For several years running, as BBC Wildlife‘s Bug Czar, I’ve managed to wangle an invite to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award ceremony held up at the Natural History Museum. It’s a great bash — fantastic, subtly lit setting around the Diplodocus skeleton in the museum’s main atrium, interesting chat with photographers and the bods from the magazine and the environmental industry. Good food and stunning pictures.
I always have a slight moan about not many insect pictures. Although I had to shut up two years ago when a photo of leaf-cutter ants won the final overall prize. This year was even more pathetic — only two insect photographs, both flies, and one the stereotype of bad insect behaviour, a mosquito sucking blood from a bare arm.
Bill Oddie (he said, name-dropping), who was sitting one person away from me at table 18 was almost equally disparaging about all the pretty pictures of penguins and cheetahs and flamingoes. His gripe, and I follow him here, is that when people see pretty pictures of animals they feel good. But what they really need to see, even if they don’t want to, is pictures of the terrible destruction, desecration, corruption and dilution of nature. Then they’ll do something about it.
It’s a difficult one. The competition is now so big, and for all its partners (BBC Wildlife, Natural History Museum and Veolia Environnement) it has become a prestigious showcase of wonderful pictures that are flashed all around the world. These are aspirational brands, rather than campaigning organizations, and they need feel-good images. A selection of pictures is available through the websites of The Guardian, MSN, or The Metro; they show some of the typical portraits.
There were some challenging images, the photojournalism themes showed harrowing pictures of rhino poaching and tiger rainforest destruction, there were bleak pictures of African wild dogs and melting ice floes. But during the presentation itself I felt slightly underwhelmed. This was partly because I find pretty pictures not so very interesting. It was also partly because of the format of the evening. We only got to see runner up and winner of each category — a small proportion of the pictures on show in the display gallery. But we had to wait until after the dinner and awards announcements before we were let into the exhibition hall to see the rest.
It was not always so; until 2010 the initial gathering always took place amidst the displayed pictures, and there was much commentary and debate about which photos might be winners, and why. Here was a chance to see all the cuddly mammals and awe-inspiring landscape pictures, and the disturbing ones too. There has always been a smattering of insect photos, which, by the very nature of getting close to a bug, are challenging or disturbing — much more likely to elicit the response “so what’s going on here, then”, rather than “wow, pretty”. To select 2 insects from over 48,000 entries seems a bit lame. Either the judges need to get their thinking right; or entomologists need to submit more pictures.