Connecting across continents
In a tete-e-tete with Pete Oxford, wildlife photographer and documentary photojournalist par excellence. His images and portraits of wildlife and native culture and biodiversity are hauntingly memorable and serve as instruments for their conservation and awareness.
Greetings from Saevus, Pete! For starters, do tell our readers how and when you decided to get into wildlife and nature photography?
Since a very early age, I have known that I was interested in wildlife. I was inspired by my father, who was a very keen amateur naturalist; he taught me patience and how to watch wildlife. I went on to study zoology with marine zoology at the university level. Photography came later as I realised that my two greatest passions, namely wildlife and travel, could be jointly explored through the career of a wildlife photographer. It was a long road, but in the end, the idea paid off.
You have been in the field for a considerably long while. Do you think the art of nature photography has evolved over this period? How much difference has the technology and the Internet made?
Yes, everything has changed. Firstly, image sales have become harder as the markets shrink, but at the same time, the number of very high-quality images improves along with the number of new photographers in the marketplace. Technology has made top-quality images available to a greater number of enthusiasts; many are often willing to release their images for free to magazines for the pleasure of seeing them published. Many of us who make a living from image sales can see our business, as we know it, coming to an end in the not-so-distant future. More and more images are being viewed globally on the Internet through social media sites, while fewer and fewer are being sold commercially. Photo-editing tools like Photoshop now produce stunning changes to images very easily, yet often stretching the truth too far. Believability in an image is increasingly prone to doubt these days.
Both you and your wife Renee are drawn towards photographing native cultures and communities as well, apart from your fascination with wildlife. What are some of the lessons in conservation that we can learn from such indigenous communities, for example, from the Huaoranis of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest?
We enjoy visiting and documenting indigenous cultures for several reasons. Firstly, such cultures are often the ones on the frontline of conservation, so to be able to conserve effectively we have to learn to love the people whose actions most affect the ecosystem or its wildlife. Secondly, most of the world’s indigenous cultures are very rapidly losing their way of life as humanity is homogenising. The world loses valuable traditional knowledge accumulated over millennia and the cultures become sidelined more and more, the less they have to offer. As a result, conservation suffers. This was a basic lesson we learned when we produced a book celebrating the Huaorani culture, which we did with an aim of depicting them in a way they would be proud of, thus celebrating and adding value to their civilisation. We are proud to say that it seems to have had a positive result. To be with the Huaoranis in their forest home in the Amazon is really quite an incredible experience and we have a lot to potentially learn from them.
The geographical spread of your photographic journey over the years has been immense. Which is the one place that will always stay close to your heart?
A difficult question indeed. My favourite place is most often the place where I am at any given time! Let’s see, among countries, I would count India and Madagascar. Regions that I have loved and had memorable experiences in would include Antarctica and the Okavango Delta. However, the place that will always remain closest to my heart is the Amazon rainforest.
Photography for you has been a mission, a way through which you can lend your efforts to science, and therefore conservation as well. You are also a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Please share some of your insights about photography as a tool for natural history, science and conservation.
Images can indeed be very powerful. In fact, a single image can become the driving force for an entire tourism industry. I have just returned home, for example, from Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in India, driven by the overwhelming desire to visit the Apatani and Naga people, based on a series of images I saw in a book many years ago. I believe that national parks around the world, for example, should not charge professional photographic fees but rather invite bona fide professional wildlife photographers to the reserves. After all, it is often the images they provide that encourage enormous numbers of tourists to visit the park and boost its popularity. My images, I know, have illustrated scientific studies and even, in part, BBC documentaries and the like. The ILCP is important because by joining forces with like-minded conservation photographers we can form a more united force with a stronger voice.
As a ten-time award winner at the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, what do you think makes a stunning image? What is your personal thought process before approaching a new subject?
A stunning image is just that – an image which speaks for itself. It must possess a sense of awe, for example, drama, action, symmetry, light, intrigue, power, composition, etc or a combination of such elements. Before approaching a new subject, I like to learn as much about it as possible beforehand and talk to several people who have direct experience with the subject. After that, it’s all about putting in the time.
