The “eye of the beholder” and award competitions: When seeing is not always believing.

Another internationally juried photo prize, another controversy — another scandal.

Malaysian photographer Edwin Ong Wee Kee’s haunting image of a partially blind Vietnamese woman carrying her baby won top honours — and the USD $120,000 prize that came with it — at the 2019 Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA) in Dubai.

Ong’s vision was judged to be the most representative of this year’s theme, “Hope,” and there’s an undeniable human quality to the image, its depiction of sadness and loss, coupled with one person’s determination to survive, despite the challenges.

©Edwin Ong Wee Kee

©Edwin Ong Wee Kee

As reported on PetaPixel, though, according to those who were there at the March 12 ceremony, the announcement was greeted with several eye-rolls, mutterings and murmurs of thinly veiled irritation. Here we go again with the poverty porn, they seemed to be saying.

The term “poverty porn” has been used to describe photographers’ fixation on images of people struggling to survive desperate circumstances. These images are considered safe to do because to dismiss the image is to dismiss the subject, and who in good conscience would do that?

©Brent Stirton/WPOTY53/Getty Images

©Brent Stirton/WPOTY53/Getty Images

There’s a growing feeling in the photography community, though, that creativity — looking at familiar subjects in new, unfamiliar ways — should count for more than always taking the safe and obvious route, especially when it comes to internationally recognized competitions.

Any announcement of a major award, especially one with money involved, is bound to be greeted with catcalls. Judging is subjective, after all. My choice may not be yours. Cynics are everywhere, and it’s always easier to disagree than to agree. Safe choices are safe for a reason: People like them, and photo juries tend to agree. When a rare, controversial choice is made — South African photographer Brent Stirton’s image of a slaughtered rhino winning the prestigious 53rd annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year award being a prime example — the resulting public disagreement, and the bad press that comes with it, can scare future juries away from making similar choices. 

The Wildlife Photographer jury opted for a much safer image in this year’s awards, picking Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten’s portrait of two rare golden snub-nosed monkeys in China's Qinling mountains, over a field of nominees that included SeaLegacy photographer Justin Hofman’s unforgettable — and hard to look at — image of a starving polar bear in Canada’s far north.

©Marsel van Oosten/WPOTY54

©Marsel van Oosten/WPOTY54

The Hamdan International Photography Award was bound to have its detractors, in other words, no matter what image was chosen.

But then the other shoe dropped, and a controversy became a scandal.

It turns out the photo was probably staged. The seemingly natural image — with its echoes of Steve McCurry’s famous National Geographic cover shot of “the Afghan Girl” — was one of several taken by a group of photographers at a photo-op session organized by fellow photographer Ab Rashid.

Ong defended his image to the Malaysian daily The Star, telling the paper, “In this trip to Vietnam, we (photographers) went to the rice field and there was a mother (with her children) that passed by. We never told her to stand up or sit down.”

©PetaPixel/Ab Rashid (right)

©PetaPixel/Ab Rashid (right)

Strictly speaking, Ong never violated any rules of the contest: Unlike some juried photo competitions, the  Hamdan Photography Award doesn’t require photographers to sign a claim that prohibits staging or, in the case of nature photography competitions like the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer awards, that the subject be free-ranging, in its natural habitat. Unlike the World Press Photo Awards — itself a lightning rod for recent controversy — the Hamdan Award doesn’t demand that photographers follow the principles and ethics of professional photojournalism, with its emphasis on hard news.

Recent past winners of the Hamdan Award show an understandable bias towards photojournalism, though, and it’s easy to see why: These are the images that reflect the world as it is, not necessarily as we want it to be.

©Mohammed Alragheb/Hamdan International Photography Awards

©Mohammed Alragheb/Hamdan International Photography Awards

Even so, there’s something unsettling knowing that an image was, if not staged exactly, certainly posed, when comparisons to actual, genuine photojournalism are not just implied but obvious for all to see.

In a thoughtful essay on PetaPixel, Yale University graduate, iTunes podcaster and PhotoShelter co-founder Allen Murabayashi suggests the problem isn’t the contest but us, as a society.

“We feel duped,” he wrote, “not necessarily because the image may or may not have been directed. We feel duped because Ong took the image with a gaggle of other photographer of a young, impoverished mother in a way that feels creepily reminiscent of a mid-20th-century all-male camera club hiring a female model.”

We live in an Instagram culture of algorithm-generated clicks that encourages “likes” and feeds on our collective vanity and search for validation.

“The same people who decry contests use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to build their own followings,” Murabayashi said, “while chasing retweets and likes of their own.”

©Ab Rashid/PetaPixel

©Ab Rashid/PetaPixel

Our collective fascination with the pain and suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves is harder to reconcile. A powerful image of someone in distress can raise awareness and generate much-needed funding for relief efforts — we can’t rely on Western and particularly US politicians to do the right thing — but there’s also that disquieting feeling that it’s amoral to celebrate suffering in the form of competitions that provide a cash prize — in some cases a significant cash prize, as with the Hamdan Award — to the winners.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, any monetary reward should go to the subject, at least in part.

There’s an upside to the Hamdan Award as is, Murabayashi suggests.

“If nothing else, maybe increased awareness of the world’s richest photo contest will attract a whole new wave of photographers doing important, long-term work.”

Perhaps. As long as photo captions — and juried competitions — don’t explicitly explain whether an image was natural or posed, though, questions will remain. Troubling questions. 

https://petapixel.com/2019/03/18/the-winning-photo-of-the-120k-hipa-prize-was-apparently-staged/


Later: Here’s an interesting thought.

In the stream of comments posted on PetaPixel and other sites in the wake of the “posed photo” revelation, more than one person suggested the behind-the-scenes image below tells a more topical, relevant story than the actual image that won the Hamdan Award.

It has certainly kickstarted a more far-reaching conversation about the relationship between photographer and subject, and how the haves often exploit the have-nots for their own purposes, regardless of motive.

That’s not news, of course — or won’t be to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of how the world works — but it’s worth talking about in the open, in online chat forums and other public spaces, and not behind closed doors in sequestered photo-jury rooms.

Another interesting question: How many of these  photographers pictured here got exactly the same image, but didn’t think to submit it to an international photo competition?

How original is originality supposed to be, anyway?

After all, the eye of the beholder doesn’t add up to much if everyone sees the same thing.

Food for thought.

©PetaPixel

©PetaPixel




A single picture can change the world, but can it save the planet? This is Nick Brandt.

Yousuf Karsh, Robert Capa — Nick Brandt. The art of photography is subjective. How we view the world is personal, and unique to us. How we interpret other people’s visions, as reflected through the medium of photography, is also subjective.

Every so often, though, an image — or a series of images — speaks to a deeper, more meaningful truth. A universal truth.

The debate over climate change — how is this even still a debate? — remains divisive and fractious, driven by monetary considerations, to do with jobs, the world economy and old-fashioned human greed. It takes a lot to cut through the clutter in a world connected through social media and motivated by instant gratification.

Thankfully, the power of a single image — an unforgettable moment, frozen in time — still has the ability to shake us out of our complacency.

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

Africa, a continent of shit-hole countries, to quote one world leader whose name is widely known but I prefer to think of as El Mamón (thank you, Dave Eggers), is a study in contradictions, not unlike most places, but on a grander, more epic scale. The cradle of humankind — if one is to believe evidence of early archeological digs in East Africa’s Rift Valley, which I do — is home to natural beauty on a scale unsurpassed virtually anywhere else on planet Earth in the early 21st century, but it is also home to overcrowded cities and a seething, steadily expanding sea of humanity, reflecting a youth bulge where the majority of the population is under 25. The population of Africa surpassed one billion people in the year 2009. The annual growth rate is more than 2.5% a year, with a doubling time of 27 years, according to United Nations estimates from the UN’s  Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs.  Today, Africa’s population is estimated to be 1.3 billion people, 17% of the world total. If the population continues to expand at the present rate — a big “if” — the UN estimates the continent’s population will reach 2.5 billion by 2050, or 26% of the world total.

