Gratuitous violence in films, television, and video games desensitises us to the use of weapons and force in the world around us. The objectification of women in music videos and advertising desensitises us to sexism. The onslaught of rapid fire information from social media desensitises our capacity for deeply felt empathy.
And, if this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is anything to go by, our near-constant exposure to hyper-stimulating images and information is desensitising us to the awesome beauty of nature.
For nearly 50 years the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has, according to its sponsors the Natural History Museum, London and BBC Worldwide, ‘reveal[ed] and champion[ed] the diversity of life on Earth.’
For the first six years I enjoyed the exhibition, I certainly found that to be true. The chosen images always combined visually stunning photography with a revelation of some incredible aspect of nature, be it the otherworldly colour of bird’s feathers or a massive formation of fish swelling and moving as though an independent entity. Even when the subject of the photograph was, in itself, common, such a sparrow or pelican, the innovation of the photographer’s angle, timing, or framing presented the animal and their world from a totally new perspective.
But this year, something was different. In just the first two categories of the exhibition, two photos were hung that utilised camera tricks such as special lenses, filters, and shutter speeds to produce drastic effects. While such stylistic, manufactured images were formally the sole domain of the Creative Visions category, they now permeated every aspect of the exhibit.
In fact, to capture the grand title winning photograph of the year, Essence of elephants, Greg du Toit utilised ‘a slow shutter speed…a tilted wide-angle lens…a narrow aperture…a polarising filter and set his white balance to a cool temperature.’
In the end, 10% of the 2013 exhibit’s photographs utilised heavy-handed manipulations to produce a fabricated results. Some additional examples include Marc Steichen’s Badger dream scene, for which the photographer ‘made a double exposure, first focusing on the badger and then defocusing to take a softer image, ‘creating as dreamy a scene as it was that evening;’ and Charlie Hamilton James’ Light path, for which the photographer ‘lit the kingfisher’s flight path artificially, while simultaneously creating a shadow on the bank to highlight the colourful trajectory. Firing two strobes at the end of the exposure caught the detail of the head and wings.’
The purpose of the exhibit had always seemed to be the use of photographic creativity and skill to illuminate and share the amazing wonders of the natural world. In what was perhaps naivitey, I imagined the end result as an intersection between the arts and environmental awareness. Now the focus seems to be shifting towards a showcase of how humans can manipulate nature. Have we really seen it all? Is there nothing left that can, in its natural state, amaze us?
Below are some of the photographs from this year’s exhibition that, due to their subject as well as the dedication and skill of the photographer, amazed me. I only hope that the competition soon returns to an environment that celebrates nature on its own merits.