or Vietnam.
9. Requiem for an owl by Mats Andersson
This sombre snap captures a pygmy owl known to the photographer, alone against the moonlight having recently lost its mate. The photographer describes observing the pair and felt the photograph reflected his own sadness at the loss. Thought to have been targeted by a larger owl defending its territory, this owl was later also found dead.
8. Giant-killer by Ralph Pace
I love the bizarre look of the battle between this California sea lion and ocean sunfish; the world’s heaviest bony fish. Though this is only a youngster, the sunfish still looks pretty huge! I hadn’t realised that sea lions tackle such large prey until seeing this photo.
7. Hanger-trap by Bence Máté
A poignant reminder of the impact that plastic pollution can have on local wildlife. Photographer Bence Máté described seeing this black-headed gull for two more days after this photo was taken, with the plastic hanger still attached to its foot. After that, it seemed to have disappeared.
6. Wild West stand-off by Charlie Hamilton James.
When viewing this epic photograph my first thought was that it wouldn’t look out of place in a giant ornate frame on the wall of a stately home somewhere. I initially wondered whether it was comprised of many different frames, pieced together in a technique I’ve seen used on the cover of National Geographic Magazine before, but it turns out that it was captured by a camera trap left in location at Yellowstone National Park for six months. This perfect shot was found in amongst the 200,000 images that the camera had captured.
5. Rig diver by Alex Mustard
I love this picture for the dramatic scale and colours. The sheer number of fish and the imposing, shadowy figure of the cormorant convey a sense of foreboding. It also challenged me to think about an environment in a new light, which is the sure sign of an impressive piece of photojournalism; the oil rig is providing a unique opportunity for shelter and food for sea birds. I’d previously only ever thought of oil rigs as negatively affecting the wildlife around it.
4. The alley cat by Nayan Khanolkar
Winner of the ‘Urban’ category of the awards, this stunning photo by Nayan Khanolkar, captured using a camera trap, shows a leopard stalking through the shadowy streets of Mumbai. To me, this was a particularly important addition to the exhibition, as it really highlighted human-leopard co-existence. Wildlife being forced to co-exist alongside humans in manmade environments is something that we will continue to see more of thanks to continued urban sprawl. Though the often elusive leopard is one of most persecuted big cats in the world, the city in which it has been photographed here, regards their secretive neighbour with high respect; accepting its place in their lives and culture.
3. The disappearing fish by Iago Leonardo
This photograph looks so perfect that it almost seems unreal, like a manmade collage. But in fact, the image was captured using natural lighting by Leonardo, who was free-diving around Contoy Island; a protected area that requires special permission to dive. The ghostly, glass-like fish at the top of the frame are called lookdowns, and their impressive silvery scales make them appear almost invisible. I love this image for its composition and the incredible juxtaposition of colours and textures of the two types of fish.
2. Night blow by Audun Rikardsen
A stunning photograph that captures such a wonderful sense of mood and atmosphere; viewing this dramatic image up on the screen in the dark the exhibition room really made me feel chilly. One can imagine the ferociously icy conditions that photographer Audun Rikardsen must have endured in the six hours he spent in a boat on the nighttime polar water, waiting to snap this perfect shot. His undeterred patience certainly paid off.
1. The aftermath by Simon Stafford
I’ve chosen Simon Stafford’s image as my favourite of this year’s finalists, as the dramatic shot reveals a rarely-seen side to a story we all know so well. Lots of natural history documentaries make the annual wildebeest migration across the Mara River the subject of their stories, but very few tell the tale of ‘the aftermath’, following a stampede. Here, spotted hyena make the most of the gully full of dead wildebeest, trampled in the stampede: scavenging every morsel of meat, and even bone, leaving just the horns of the deceased wildebeest in their wake. This photography was a worthy winner of the ‘Mammals’ category.
Photo journalism category: Winning photo stories
As well as selecting a single photograph as the overall winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, the panel of the judges, lead by author and creative director Lewis Blackwell (Chair of the jury), also select a winning photo essay from the ‘Story’ category of the competition.
This year, there were two joint ‘Story’ winners; Vultures: circling calamity and While the forest still stands.
Vultures: circling calamity by Charlie Hamilton James
This photo essay examines the wide-ranging threats to Africa’s vulture population; one of the fastest declining groups of animal in the world. Half of all species of vulture in Africa are now endangered, with numbers predicted to fall by another 70 to 97% over the next 50 years. This photo essay tells the story of the vultures, their importance to the ecosystem, the effect of poisoning, poaching and human conflict (such as traffic) and what’s being done to help the species. An important addition to the exhibition.
While the forest still stands by Tim Laman
Tim Laman has used his photo story as an opportunity to showcase the lives and cultures of Borneo’s orang-utans and their fight for survival against human conflict, such as deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. He studies their engagement with their habitat, the way that mothers bond with and teach their young, and their desperate plight to flee the forest fires, which are a common method used to clear the forests to make way for the production of palm oil crops.
Overall competition winner
This year’s overall Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner is Entwined lives by Tim Laman. It features in the above mentioned While the forest still stands photo story and shows an impressive view of a young male climbing high above the canopy top to feast upon figs. It was shot using a GoPro camera positioned in the treetops and triggered from the ground.
Lewis Blackwell, Chair of the jury’s comment: “A vital story is captured in one remarkable frame as this orang-utan climbs an emergent tree in its ever-dwindling habitat. The story is well-known, but we need outstanding photography like this to bring it across to us afresh. It touches our hearts and our minds – and just might help support actions to stop the destruction.”
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s 52nd exhibition is on at the Natural History Museum now and includes many, many more striking and impressive pictures than the handful I have picked out here.