The population growth is the natural result of a decrease in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy, coupled with a corresponding healthy fertility rate. So much for the “civilized,” Western notion of Africa as a basket-case continent, riven by famine, disease, conflict and pestilence.

Climate change, on the other hand, is real, and affects impoverished, overcrowded communities in the equatorial tropics more than in the more sparsely populated — relatively speaking — countries of the far northern and southern hemispheres.

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

How to convey this paradox of conflicting realities in a single photographic image with the power to both inform and move is no easy challenge, and most photographers don’t bother.

Which is where Nick Brandt comes in. He is neither a nature photographer nor a documentary news photographer, but rather a visual artist who combines elements of both. 

Nature purists argue against “posed”    animals (Brandt actually doesn’t pose his animals but rather takes photos in the wild; many of the animals in his most recent book,  This Empty World, published just last month, on Feb. 5, were photographed in the Maasai tribal lands outside Amboseli National Park, on Kenya’s border with Tanzania, where the dry, dusty plains look onto Mt. Kilimanjaro, a majestic backdrop for some of the most iconic images of wild Africa taken anywhere on the continent. (Mt. Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” to the locals, is also evidence of the more obvious effects of climate change, owing to its ever-shrinking glacial ice cap, but that’s a story for another day.)

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

Photojournalists who focus on hard news argue against staged photos, as news, by definition, is about what happens in the moment, in the blink of an eye. Brandt does stage the people in his photos, building entire sets  — for This Empty World, a gas station, an industrial rock quarry, a dusty river bed — and posing his people there, but in a “green” way, deconstructing and dismantling the sets afterwards, so that any evidence of human interference has vanished entirely — we were never there. The animal images are superimposed over the staged people photos, and the result is both eerie and unsettling, and yet strangely real.

And powerful. Brandt’s images in This Empty World, and in his earlier black-and-white work, Inherit the Dust,  are — to these eyes, anyway — some of the most powerful images of human-wildlife connectedness and conflict it’s possible to imagine. The fact that Brandt, while respected among his peers, isn’t a household name on the art and gallery circuit is not just confounding but profoundly annoying to anyone who cares about the future health of the planet. I admire the David Attenborough nature programs immensely, for their pristine beauty, a soothing balm for troubled times and immensely — and deservedly — popular. But Brandt’s work, to me, is just as profound, but in a different, perhaps more meaningful way. Where Attenborough inspires us to action through natural beauty, Brandt demands that we sit up and take notice, and realize that this is happening right now and that it may already be too late to do something about it.

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

This Empty World has only recently been published, so there is renewed media interest in Brandt’s work. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this week — Brandt distanced himself on his Facebook page somewhat from the published version, as it appeared in a first-person format, as if he had written it himself, with all the inevitable perils of entire thoughts edited out to fit a proscribed space — Brandt revealed some of his innermost thoughts behind his creative process.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/19/nick-brandt-best-photograph-elephants-and-building-workers-share-a-crowded-afric

The theme emerges again in this reasoned essay/review in the arts journal Brooklyn Rail.

https://brooklynrail.org/2019/03/artseen/Nick-Brandt-This-Empty-World

“These men weren’t actors, just normal people from Kibera in Nairobi,” Brandt told The Guardian. “I didn’t direct them, except for the two guys on their phones. Wherever you are in the world, you see people staring at their phones.”

The animals were filmed in their natural state, with the final composite image edited later.

“The (animal) shots were planned ahead of time but only half-staged,” Brandt said. “We built a partial set and installed a camera that was triggered by motion sensors each time an animal came into the frame. And then we waited. Weeks, sometimes months, went by before we would capture one. There were times I wondered if the project would work.”

Clearly, it did.

“These men are not the aggressors,” Brandt continued. “Their communities are as badly impacted by the destruction as the animals. The villains are off-screen, typically industrialists and politicians, responsible for runaway development in the interests of their own short-term gain. 

“Every environmentalist I know in Africa who has seen the images has written to say: ‘You have absolutely nailed what is going on.’”

#Truth. And amen.


Skolstrejk för klimatet — a Children’s Crusade for the 21st century.

Twelve days ago, on March 1st, 150 students with the School Strike for Climate movement, aka #FridaysForFuture, signed a joint letter to the world demand action from their elders — us —to prevent further degradation to the global environment. The movement formed a number of years ago, but it wasn’t until 15-year-old Swedish ninth grader Greta Thunberg staged a one-person protest outside the Swedish Riksdag parliament in late August after a summer of heat waves and wildfires across the Nordic country that the movement gained traction. Thunberg vowed not to return to school until the Swedish general election on Sept. 9. Perhaps it says something about the Swedish education system that schools there were in session long before end end of summer holidays across North America, but that’s the Nordic mindset for you.

©Michael Campanella/The Guardian

©Michael Campanella/The Guardian

As it happened, her protest, while easy to dismiss — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously huffed that these kids today need “more learning in schools and less activism,” thus proving Thunberg’s point about Herberts being completely tone deaf, not just on climate but on any number of other issues — spread like autumn mushrooms in an old-growth forest. By December, student strikes had expanded to nearly 300 cities around the globe, from Australia, Austria and Belgium to Switzerland, Uganda, the UK and the US.

Thunberg herself points to an unlikely source of inspiration for her What-Do-Kids-Know-Anyway protest: the student activists at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who staged their own protest march, March for Our Lives, in the wake of a deadly school shooting earlier that year that claimed 17 lives.

Thunberg, whose bright yellow rainjacket and hand-drawn sign Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate) became impossible to overlook outside the Swedish parliament, galvanized school students around the world to take part in student strikes each Friday,  and make their voices heard.

@Washington Post/Getty Images alexandria villasenor

@Washington Post/Getty Images alexandria villasenor

Last month, the movement claimed its first political scalp, a regional environment minister in Belgium, just days before winning endorsements from climate scientists and environmental groups across the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Flanders politician and then-environment minister Joke Schauvliege resigned on Feb. 5, days after falsely claiming that Belgium’s state security agency had evidence that the school strikes were “a set-up.” Days later, more than 300 Dutch scientists signed an open letter in support of the school strikes, writing, “On the basis of the facts supplied by climate science, the campaigners are right. That is why we, as scientists, support them.

Not to be outdone, on Feb. 13, more than 200 academics across the UK signed a letter in support of the advocacy group Extinction Rebellion, writing that they were giving their “full support to the students” backing the School Strike for Climate movement.

All this is pointing toward Friday’s moment of truth, the most widespread strike yet, endorsed by some of the world’s most pro-active, high-profile environmental groups, with 450 events planned in 54 countries — this, according to the website FridaysForFuture.org.

©Elizabeth Ubbe/The New York Times

©Elizabeth Ubbe/The New York Times

Thunberg was among 150 co-signers of an open letter in The Guardian on March 1st, which read in part, “We finally need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It is the biggest threat in human history and we will not accept the world's decision-makers’ inaction that threatens our entire civilization . . . . Climate change is already happening. People did die, are dying and will die because of it, but we can and will stop this madness. . . . We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing us in the future, we, the young people, will make change happen by ourselves. . .”

