Katya Lukina reviews the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the National History Museum
This exhibition never fails to impress me. Every year, another sensational set of photographs is displayed at the NHM, there to be marvelled at as well as to provoke discussions and reflections on the role of wildlife in our world today.
Upon entering the dark exhibition hall, you are hit with the brightness, boldness and beauty of the photographs lit up from the back. This way, the colours jump out at you and you can’t miss any of the detail. The vivid greens of the grasslands and the blues of the oceans come away from the flat surface they are mounted on and into the dark room, and the minuscule (and so normally ignored) patterns and textures of nature are brought to the fore.
After seeing the photographs, I can really appreciate the skill and patience that wildlife photographers must have. To create such incredible images, you must get close to your subject and wait – sometimes for months since nature can be unpredictable – to get a perfect shot. A number of photographers recalled that it felt like they were a visitor or even an intruder in the animal’s habitat, and that it was fascinating to watch animals engaged in their natural activity. Many of the shots relied on chance; it was sheer luck that brought the creatures to a certain setting or arranged them in a certain configuration or position.
The fact that these unlikely magical moments were captured perfectly deserves merit. A group of panic-stricken impalas springing in all directions away from a hungry crocodile and a lucky arctic fox posing for the camera, dinner in mouth, were just two of the impressive images which exuded talent.
The photos which especially caught my eye, though, were those filed under ‘Documentary’ – a category dedicated to wildlife affected by human activity. The photographers tackle aspects such as illegal hunting and bird trappings, the latter of which I was completely unaware before seeing the image of two birds stuck tragically yet gracefully upside-down on a branch covered in glue.
An important aspect of wildlife photography today is its ability to get people talking about issues affecting the natural world and this category really succeeds at this. In fact, this year’s Grand Title Winner is a photograph of a lifeless horn-less black rhino captured in South Africa. The exhibition offers a considerable description of the illegal trade as well as other images relating to it, contrasting to the tiny descriptions next to the other photographs in the room. This year, it seems, there is more of an emphasis on the protection of wildlife than its beauty.
Having said that, promoting the beauty of nature can, in turn, encourage its protection. Would we rather look at an ocean full of plastic or majestic armies of crabs? The fusion of beauty and moral issues in one exhibition provides a varied and eye-opening experience.
Whether you’re of the opinion that humans are the intruders in the natural world or that animals are taking over humans’ industrialised home, several photographs showed the two living in harmony. From boars using a pedestrian crossing to thousands of birds flocking in Spain’s bays, we see a collision of the natural and man-made worlds in a neutral, if not positive, light.
This exhibition is certainly worth visiting. The colours, shapes and textures absorb the visitors while the subjects and stories behind the photographs serve as food for thought about the animal kingdom and our place within it.
Featured image: Memorial to a Species by Brent Stirton