Last weekend I went to the World Press Photo Awards Days. The Sem Presser lecture this year was held by ‘veteran’ wildlife photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols. And for the first time, the beautiful-too-beautiful-to-be-true wildlife photography I usually see in National Geographic, got a new human dimension. Got a context. And a face.
I saw during this lecture a man who travels to far away isolated places and spends there months in the most unusual and harsh climate. Months of taking photos? Not precisely. More like months of waiting, setting camera traps, hoping, getting angry and nervous and finally getting happy when the camera manages to get a good photo. Because if there is one thing no one thinks about while seeing his images, that’s the fact that the gorillas, lions, tigers, crocodiles and whoever else appears in them, don’t sit and smile to the camera. They move quickly, they pass by, that’s when they show up. If they show up.
Below you can see a video of Nichols, photographing chimpanzees that see humans for the first time. It’s also a realistic and somewhat funny account of what this photography work is really like.
The end result of this struggling is undoubtedly beautiful. The textures, the far away flavor, the exotic. The beautiful animals that most of us never saw in real life. The camera secures an entrance in the natural habitat of these animals. But this is not all. Nichols and other wildlife photographers don’t do this for beauty per se. Beauty just happens to be there, it’s a mean of persuasion, but not a goal.
They do it because they believe these photos can change minds and hearts. Most of the times the photographers are helped by others who know the local spaces, the animals and their habits. People who take care of orphan chimpanzees, people who work in conservation or fight to protect elephants from being killed for a piece of ivory who happens to be their teeth. The photographers get a first hand account of what happens to these animals, the dangers they are exposed and the killings. These photographers know that the smart elephant they know waits a day before crossing a road, waits until it’s dark, because he knows humans can kill him. These photographers know that the animals they photograph might not appear in the photos again, not for natural causes but because they became a coat. Or because some buldozers destroyed their habitat to make space for soy cultivation. And so for these photographers, taking pictures of these animals is not a matter of aesthetics, it’s a matter of believing in a cause. They take these photos because they believe seeing truth will bring change.
When asked from the public if he ever was so discouraged that he thought of giving up, Nichols said immediately: “I cannot give up!”. His voice had a sense of urgency. Feeling discouraged and considering walking away was never an option for him. Or maybe it was. But more important was his belief that, after knowing and witnessing the brutal killings of the intelligent elephants and the not so different from us chimpanzees, after knowing what happens to nature, he just had to keep going, to photograph it and bring those images in the world that causes its destruction.
What surprised me and moved me at the same time, was Nichols genuine exasperation and impossibility to understand why people don’t do something to protect nature and these animals. “Why don’t they get it?!” he asked.
And so I asked myself the same thing, why don’t we get it?
Is it because these images are so beautiful and so far away that they’re fascinating but don’t hold anyone responsible?
Can it that their beauty keeps us away from their essence and message?
Is there a missing link between their purpose and their audience?
I tend to believe there is. I tend to believe most of us fail to connect our daily lives, photographing ‘just a monkey’ and the worrying killings/extinction of these animals. I tend to believe that the luscious pages of National Geographic don’t scream and have no touch of blood. And I tend to believe that anyway, these pages are not seen by the ones who could change something at a larger scale. They’re too busy counting money.