Not all flamingos were created pink. Nature photographer Pedro Jarque Krebs, from Peru, won the 2018 Bird Photographer of the Year award — the ornithological equivalent of Best-in-Show — this past weekend for his colourful image of American flamingos preening in a lake mist. Yes, there were splashes of pink, but the predominant colour was a rich, vibrant red. Pink flamingos may still be a thing, but in Krebs’ image, flamingos were allowed to show off their richer, more vibrant shades of vermillion.
Admittedly, Krebs’ work has relied heavily on digital manipulation and Photoshop in the past, but it’s the final image that counts. At least, in this case, the contest judges thought so.
Also, Krebs has had a reputation in the past for using captive animals in his portraits, often under less-than-ideal conditions. (Not all nature-photography award contests are so forgiving; judging committees at many of the top, prestigious awards value authenticity — wild is wild — over the final image, any day of the week.)
All this aside, Krebs’ winning image is certainly arresting.
The Czech Republic’s Petr Bambousek was cited for Outstanding Portfolio, based in large part on his capture of a roseate spoonbill — genuinely wild — preening its feathers in a pool of standing water.
Young Bird Photographer of the Year — an award of increasing significance, given the precarious state of the environment in these present, turbulent times — was awarded to Johan Carlberg of Sweden, for his stylistically fetching composition of a great crested grebe — also preening! — during golden hour.
Best Portrait awards went to nature photographers from Italy (Saverio Gatti, with the gold medal), the Netherlands (Roelof Molenaar, silver) and Sweden again (Ivan Sjogren, bronze).
Other category winners hailed from France, Greece, Spain, Kuwait and Singapore — proving, if nothing else, that bird photography is a global pastime, and not just the private hobby of a handful of well-to-do bird enthusiasts and world travellers from North America and the UK.
The Bird Photographer of the Year awards are managed by the UK-based peer group Nature Photographers Ltd. and the British Trust for Ornithology, a spiritual cousin of the US’s National Audubon Society.
More and more, as Canadian polar explorer, trained biologist and 2012 Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Paul Nicklen told The Sunday Observer this past weekend, nature photography — or conservation photography, as some prefer to call it — is on the front line in the social-media battle for hearts and minds.
It will be hard if not impossible for humanity to survive, let alone thrive, on a desolate, despoiled planet — that seems obvious — but the present-day toxic mix of greed, denial, militant ignorance and an almost wilful disregard of basic facts means the argument has to be made over and over again.
David Attenborough can’t get the message out on his own — not at his age, and not with so many deep-pocketed, big-money interests arrayed against him. Big Oil, the Koch brothers, Fox News and others still perpetuate the belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax, intended to bring western economies to their knees, even as he evidence suggests otherwise and entire ecosystems collapse around us.
That’s why my favourite category in every nature/conservation photography contest award I can think of is that which celebrates wild animals in their natural environment.
And so it is with this year’s Bird Photographer of the Year awards.
Salvador Colvée, from Spain, won the Birds in the Environment category for his striking image of an ostrich wandering the crest of a sand dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert — the world’s oldest, in geological terms — not far from the aptly named Skeleton Coast. The cold-water Benguela Current from Antarctica follows the Atlantic coast from from South Africa to Angola, creating early-morning sea mists that stretch as far as 500 kms. inland across an arid, deceptively barren desert landscape, nurturing mosses and lichens that in turn feed a surprisingly complex ecosystem that includes, yes, ostriches, as well as large mammals like oryx, desert-adapted elephants and even the increasingly rare, hard-to-spot desert lion.
This is what the award-winning images in the Bird Photographer of the Year contest are all about: showing nature in all its beauty, but also showing its hardiness and resilience in the face of existential threats. After all, threats don’t get much more existential than climate change and species extinction.
Another wildlife-in-its-natural-habitat image: Nature photographer Richard Shucksmith, from the UK, won a pair of awards, including the popular People’s Choice award, for his over- and underwater image of a northern gannet, the same kind of image that propelled Nicklen’s early career as a photographer, while at the same boosting his profile and spreading the wider message about the need to preserve what remains of the world’s embattled polar regions.
Nicklen’s above- and below-water split-screen images from Antarctica remain the gold standard against which all similar images are judged today.
Despite some 22 assignments for National Geographic and a new book (Born to Ice, published by the high-end, German-based specialty publisher teNeues, https://books-teneues.com), Nicklen would prefer to be known for his on-the-ground conservation efforts and his co-founding of the ocean conservation group SeaLegacy with his partner, conservation photographer, environmentalist and frequent National Geographic speaker Cristina Mittermeier, than as an accomplished photographer. One is a calling; the other, a life’s mission. SeaLegacy is dedicated to the idea that future generations won’t have to know the world’s wild wonders solely through photographic images from a distant, fading past.
That’s why these contests — and the positive image they present — are critical to our understanding of Planet Earth and what’s at stake.
These aren’t just pretty pictures of birds. They’re a reflection of life itself.