It’s easy to pull a Scott Morrison and be cynical about this — what the hell does a 16-year-old know? — but, simply by looking around us with our eyes open and taking in the big picture, it’s easy to see that the environment is ailing and that climate change, while a terrible scourge in itself, may be a symptom of an even wider, more serious malaise. At best, colder winters and hotter summers are an inconvenience — an inconvenient truth, if you will. At worst, they could signal a looming mass extinction — the end of the Anthropocene era, in a blink-of-an-eye compared with how long it took the dinosaurs to die out.

©Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

©Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

Seeing the starry-eyed idealism of “the climate kids” and watching the way adult cynics, duplicitous politicians and the slick, self-styled Saurons of the fossil-fuel industry round on Thunberg, Xiuhytexcatl Martinez and others — just as the NRA gun lobby and Republican politicians rounded on the Parkland students before them — it’s hard not to be reminded of historical accounts of the Children’s Crusade in the early 13th century. That was a crusade that ended in catastrophe for the children involved, remember, with  many of them sold into slavery after being tricked by merchants along the way who promised them safe passage to the Holy Land.

A revisionist version published in 1977, by the Dutch historian Peter Raedts, has it that the children were not children at all but rather bands of “wandering poor” from Germany and France who had little intention of ever reaching the Holy Land.

©HIstory Channel/YouTube

©HIstory Channel/YouTube

One thing about climate change, though, if it’s real — and few can now doubt that is, not given the recent paroxysms of climate extremes — is that it won’t be subject to interpretation or revisionism. The effects won’t be limited to a small corner of the globe, or even continental Europe, for that matter. They will be worldwide, global, from pole to pole and from Asia to Australia, taking in Africa and the Americas along the way.

That’s why this particular Children’s Crusade is meaningful. It matters.

Banner image ©Michael Campanella for The Guardian, 2019.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/greta-thunberg-schoolgirl-climate-change-warrior-some-people-can-let-things-go-i-cant

©Elizabeth Ubbe/The New York Times

©Elizabeth Ubbe/The New York Times


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Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 11.02.01 PM.png

The 'Climate Kids' and #FridaysForFuture: "There is no Planet B."

“One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city,” Barack Obama famously said in his stirring, still memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. “And if it can change a city, it can change a state, it can change nation. And if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world.”

Little more than a week before the planned worldwide strike on March 15 by students and grade-school pupils protesting the effects of climate change on future generations, support is surging for the legal case Juliana v. United States, in which 21 young people have sued the US federal government over climate change. A “Young People’s Brief” amicus brief was filed in US court last Friday, alongside briefs filed by environmenatlaist, women’s groups, business leaders and eight members of the US Congress in support of a case that has been before the courts for months now. On two separate occasions, US federal administrations — first under Barack Obama and again under Donald Trump — have tried to have the lawsuit tossed out of court. The government has lost both times. A early, lower-court ruling by an Oregion judge, giving legal reasons why the case should be allowed to continue, was appealed to the US Supreme Court twice. Both times, the Supreme Court sided with the climate activists over the government.

climate2.jpg

Students and school pupils from some 50 countries have said they will rally together in the March 15 demonstration, even as the strike is being dismissed on both the right and left as a cheap publicity gimmick — so much hot air, if you will — and an excuse to skip school for a day.

As it is, school students in Australia, France, the UK, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Thailand, Colombia and Uganda have already skipped a day of school to demand stronger climate action from their governments, as part of 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture climate campaign. Thunberg, who started the whole process as a solo campaigner outside the Swedish parliament last year, has become a lightning rod for both praise and controversy, and has been mentioned as a possible Nobel Peace Prize candidate, and was recently invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Some saw this as a cyncial ploy on the part of fat-cat industrialists who have already done their part to wreck the planet, but the truth is that — whether useful idiot or Nobel material — Thunberg herself couldn’t really give a (compost heap) how she’s perceived. The issue is what drives her, and that’s what has made her such a compelling voice for climate activism. She really couldn’t care whether she wins the Nobel Prize or gets to dine at Davos (don’t feed her lobster!) or not, and she’s the first to lash out sharply at soothing but empty feel-good words from those in power. Words don’t count anymore, actions do. She’s told people on her own side that. Actions deferred, whether it’s the Paris Agreement or tepid promises at the climate conference in Rio de Janeiro to scale back carbon emissions by 2050 mean nothing, she says. We need action, and we need it now.

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That this argument was first made by a 15-year-old would have seemed laughable a year ago, and the truth is that many people did laugh at the time.

Well, they’re not laughing now.

In a stroke of good timing — though, knowing the way the media works, I suspect it was planned that way all along — 60 Minutes’s Steve Kroft presented a news segment, The Climate Kids, on North America’s most-watched news-magazine program this past weekend. The amicus brief this past Friday was co-signed by 30,000 young people. Now, all of a sudden, those 21 students who filed the original court case have swelled in number to the tens of thousands.

That number will only grow on March 15.

Will any of this make any difference? It’s hard to tell. I’ve commented here about how the 1973 Hollywood thriller Soylent Green, itself based on the dystopian sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! by the American novleist Harry Harrison, eerily foreshadowed a world overrun by too many people and choked by carbon emissions, where fresh strawberries are a near-priceless luxury that only multi-millionaires and captains of industry can afford — until they’re murdered as part of a corporate coverup, in case the proles — i.e. us — find out what’s really going on and rebel against their masters.

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climate4.png

Soylent Green proved popular in its day, and has endured enough to be referenced even today— but as Greta Thunberg would point out, so what? What’s actually been done? 62 million American voters voted for Donald Trump to be their president, and this is a man who doesn’t even beliheve there’s a problem.

Xiuhytexcatl Martinez, the 19-year-old indigenous environmental activist and youth director of the self-explanatory Earth Guardians, is one of the lead plaintiffs in the suit, alongside climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. The suit — which many dismissed at the time, remember — argues that the US federal government has failed itd responsiblity to safeguard the health of future generations. The very air we breathe is at risk from rising carbon-dioxide emissions, which in turn affects global warming, a now-unfashionable phrase that most if not all legitimate climate scientists agree is the prime driver behind climate change. “What’s at stake right now,” then-15-year-old Martinez told the UN General Assembly in 2015, “is the existence of my generation.”

climate6 Xiuhytexcatl Martinez.jpg

Hyperbole? Perhaps. Possibly . . . probably, in fact. We can’t say we weren’t warned. Soylent Green went over this same ground in 1973, after all.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/youth-climate-change-lawsuit-grows-support/

https://www.vox.com/2019/2/21/18233206/greta-thunberg-student-school-strike-climate-change




Akashinga, ‘The Braves Ones,’ the women saving Africa’s wildlife — and now finalists for the World Press Photo of the Year.

Judging from the social-media nontroversies over judging faux pas at past World Press Photo Awards, one could be forgiven for thinking the prestigious photo contest,now in its 62nd year, must have an enemies list to rival that at any MAGA rally.

There were the concerns over “post-processing” in 2013; the staged photos and subsequent disqualification of a WPPA-winning photographer in 2015; the cancellation of the WPP exhibition at Visa Pour L’image (also in 2015); the creation of a new category, for “creative documentary photography” in 2016 (a competition that, in the words of contest organizers, “not have rules limiting how images are produced,” that would allow staged and manipulated images); questions about the authenticity of the 2nd-place long-term projects winner (‘An Iranian Journey’) in 2017; and the fracas over 2017’s World Press Photo of the Year, of which jury chair Stuart Franklin said at the time, “I didn’t think, if I’m honest with you, that (this) should be World Press Photo of the Year.”

One photographer’s controversy is another’s nontroversy.

If I’m honest with you — speaking strictly for myself — the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards aside, the World Press Photo awards is the one I pay closest attention to.

