Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year - Natural History Museum, London
Review by Eugenie Shinkle
Few photographic subjects have wider or more lasting appeal than animals. The difference between animal photography and the more specific genre of wildlife photography seems fairly obvious: wildlife photography depicts wild animals. As I discovered when I visited the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, however, things aren't quite that simple.
Even if you're not a fan of wildlife photography, the exhibition definitely rates a visit. Some of the more noteworthy images include Göran Ehlmé's winning photograph of a walrus foraging on the sea bed, Vincent Munier's minimalist images of owls, and Jordi Chias's lush picture of a school of fish swimming in turbulent seas. There's also some impressively accomplished work by young photographers. As a genre, however, wildlife photography doesn't seem to have moved along much: here, as ever, it consists largely of photogenic creatures disporting themselves in beautiful and apparently pristine settings. This left me a little uneasy. If, as the literature claims, the competition aims to 'raise the status of wildlife photography to that of a mainstream art', then surely it should be asking questions and pushing boundaries, rather than rolling out the same old staid - if lovely - imagery?
As far as aesthetics are concerned, innovation seemed to be more or less beside the point. Entries were judged on how 'striking', 'memorable', 'thought provoking' or 'appealing' they were - terms which turned out to be a kind of shorthand for established formal and technical attributes such as clarity, graphic quality, pose, lighting and timing. The concept of the 'decisive moment' doesn't have much currency in the world of contemporary art photography, but the judges clearly held it in some esteem. To be fair, timing is key when your subject may fly away or bite you at any moment. Undomesticated animals aren't easy to work with, and it's easy to cast the wildlife photographer as a technicial virtuoso and something of a hero.
The difference between a wild animal and a domesticated one isn't as clear as it once was, however, and the exhibition's tendency to describe its subjects in human terms doesn't help matters. Some of these critters seem accustomed to human traffic, and many of them have been obliging enough to make eye contact with the photographer - another feature that was highly prized by the judges. Animals look at humans in the same way they look at any other species. However, as John Berger points out in his classic essay Why Look at Animals?, 'by no other species except man will the animal's look be recognized as familiar'. We tend to anthropomorphise animals, ascribing human qualities to poses and expressions that have little or nothing to do with human sensibilities. Describing animals as 'thuggish,' 'quizzical,' 'wily', or 'wise' may make for cute captions but it doesn't provide much insight into their true character.
Of course, the 'true character' of animals has always been something of a mystery; historically, the tendency to anthropomorphise has been a way of compensating for the animal world's essential difference from humanity. These days, humans and animals have less space to cohabit. Once a metaphor for the irretrievable otherness of nature, animals now stand for its disappearance. Though the exhibition claims to 'reveal the beauty and diversity of the natural world', in fact there is relatively little untouched wilderness shown - roughly half of the images in the show were taken in parks or nature reserves. The word 'wild' appears frequently in the text panels in the exhibition hall as well as in the accompanying literature, but a good many of the species in these photographs aren't really 'wild' in the conventional sense of the word - they are protected by human carers, living out their lives in the animal equivalent of gated communities.
Reminders of extinction or habitat loss are kept to a bare minimum. A section entitled 'The World in Our Hands' features images that are meant to convey our relationship with the environment. Even here, however, humanity's more destructive tendencies are underplayed. The organisers are quick to remind us that Jocke Berglund's striking image of a perfect tree-shaped clear-cut was not the result of logging, but of hurricane damage. I got the distinct feeling that potentially upsetting or controversial entries had been quickly shuffled to the bottom of the pile. In the world of Shell Wildlife Photography, politics and the natural world are not comfortable bedfellows.
However topical they may be, it's hardly surprising that the exhibition's organisers chose to gloss over such touchy subjects. As it turns out, the most newsworthy thing about this competition is not, sadly, the images themselves, but the Museum's hair-raisingly inappropriate choice of sponsor. Living creatures and petrochemicals aren't outstandingly compatible at the best of times, but Shell's appalling record of environmental mismanagement makes their role in the competition a particularly ironic one. Friends of the Earth have condemned Shell's involvement as a 'blatant act of hypocrisy and greenwash' and are actively campaigning to have them removed as the official sponsors of the event.
Berger's bleak comment that animals in zoos 'constitute the living monument to their own disappearance' could equally apply to wildlife photographs. Here, transformed into spectacle and cloaked in a noncommital aesthetic rhetoric, the animal subjects of wildlife photography have little to do but entertain until they die out.