You were a naturalist guide in the Galapagos, and have spent an inordinate amount of time in the region, apart from having worked on three books on its unique ecosystem. Tell us a bit more about your experience in this fascinating chain of islands.
Yes, I was a guide and lived in the islands for three years back in the late 80s. It was an incredible experience and the Galapagos is another area that has become very close to my heart. I have now produced three books on the archipelago; the latest (with a foreword by HRH Prince Philip) has a particularly strong conservation message. The islands are incredible for a host of reasons that we are all very familiar with, but the threats that they are facing are escalating dangerously and are much less known. Yet, they could prove very serious to the extremely fragile populations. The greatest threats are now things like diseases (canine distemper, avian flu) and insect invaders, some of which cause major havoc to ecosystems (one species is parasitic on nesting passerine birds, for example). Both disease and invasive insects are exceptionally difficult to control, especially with the vastly increased human traffic to and from the islands. I still visit the islands every year, to photograph the ‘standard’ Galapagos but also to monitor photographically the changes. Unless we have an actual historical perspective, we will tend to suffer the typical fate of a shifting baseline.
We heard that you recently visited India. Were there any particular areas or species that you wanted to photograph here? What was the overall experience like?
We absolutely love India, both as an incredible wildlife and cultural destination, as well as a full-on sensory overload at every level. Our recent trip put us in the northeastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Culturally it was fascinating but it was terribly sad to witness the rate at which their cultural identity is being lost. Secondly, it was absolutely unbelievable to us how little wildlife, of any kind, we saw in the aforementioned states (except Assam). In Arunachal, we saw a few wagtails that had migrated in, some flocks of Amur Falcons but hardly any sparrows, mynahs, crows or pigeons. If I was involved in conservation in those states, I would propose a complete 2-3 year moratorium on hunting in the affected states to give it a chance to recover before there is no longer any culture or wildlife worth visiting for. Local people seem to favour wild-caught animals, birds and insects for the taste (despite being much more expensive than homegrown chicken or pork) and this is driving the decline in species. Regional governments could then help sponsor things like artisanal fish farming, honey production, shade-grown coffee etc. to substitute the desire to hunt.
You’ve photographed a broad range of subjects from sea lions to jaguars, and bears to monkeys—and more recently, you’ve been documenting the critically endangered Iberian lynx. How important is it as a nature photographer to understand animal behaviour and patterns?
Potentially, very important. We are typically in the scene, directly observing the subject in real time. In the case of my experience with the Iberian lynx, after approximately three months of time in the field with some wild individuals, I noticed a behaviour that I reported to the biologists studying the lynx. A lactating female, who was with kittens, would carry caught rabbits back to a certain area that we presumed was the den site. I also noticed, however, over time, that her daughter from the previous year and male offspring from two years before would also carry prey back over the hills in the same direction. After intense direct observations, I eventually concluded that the previous offspring were ‘helpers’ at the den. There was general disbelief amongst the biologists until an amazing camera trap image showed three generations together with a little while later.
Wildlife photography is growing as a hobby and passion in India. What message do you have for the young and enthusiastic shutterbugs from the country?
I would say, keep at it — you are incredibly good! At the same time, however, be advocates for nature; don’t just go selfishly to get your shot. There are already too few defenders of wildlife out there as it is. You have a potentially strong voice – use it wisely.
British-born Pete Oxford has been a resident of Ecuador, South America, since 1985. He works as a team with his South African photographer wife Reneé Bish; together, they have travelled repeatedly to all continents in search of images and are more and drawn to native cultures as well as wildlife, believing that the preservation of one is inextricably linked to the other. Their images have been published in most of the major magazines in the world in their field, including National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, Geo, Smithsonian, Nature, International Wildlife, Airone and Nature’s Best. Pete is a ten-time award winner in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition and a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (www.ilcp.com). A committed conservationist, he aspires to illuminate the natural world to the public with the aim of raising awareness and respect for the environment.
Read also: Chronicles of the Black Forest
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