And that’s why I was gratified to see that, this year, for the second year in a row, an environmental conservation photographer has been nominated for World Press Photo of the Year.

New York-based, South African-born war photographer Brent Stirton — whose controversial (hard to avoid that word, where high-profile photojournalism awards are concerned) image of a dead rhino slaughtered for its horn won the 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award — has made the shortlist of six images for this year’s World Press Photo of the Year, for his image Akashinga — the Brave Ones.

The Akashinga are an all-female anti-poaching unit in Zimbabwe, not the most stable country on earth, nor the easiest for women to take up arms against poachers — all men — willing to kill anyone who stands between them and the booming market in illegal ivory and rhino horn.

©Brent Stirton/Getty Images

©Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The World Press Photo Awards are top-shelf in my view because, unlike, say, the Pulitzers, they reflect the world’s best, not just America. The other nominees for Photo of the Year, for example, hail from Italy (Marco Gualazzini, Almajiri Boy); Syria (Mohammed Badra, Victims of an Alleged Gas Attack Receive Treatment in Eastern Ghouta); France-Spain (Catalina Martin-Chico, Being Pregnant after FARC Child-Bearing Ban); Australia (Chris McGrath, The Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi); and the U.S. (John Moore, Crying Girl on the Border).

Shortlisted candidates in other categories include photojournalists from Venezuela, Mexico, the Netherlands and Sweden.

In all, 43 photographers from 25 countries have been nominated for this year’s awards, the 62nd edition in the organization’s history. A new category, World Press Story of the Year, should prove less controversial than 2016’s “Photoshop is OK” category — fake news! — but recent history cautions that wherever there is a high-profile photo contest with the profile of the WPOTY or WPP awards, controversy inevitably follows.

The World Press Photos are a lightning rod for debate because they’re now the world’s most high-profile competition in a field of photography that’s all about competition. Winning can lead to paid work in what’s an ever-shrinking pool of full-time staff jobs with credible, reputable media organizations.

Different juries judge the awards each year, which lessens the chance of an institutional bias — or laziness — setting in.

Stirton knows that a great story lies at the heart of any great photograph. He got his start as a war photographer, covering conflict on his home continent of Africa. In his later years — he’s now repped by Getty Images in New York — his photojournalism has taken on more of an environmental angle, the result of his witnessing, and photographing, a mountain gorilla slaughtered for its body parts in a war-torn corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DNC), more than a decade ago now, in 2007.

©Brent Stirton / BrentStirton.com

©Brent Stirton / BrentStirton.com

An all-female army of wildlife rangers sounds like a gimmick, but as a BBC story by correspondent Rachel Nuwer last September showed, it isn’t. The project is the brainchild of Australian Defence Force special-operations sniper Damien Mander, who had been hired to stem a wave of poaching in Zimbabwe’s Phundundu Wildlife Park, a 115-square-mile former trophy-hunting area, ground zero in a larger ecosystem that’s home to some 11,000 elephants. The women, 16 in all, come from backgrounds of abuse and deprivation, and so are motivated to prove what they can do. The women feel empowered, and are more likely to improve their communities in the process. They chose the  name “Akashinga” themselves, after Mander asked them to come up with a name for their unit. Akashinga means “the Brave Ones,” in the local Shona language.

“There’s a saying in Africa,” Mander told BBC. “‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today.”

The situation is serious. In just seven years, Africa’s elephant populations have crashed by 30%, largely due to poaching.

Stirton’s World Press Photo nominated image is a portrait of Petronella Chigumbura, age 30, in the field, where her specialty is in military stealth and concealment. Akashinga’s stated aim is to work with  rather than against local communities, Stirton explained in his submission. This is especially relevant today, as a renewed debate over whether trophy hunting can help fund conservation efforts, in wilderness areas where elephant populations have grown to the point where an ever-shrinking ecosystem can no longer sustain herd animals that eat up to 500 kgs. of trees and agricultural crops a day. Unlike trophy hunting, conservationists argue, finding ways to get local communities involved in serving and protecting wild animals is a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.

For his part, Stirton understands that a single powerful image is worth a thousand words — at least — if, at the end of the day, the idea is to galvanize people to act.

The same could be said of any of this year’s six finalists of course. A single image can indeed change the world. And that, controversies aside, is what the World Press Photo Awards are all about.

The 62nd Annual World Press Photo Awards will be handed out April 11 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.


©John Moore/Getty Images

©John Moore/Getty Images

©Chris McGrath/Getty Images

©Chris McGrath/Getty Images

©Marco Gualazzini/Contrasto

©Marco Gualazzini/Contrasto

©Mohammed Badra/European PressPhoto Agency

©Mohammed Badra/European PressPhoto Agency

©Catalina Martin-Chico/Panos

©Catalina Martin-Chico/Panos



So you want to be a wildlife filmmaker? These are the stories of the people who made ‘Dynasties.’

A change of pace doesn’t always mean faster. Dynasties’ five hour-long life stories of five individual animals have now aired in the US, following their BBC One debut late last year, and it was evident from the start — each hour-long episode was filmed in a single location over a two- to four-year period — would have a different rhythm and pace than traditional nature programs.

Dynasties was always going to be different from earlier David Attenborough spectacles like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. By focusing on a single family group of animals over an extended period of time, Dynasties would bend and twist to the rhythms of life, and pack a real emotional punch. Survival of the fittest is never more urgent than when it affects individual animals viewers have grown to know and care about, even if only for a moment. There were times when Dynasties was both profound and poignant, and hard to watch. Life in the wild is a struggle, and there are never any guarantees that the noble — whether lion or penguin — will win out of the ignoble in the end.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

(New editions of Planet Earth and Blue Planet are on the drawing board, by the way, following the next in the BBC-Attenborough canon, One Planet: Seven Worlds. Film composer Hans Zimmer confirmed earlier this week that he’ll be composing the theme for One Planet, as he did for Planet Earth II; no word yet if Radiohead will follow, as they did on Blue Planet II).

If any of Dynasties was hard to watch for the viewer, imagine what it must’ve been like for the cameramen — and women — sound technicians, location managers and field producers who followed each family group for months and years at a time, for the sense of achievement, if not the pay exactly.

Their stories, and the rollercoaster of emotions that rocketed them from highs to lows with an almost capricious regularity, form the core of The Making of Dynasties, which will air this weekend exclusively on BBC America (Sat., 9E/8C).

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the original program itself, The Making of Dynasties’ doesn’t dwell on the obvious — the bugs, the heat or, in the case of Antarctica, the cold — but rather the emotional, inner story of what it’s like to, say,  witness an African wild dog grow from infancy to become a strapping, adolescent would-be hunter and clan leader, only to stand by helplessly while it’s snatched, screaming, by a gargantuan, Antediluvian crocodile after pausing at a riverbank to drink.

It’s hard not to admire the physical and mental toughness of these filmmakers as they spend long days and nights outdoors in places that haven’t changed in millions of years in some cases — there’s no room service on the ice sheets of the Antarctic Peninsular, or in Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, for that matter.

There’s Will Lawson, field producer of the Antarctic episode about penguins, rocked to his core at the sheer power and rugged beauty of the Earth’s most remote region, admitting softly to the camera, “I am absolutely speechless,” and 10,000 kilometre away, in Senegal on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Rosie Thomas, producer-director of the episode about chimpanzees, struggling with her emotions as she admits. “It’s heartbreaking to see this chimp that was so powerful has just become so weak.”

