Wildlife Photographer of the Year — an open letter

Yesterday (Tuesday 15 October 2013) was the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards Ceremony. It was held, as usual, at the Natural History Museum, in the fantastic setting of the main hall, with Diplodocus skeleton backdrop and high-end catering.

It’s always great fun to chat to people I know at BBC Wildlife Magazine, meet some of the world’s best photographers and generally hobnob with wildlife and media bods. As ever the photographs were stunning, but…..

I have a gripe. And I have a question.

From nearly 43,000 entries submitted by the photographers of 96 countries, none of the final 100 showed an insect. Not one. Zero. Nought. Nada. How can this be?

There are several possibilities.

Perhaps insect photographers are not very good. Maybe insects just don’t photograph well. Or is it that insect photographers are shy retiring types that shun competitions. I don’t believe any of this. Through the mastery of delicate optics and subtle light, the care and understanding of macro photographers reveals insects (and other invertebrates) as stunning and beautiful creatures; sometimes they can also be bizarre or unnerving, but insect pictures can still have great power and awe-inspiring impact beyond the measure of the subject’s diminutive size. Could it be that the judges are biased?

I have a suggestion to the competition’s organizers, the photographers, and especially the judges — have a care that you are not edging yourselves away from the wildlife you proclaim to support.

Flagship species, megafuna, icons, are all very well, but there seems to be an inward spiralling, a tightening, a contraction of the competition’s scope as each year passes. In my eyes, the competition is no longer about photographing wildlife, it is about photographing the types of wildlife that are likely to win prizes.

Should the competition by renamed?

The Cuddly-Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Familiar Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Wildlife (but not bugs please) Photographer of the Year

Or should new categories be added?

Nature at its most disturbing and alien

Creeping and crawling nature

Tiny things made big and a bit scary by magnification

I know this is me being facetious, and I apologise, but this is a complaint I have made before.

Invertebrates, it seems, have been edged out from the competition; whether this is through acquiescence or complicity, I do not know. Even the potential category ‘Behaviour: cold-blooded animals’ appears to have no place for insects, since by ‘cold-blooded’ the judges actually mean reptiles and fish.

The final clincher, the prejudicial insult added to the injury of exclusion, comes from the fact that an invertebrate does, actually, feature prominently in one of the photographs. A giant spider hangs threateningly in the corner of the frame, as the main subject of the image, a soft, sleek, beguiling bird, hangs with an almost melancholy expression, exhausted and helpless in the clinging silk fibres of the ensnaring web. The only invertebrate on show is there simply to add stereotypical menace to the composition.

I sometimes have a playful dig at BBC Wildlife Magazine because there are never insects on the cover. I do, however, accept that this single image displayed on a newsstand will make or break over-the-counter sales. There are plenty of insects inside though.

At the awards ceremony, much was made of the passion of the photographers, their dedication to stalking, waiting, understanding their subjects, and wanting to promote conservation and awareness of the vanishing wildlife of a planet under threat. The judges, too, are advocating these laudable intents, but I believe they are failing to address the wildlife of the competition’s title.

Insects are the most bewilderingly diverse and mind-numbingly numerous creatures on the planet. They occur everywhere from seashore to mountain top. They dominate the centre of virtually every ecological web imaginable. In fact, from an ecological point of view, it is arguable whether any of the iconic megafauna presented at the competition actually matters at all. Insects control the Earth. Insects ARE the wildlife of the Earth.

I challenge the judges of this most prestigious photography competition, to recognize this, and to reflect it in their choices in the future.

10 responses to “Wildlife Photographer of the Year — an open letter

  1. Well said Richard. I still visit the exhibition every year but in recent years I’m usually ranting about all the tedious big cat photos by the time I leave. There are so many more enthralling and spectacular sights to be seen through a magnifying lens or a microscope.

  2. Shame on them for excluding the most diverse and important category of wildlife on the planet.

  3. Well said that man. Assuming of course that insect photographers entered. Perhaps they were too busy. The photos are invariably superb but are getting rather predictable. Never mind. There’s always next year.

  4. One problem might be that a lot of good insect macros are “faked” by e.g. freezing the insects down and stack them in a home studio. I totally agree that these images have no space in a wildlife photographer competition. However, there are amazing images done “natural”, e.g. by using the low morning temperatures etc. The point is, it is hard for judges to distinguish between the two types. There are great images of praying mantids on some flowers, almost all of them made by moving the insect from the deep grass to the nice looking plant…

  5. More snakes next year oh and baboon spider. And just finished photographing some weird caterpillars.

  6. Oh nearly forgot Richard – going to have a go at the amazing spider-hunting wasp this summer. They usually go for rain spiders( Palystes)
    , but I have often seen them with baboon spiders as well – a challenge!

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