Tag Archives: BBC Wildlife Magazine

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.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012

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.