Many nature programs, even those that claim to take themselves seriously, make the mistake of anthropomorphizing their subjects — deliberately giving animals human characteristics — in the belief that will make the program an easier sell with viewers.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As this hour of Dynasties shows, for the filmmakers themselves, these animals proved relatable in their own right, on their own terms. It’s easy to relate to any living creature when their very lives are at stake. There’s no need to Disney-fy the story. When the aging leader of a chimpanzee clan vanishes for several days after being badly injured in a fight with a younger, would-be alpha male, cameraman John Brown is shaken to his core.“We saw him not only nearly lose his position in the hierarchy but we saw him nearly lose his life,” he says to the camera. “The injuries he sustained in the last coup would have been enough to kill me. . . . 

“We’re still looking.”

The confessional to the camera, a type of aside used as a stylistic, storytelling device, is a tried and true staple of reality TV. Watching Dynasties, though — not just The Making of Dynasties — but the entire series, is a reminder of how much more trenchant and relevant documentary is than reality-TV. Here, the personal confessionals really mean something.

Seeing these cameramen and women in isolation, sharing their innermost thoughts, creates a sense of intimacy, emotions close to the surface for all to see. The Making of Dynasties provides depth and added  perspective to what was already a rich and deeply textured series.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“It’s tough, actually,” Nick Lyon, director of the African painted wolves episode, admits. “Because you spend day in and day out with these animals, for months and months and months, and their lives become very important to you. The stories can be incredible but it’s actually an emotional rollercoaster to see what’s happening with them.”

There are many moments in The Making of Dynasties that will surprise even those viewers who hung onto every word of every episode. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most dramatic revelations of life behind the scenes emerge in the Antarctica episode, where three intrepid filmmakers, Lawson and camera operators Stefan Christmann and Lindsay McCrae,  spent an entire Antarctic winter — in months of round-the-clock outdoor darkness — hunkered down inside an isolated German research station, Neumayer Station III, with just half a dozen German researchers to keep them company. A violent polar storm descends on them, on a scale witnessed by few human beings. Antarctic storms are more violent and powerful than any hurricane. There were times, Lawson admitted, when the sheer noise and violent stresses against a German-made structure designed to withstand just about anything, made him think the entire research station was about to come apart at the seams, taking them with it.

“We were told the likelihood of us being evacuated [in the event of an emergency] was less than 10 percent,” Lawson told the BBC’s RadioTimes. “So, yes, that massive level of isolation was very apparent.”

The best nature programs give voice to endangered animals that can’t speak for themselves. As The Making of Dynasties shows, the conservationists and filmmakers  behind the camera have some interesting stories of their own. The Making of Dynasties ends, not with the Northern Lights but the Southern Lights, as seen from Antarctica.

“That is absolutely amazing,” Will Lawson says, nearly overcome by emotion in the black pitch of the Antarctic night, as clouds of green and amber light play overhead. “Oh my God.”

And how.




‘So near and yet so far’— Weddell Sea Expedition succeeded at climate readings but failed to find Shackleton’s ‘Endurance.’

“The search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance has been called off after extreme weather trapped an underwater vehicle under a sheet of ice.”

                                — Thu 14 Feb 2019 18.42 GMT

In the end, it wasn’t climate change but rather weather that proved the difference. The Weddell Sea Expedition’s attempt to find what remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s missing ship Endurance was scuttled after rapidly advancing sea ice trapped a submersible ROV expedition members were using to search the seabed floor beneath Antarctica’s beleaguered sea ice. The remote-operated submersible was lost to the deep, in what some might say was a fitting and somehow appropriate denouement to a brave but ultimately futile effort to use 21st century technology to unravel a mystery that has posed questions ever since the Endurance was itself trapped in sea ice and sank beneath the surface on the 21st of November, 1915.

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society

Despite February being the height of the Antarctic summer and seemingly favourable conditions at first, coupled with 21st-century GPS readings based on the immaculate charts and maps provided by Endurance’s navigator, the two dozen geoscientists aboard the Dutch icebreaker and research vessel  SA Agulhas II knew when they had been beaten. Without their remote-operated  submersible submarine, they’d be working blind. And even someone with a rudimentary knowledge of conditions in Antarctica would know that “blind” is not how you want to operate in the most extreme — and potentially deadly — environment on planet Earth. No one — literally, no one — alive today would’ve been more aware of the potential for disaster. Shackleton and his crew were forced to give up the ghost in 1915, despite having survived much of the polar winter when frozen ice floes crushed their ship’s hull. Their subsequent escape from the Antarctic sea ice on foot and in lifeboats is one of the great stories of human resilience and endurance in recorded history. The lure of finding what remains of Endurance has captivated maritime historians, geographers and romantics for more than a century.

“We’re disappointed, clearly, as a team not to have been successful,” Mensun Bound, the expedition’s director of exploration, said in a statement. “Like Shackleton before us, who described Endurance’s graveyard as ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world,’ our well-laid plans wee overcome by rapidly moving ice and what Shackleton himself called ‘the evil conditions of the Weddell Sea.’

“We hope our adventure will have engaged young people about the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed with Endurance to Antarctica.”

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Where Shackleton had to rely on hand-drawn charts based on meticulous longitude and latitude readings, the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition was decidedly high-tech. The submersible, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, or AUV, was designed to map a wide electronic grid of the sea floor below frigid waters more than 3,000m (9,800 feet) deep using HD still colour cameras.

The expedition is not considered a failure, however, as its main mission — completed before the crew’s attention turned to finding Endurance — was to study the effects of climate change and melting sea ice along the nearby Larsen C Ice Shelf, which famously “calved” a monster iceberg and later dubbed A-68, twice the size of Luxembourg, in July, 2017. Strangely, even given the remote location of Endurance’s watery grave, no team of scientists had examined the continuing erosion of the Larsen C ice shelf in person until the SA Agulhas ventured deep into the Weddell Sea this past January. Satellite imagery can only tell so much. Part of the expedition’s mission was to take actual physical samples of the ice and measure carbon readings and other scientific date that may be locked inside.

Expedition geoscientists, including polar geographers, geologists, oceanographers and climate scientists, pointed out just last week that their findings have already enhanced our knowledge of Antarctica’s delicate ecosystems, not to mention the oceans that surround the Southern Continent on all four sides.

The Weddell Sea Expedition was never going to solve the world’s climate crisis, of course.

Thanks to the incalculable value of the retrieved and recorded data, though, scientists now have a better understanding of what exactly’s going on. Good thing, too. The future of humanity may well depend on it, if not the future of the entire planet.


©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition



Rare black leopard caught on camera in Kenya. So, who deserves the credit?

Who was the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest? History records that it was Sir Edmund Hillary, on May 29, 1953, but purists have always wondered if his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, was the first to actually set foot on the summit. Hillary addressed this issue directly in an interview with National Geographic Adventurer contributing editor David Roberts in April, 2003, in a story titled “50 Years on Everest.”

“When we came out toward Kathmandu, there was a very strong political feeling, particularly among the Indian and Nepalese press, who very much wanted to be assured that Tenzing was first,” Sir Edmund recalled. “That would indicate that Nepalese and Indian climbers were at least as good as foreign climbers. We felt quite uncomfortable with this at the time. John Hunt, Tenzing, and I had a little meeting. We agreed not to tell who stepped on the summit first.

“To a mountaineer, it’s of no great consequence who actually sets foot first. Often the one who puts more into the climb steps back and lets his partner stand on top first.”

You may be wondering what the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mt. Everest has to do with a series of stunning photos published in the past 10 days of a rare black leopard on Kenya’s central Laikipia Plateau, but there is a connection.

It has to do with shared credit, and what the protocol is when a hard-earned wildlife photograph goes viral on social media and becomes front-page news for major news organizations around the world.

Who deserves credit? The person who took the photograph of a rare animal, or the person who found that rare animal in the first place.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

It’s how that news was reported — on the BBC World News’ main website, for one— that the controversy started. 

Veteran UK nature photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, who leads photo expeditions of his own in Africa for avid shutterbugs and animal lovers, captured the startling image of a black panther — actually a regular leopard with a rare melanistic gene that causes the fur to appear black, though not a pure black exactly but grey, which is why the leopard’s spots, or rosettes, are clearly visible against the background fur when — using a remote-controlled trap camera. It was a local Samburu tracker and research assistant with the San Diego Zoo Global outreach NGO, Ambrose Letoluai, however, who knew where to find the leopard and told Burrard-Lucas where best to set the camera. LetoluaLetoluaii has lived his entire life in Koija, a small  village which borders Loisaba Conservancy, and was hired as a leopard researcher after recalling tales elders in his community had told him about black leopards being common on the Laikipia Plateau.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

San Diego Zoo Global researchers, working with biologist Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D deployed remote cameras as part of a larger-scale study aimed at understanding the population dynamics of leopards on conservation land that, like much of northern Kenya, is shared by both wildlife and pastoral cattle herders. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where goats and calves encounter an apex predator like a leopard, and researchers believe more needs to be known about wild animals’ habits if they are to have a chance to survive. Leopards are not critically endangered, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as “vulnerable” on its official Red List of threatened species.

Black panthers have always held a special place in the human imagination, in part because they’re seen so rarely and in part because they’re such a familiar symbol in popular culture.

Burrard-Lucas got wind of the Laikipia program and its trap cameras, and decided to try to fulfil a lifelong dream to capture a black panther, if not on film exactly, on-camera. Letoluai was his assigned minder — his Sherpa, if you will — and the subsequent images, part luck, part good timing and part insider knowledge, exceeded their expectations.

So far, so good.

The mainstream media like nothing better than a good story, though, and while “Night-time Photos of a Rare Black Leopard” might sound like a good story to some people, “First Black Leopard Spotted in 100 Years” sounds much better.

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

In a media climate desperate for some good news about the environment for a change, rare photos of an animal that hasn’t been seen for a century is a headline grabber.

There’s just one problem. It wasn’t true. Local media in Kenya, among them photojournalist and staff photographer Phoebe Okall of the Nairobi Daily Nation newspaper, had captured images of a black leopard in the wild just a few years ago.

Many Kenyans, politically sensitive toward any perceived slight by westerners in the post-colonial era of independence, saw this as a double insult: Ambrose Letoluai was being given enough credit for finding the black leopard on BBC World’s main news site, and local, Kenyan photojournalists were not being given any credit for having captured images of black leopards on not one but several occasions prior to “the first capture in 100 years.”

Burrard-Lucas, for his part, found himself caught in the middle. What should have been the crowning achievement of his photographic career — and still might — is suddenly at the centre of an increasingly noisy and fractious controversy.

He posted an immediate clarification on his website: He never said it was the first photo of a black leopard in 100 years. That was something the media added, for effect. He was also more than willing to credit Letoluai  for his work in setting up the camera trap — it’s quite common, and perfectly acceptable, for nature photographers to credit the guides who take them to the rare animals in the first place.

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

Earlier this week, a reasoned, thoughtful, well-researched — and properly sourced — article in the Washington Post, by general assignment reporters Alex Horton and Reis Thebault, sought to put an end to the controversy by outlining exactly what happened, who did what, where, how, why and, importantly, when.

The damage is done, though, and the outrage on social media sites like Twitter, mostly from Kenyans proud of their heritage and the wild animals they know as their own, continues unabated, even today.

Perhaps, if and when Burrard-Lucas’ images are recognized at some of the big wildlife photo awards, such as the UK Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards in October — which I suspect they just may — Burrard-Lucas and Letoluai can accept together, in person, much like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay before them.

Enough about that, for now. Here, then, are some key links to the controversy, as it unfolded.

https://www.camtraptions.com/black-leopard.html

https://naloolo.com/2019/02/14/how-a-24-year-old-samburu-warrior-captured-images-of-kenyas-black-leopard/?fbclid=IwAR10jnCgSeIiOomn8po_x1MeFEoIwzMjbvtJb-XuW9yN9AByDpkyPNRYn-E


https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2019/02/13/black-leopard-photos-are-definitely-not-first-years/?utm_term=.7f87481a31e1


Lawson’s choice: On penguins and filming ‘Dynasties,’ when is there a right time to intervene?

Not so long ago, I asked the producer of a prestigious,  award-winning series of wildlife programs if he was ever tempted to intervene if he and his camera crew witnessed a tragedy unfolding that they could somehow stop.

It’s the first law of journalism that the reporter must never become part of the story. Objectivity counts for everything. No professional, self-respecting journalist can allow themselves to be seen taking one side over the other.

The wildlife filmmaker faces a similar if not identical dilemma. They’re there to capture nature at its most raw and untouched, and ideally the film crew is meant to be invisible, as if not there at all.

His answer surprised me.

“Yes,” he said.

For the simple reason that, by their mere presence, a camera crew has already intruded on a natural situation. So it’s their responsibility — an obligation, some might say — to help solve a crisis if it was of their making.

This is not a question of semantics. It comes up with wildlife filmmakers all the time. (In this case, I had asked about a nature film I had seen recently, in which a lioness with newborn cubs suddenly moves her litter to a new den she presumes to be safer, despite the presence of a cobra at the den she’s moving into. The producer worried she may have been spooked into moving her cubs to a less safe den by the presence of a camera crew. They had no way of knowing.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The more prestigious production houses, like BBC’s Natural History Unit — makers of the David Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, Planet Earth and Blue Planet — have a strict code of ethics, which is rooted in non-interference.

The intention, always, is to let nature take its course.

That directive was sorely tested in Emperor, the climactic episode of the Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, which makes its US debut this weekend on BBC America (Sat. 9E/P, 8C). Filmmaker Will Lawson pulled off a first, following a  colony of emperor penguins for an entire year, including — obviously — the bitter, cold, dark Antarctic winter.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

At one point during filming, Lawson discovered a small group of penguins they had been following, chicks in tow, had inadvertently stranded themselves in an ice gully. The filmmakers realized that if they did not intervene, the penguins — every single one of them — would die. Intervention in this case was to dig a gully and ice ramp, providing a way for the penguins could escape inevitable death that, rather than being a case of nature taking its course, seemed more like a capricious twist of fate — not nature at all but rather simple bad luck.

Lawson chose as my producer friend had chosen: He knowingly broke the “cardinal rule” of non-interference, rationalizing that the penguins would find the exit ramp on their own, and if they didn’t … well.

It was not a straightforward decision, “by any stretch of the imagination,” he admitted in an interview with ITV’s Lorraine Kelly on the breakfast program Lorraine! last November, shortly after the episode first aired in the UK on BBC One.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

In a situation like that, he said, you have to look at the facts in front of you. Which is what he did. Attenborough himself would have done the same, BBC insiders have since said. The penguin episode makes its US debut this weekend, and will arguably reach the largest audience Dynasties has yet seen.

“Film crews have to capture events as they unfold, whatever their feelings,” Attenborough himself noted. (Programming alert: A special hour-long “Making of” program, hosted by Attenborough, will air exclusively on BBC America in 10 days time, on Feb. 23, and will feature behind-the-scenes moments from all five Dynasties programs, including the penguins in Antarctica.)

“I know it’s natural,” Lawson said of his to-do-or-not-to-do dilemma, “but it’s bloody hard to watch.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Decisions are never easy, and there will always be those who disagree, no matter how one decides. An informal poll on YouTube found that while 700 viewers agreed with Lawson’s choice, 40 disagreed. (“You’re not intervening, guys,” one assenting viewer posted. “You’re doing a very humane thing. You’re helping poor creatures get a second chance in life.”)

It’s contrary to the better angels of our nature to allow animals to die needlessly. And that’s as true of penguins in Antarctica as it is of any living creature anywhere else. Our job as a species should be to act as stewards for the planet. After all, as more than a few viewers have noted on various Dynasties message boards, we have caused so much death and destruction — inadvertent or otherwise — that helping the inhabitants of this planet, even if unnatural, seems the least we can do.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1rBMlBtJzVvfJWXJ6rjfhJ1/a-filmmakers-dilemma


Of painted wolves and African wild dogs: ‘Dynasties’ most emotionally wrenching hour yet.

Life in the wild is hard. We know this.

From the first hour, the David Attenborough-narrated nature program Dynasties has been unflinching in its depiction of survival.

Even so, the fourth episode in this exquisite — and intensely personal — series, airing this weekend in the US for the first time (BBC America, AMC Networks, Sat. 9E/P, 8C), is harrowing and emotionally wrenching. The episode Painted Wolf, filmed along the banks of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park, a remote, relatively untrammelled region of wilderness area in Zimbabwe, made director and cameraman Nick Lyon physically ill at one point, as he stood by helplessly as a painted wolf pup, part of a family group the filmmaking team had followed for two years, was grabbed by a crocodile from a riverbank.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Painted wolves — once known as African wild dogs, before conservation groups decided that the name “wild dogs” was unhelpful in raising awareness of the plight of one of Africa’s most rare and critically endangered predators — are social animals. For the purposes of storytelling, the filmmakers followed two groups in rival territories. As the program begins, one of the competing groups is led by a wise but aging matriarch, nicknamed Tait; the other group is led by her estranged daughter Blacktip, who is young and healthy and looking to stake out her own territory. Murder and mayhem ensue, in arguably the most bloody and brutal hour in Dynasties’ entire run.

Complicating the already complicated family entanglements are other predators — lions, hyenas and the prehistoric, monstrously sized crocodile that caused filmmaker Lyon such distress. Predators are conditioned by nature to kill other predators when and where they can, in part to alleviate competition for a limited and often dwindling food supply.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The wrenching scene, in which one of the pups is snatched unsuspecting by the paw and dragged into the water, flailing helplessly, made Lyon, a veteran cameraman and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, sick.

“When you follow animals as long as we did,” he told The Telegraph, via BBC, “you get to know them and care what happens to them.

“It becomes an emotional experience when you see one of the characters having a bad time, or having real success. I loved the puppies. I remember when they were out of the den for the first time at just three weeks old. They were so tiny, with oversized heads, that would overbalance on their front legs.”

Lyon described the rivalry between mother and estranged daughter as Shakespearian, both in scale and in the intensity of its rivalry.

From a natural history point-of-view — and from the perspective of the casual viewer who watches nature programs from time to time — the hour is a reminder of just how challenging life in the wild really is, even in the most ideal of climatic and environmental conditions, and the fine margins between life and death. It’s hard enough to survive, let alone thrive. It’s impossible to watch Painted Wolf and not be moved by what’s unfolding on the screen.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Away from the screen, if real life, painted wolves, African wild dogs, Cape hunting dogs or whatever you care to call them, face an uncertain future. As a nation, Zimbabwe is beset by genuine real-world problems that involve real-world hardship for countless people, problems that range from poverty, drought and hunger to corruption, bad governance and a failing economy. As pristine as the Mana Pools wilderness appears to the outside eye, the entire ecosystem is in peril, besieged on all sides. It’s hard to imagine how even an adaptable charismatic animal like the painted wolf can cope, and yet cope they must if they are to survive as a species.

Lyon estimates he and his camera crew drove through some 82,000 kms — 51,000 miles — of miombo woodlands while tracking Tait, Blacktip and their respective aunts, uncles, offspring and more distant relatives. The insights they gleaned along the way were extraordinary.

In its three outings so far during its US debut, Dynasties  has established itself as a unique, compelling and hypnotic document of natural history, even by the lofty standards of other such BBC Attenborough programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. Tough to watch, yes, but unforgettable at times.




Strange days: Scientists discover ‘void of nothingness’ beneath Antarctica’s biggest glacier.

Strange days have found us / Strange days have tracked us down.

These are strange days. It will strike some of us as an exquisite irony that, in this age of climate denial and fake news, we’re also living in an age of new and unique discoveries. Science continues to open a window onto new frontiers and open a door to new finds. Less than 10 years after scientists discovered evidence of a prehistoric megalake  beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert — a lake formed some 250,000 years ago that, at its highest level, covered some 42,000 square miles (109,000 square kms) over the eastern Sahara where the Nile River burst its banks and pushed through a new channel in Egypt — now NASA scientists have discovered a growing void of emptiness deep inside Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, planet Earth’s most important glacier.

©Pixabay-COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay-COO Creative Commons

The hollowed-out section of ice, somewhat misleadingly dubbed a “hole” by much of the world’s media, is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and 1,000 feet (300 metres) tall, and represents some 14 billion tons of missing ice. That might not sound like much, considering the glacier itself is the size of Florida, but scientists are alarmed that it is the most pronounced sign yet that rapid ice melt caused by climate change is happening much faster than even the most pessimistic climate models suggested.

thwaites map.png

The Thwaites Glacier is critical to earth science because it’s the largest outflow channel in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, already considered to be vulnerable to ice melt.

If the glacier melts entirely — and that’s no longer seen as a big “if” — sea levels could rise as much as 10 feet over the next 50-100 years. That could, in theory, flood every coastal city on Earth, possibly within the lifetimes of many people who are alive today.

Climate deniers will argue, of course, that this is simply more alarmism from conservationists looking to feather their fundraising nests and justify their existence — an argument that conveniently overlooks the fact that if, any side in the debate is driven by financial considerations, it’s the big oil and energy companies that have vowed to continue extracting fossil fuels, no matter the cost to the environment, and despite clear  evidence that man-made carbon emissions are the big driver behind rapidly accelerating climate change.

©Science

©Science

This is the height of the Antarctic summer when, for obvious reasons, most of the important scientific surveys are being conducted. The Thwaites Glacier has come under heightened scrutiny in a month when temperatures across Australia have soared to a record-breaking 50°C in some towns, and much of the US Midwest is locked into a deep freeze where an Arctic  polar vortex has caused temperatures to plummet as low as minus-60°C, once wind chill is factored into the equation. (It might sound counterintuitive, but actually record cold is also a sign of “global warming,” which is why that term has fallen out of favour with those who know what they’re talking about. “Climate change” is a more accurate description, and some — myself, for example — prefer “climate emergency,” if only to inject a sense of urgency into the debate.

“Understanding the details of how the ocean melts away this glacier is essential to (measuring) its impact on sea-level rise in the coming decades,” Eric Rignot, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a prepared statement.

©NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

©NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Science may be unfashionable to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As the famed astronomer and advocate for science education Neil deGrasse Tyson — often described as “America’s preeminent badass astrophysicist” — is fond of saying, science doesn’t much care what you or anyone else thinks. “The thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

The reason a void — or a cavity or a hole, or whatever you care to call it — under a glacier is worth measuring is because the more heat and water that seeps under a glacier, the faster it melts.

©COO-Creative Commons

©COO-Creative Commons

The void at the heart of the Thwaites Glacier wasn’t stumbled over by some adventurers in a sea kayak, either. The find is the result of intensive data analysis of ice-penetrating radar readings taken from space by the European Space Agency, in cooperation with NASA’s Operation IceBridge (established in 2010 to measure the connection between the polar regions and the global climate) and scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Study results were published Jan. 30 in the journal Science Advances.

The discovery comes at the same time the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition has intensified its search of the Antarctic seabed for the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which was crushed by pack ice and sank in 1915,  and at the same time UK and US scientists are launching their own five-year research project, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, which will use artificial intelligence, seafloor ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles), ocean-based weather stations and — get this — more than a dozen warm-blooded seals fitted with sensors designed to measure and gather readings of glacial ice and the surrounding water.

©University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

©University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

“Thanks to a new generation of satellites,” Rignot said, “we can finally see the detail.”

That detail might not be entirely what we want to see.

Strange days have found us / And through their strange hours / We linger alone / Bodies confused / Memories misused / As we run from the day / To a strange night of stone.

— ‘Strange Days’ by The Doors, 1967.








Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forest of the night, in this week’s outing of ‘Dynasties.’

There is nothing like the thrill of walking through the jungle looking for a tiger and knowing they could be watching you already, Ashlan Cousteau once said.

That watchful gaze — ever aware, always alert — may not be enough to save it, though. Jungles and tigers both are in trouble, in this hot mess of a world. 

And the tigress Raj Bhera in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has it particularly hard in Tiger, this weekend’s Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C). She has newborn cubs, and everything from Indian sloth bears to other tigers seems to want them out of the way.

Never mind that Bandhavgarh, as indefatigable narrator David Attenborough takes pains to point out in his voice-over, early in the program, is a tiny — and shrinking — green island surrounded by a very human problem: over-population. The small, 105 sq. km. park in Shahdol District has a tiger population of roughly 45 tigers, which means that each cat has a territory of less than five square kilometres. The better-known Kanha National Park, by contrast, is home to some 60 tigers over an area of 950 sq. km, more than twice as much territory for each tiger than in Bandhavgarh.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

It wouldn’t matter so much, except that — as Attenborough stresses in Tiger — these cats, the biggest of the big cats, are notoriously particular about their territory, which they go out of their way to mark. Trespassing on another tiger’s territory can lead to fights, even death. And it doesn’t help if one of the tigers, like Raj Bhera, has a litter of newborn cubs to protect.

Watching Dynasties, not just Tiger but all the episodes, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers, who followed each of their subjects over a four-year period, have gone out of their way to edit each hour to end on a positive note — if not a happy ending exactly, at least not on a nihilistic note. Animals, predator and prey alike, lead a hard life in the wild, wherever they are. And one of the things that makes Dynasties so compelling, if hard to watch at times, is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the tension, or the threats to its subjects’ existence — even if those endings do seem shaped in some way. (Last week’s episode Chimpanzee, for example, left out the bit where an expedition team returned Senegal’s Sahel region several months after filming ended, only to learn that the researchers’ primary study animal, and the episode’s lead character, clan leader David had been killed after all, beaten to death, most likely by his quarrelsome challengers Jumkin and Luthor, and Jumkin was now clan leader and facing an insurrection of his own.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the other episodes, Tiger’s making demanded meticulous attention to detail and no small amount of time, sweat and dedication from the production team. Episode director Theo Webb, an eight-year veteran of BBC’s Natural History Unit (1997’s Land of the Tiger, which aired on BBC Two, is among his many credits —  gave viewers a hint of the day-to-day jungle routine, writing on BBC’s website late last year, when Tiger made its debut in the UK (this weekend marks Tiger’s US premiere).

“Each morning at sunrise, we’d drive into the park and head straight to the territory of our tigress, Raj Bhera. Tigers are very site-specific and we knew the rough boundaries of her territory. She wasn’t radio collared and so to find her, we’d look for tracks in the dusty roads that criss cross through the park. It’s not only the tourists and us that used these dust roads. A lot of the animals also use them, because it’s much nicer to walk on soft sand rather than twigs and thorns.

“This was incredibly useful to us because you can see what’s happened during the previous night — for example, whether the tigers moving in that area were an adult male, female or cubs.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“If the tiger is moving through the jungle you can actually hear the alarm calls (of other animals) moving, as it passes through. . . .

“Tigers are very unpredictable, so you never know what’s going to happen, or when. Sometimes a deer would walk right past, and they’d continue sleeping in the middle of the day. Other times they’d get up and start stalking right in the middle of the day.

“We’d often sit and wait for an entire day with nothing happening. But you could never zone out. One day there was only a tiny window through a piece of vegetation where I could see the tiger’s tail occasionally flick. I had to have my binoculars on my eyes for hours because I knew that if she left, she’d move off silently and we’d lose her, and we’d be left waiting by an empty piece of grass.”

A tiger’s life in Bandhavgarh is beset by the ever-present threat of poaching and the inevitable human-wildlife conflict that breaks out when a small and shrinking wilderness area is hemmed in by ever-expanding agricultural plots and growing villages.

Alpha predators like tigers are the reason you don’t see old animals in the wild, biologists say. You don’t see sick animals in the wild. You don’t see lame animals in the wild. The predator — the tiger, the lion, the leopard, the wolf — sees to that. That’s why, as more than one field biologist has pointed out, a healthy predator population is invariably a sign of a healthy ecoystsem. It’s not just that the fittest survive. Those survivors procreate and pass on their genes.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Tigers are special, yet they’re vanishing, slowly but surely. It would be a terrible shame if the world loses them.

The Malays only speak of them in whispers, the 19th century explorer, writer and naturalist Isabella Bird, the first woman elected a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, wrote in 1883, in Sketches in the Malay Peninsular.

Malays only speak of them in whispers because they believe the souls of certain human beings who have departed this life have reincarnated themselves through these beasts, Bird noted, “and in some places, for this reason, they will not kill a tiger unless he commits some specially bad aggression.”

Over the centuries, the definition of what “specially bad aggression” really means has proved to be malleable,  shifting, morphing and shape-shifting with the times. The tiger has been able to adapt for the most part — until now. How much longer will the immortal hand or eye frame its fearful symmetry? 




‘Endurance’ beckons — 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition is on the cusp of history, as you read.

Endurance went down entombed in ice, “in a sea of other people’s expectations,” as the saying goes. Men had drowned in seas like that. The year was 1915 and the place was Antarctica, and there — but for Sir Ernest Shackleton, photographer Frank Hurley and a small group of men determined to survive, damn the odds — no more would have been said, heard or told about it.

And yet, here we are.

Just days ago, on 27 January, 2019, the Weddell Sea Expedition and the 13,700-ton South African icebreaker SA Agulhas II, with some 30 climate scientists, geologists, historians and polar explorers aboard, started to break their way through 75 miles (121 km) of sea ice in their effort to reach the final resting place of Shackleton’s ship.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

It’s midsummer on the far side of the world, and while climate deniers have complained all week about it being colder in Chicago — minus 30°C — than it is in Antarctica — minus 25°C — the fact is that, even in midsummer, this part of Antarctica is still entombed in ice. Expedition members have spent the last few weeks taking measurements of the Larsen C ice shelf, together with climate readings of the Weddell Sea, parts of which remain covered in ice up to 3 metres thick.

Make no mistake, this is very much a 21st century expedition. Team members are using satellite imagery, drones, autonomous robotic submarines and underwater Remote Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) in their effort to find what remains of the 145-foot (44 metres) three-mastered barquentine which sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea in the polar spring of November, 1915 after being trapped in sea ice for 10 months.

©Frank Hurley/Endurance c/o Royal Geographical Society (RGS)

©Frank Hurley/Endurance c/o Royal Geographical Society (RGS)

We may be living through troubled times, but in this tiny corner at the far end of the earth, hope springs eternal.

“We hope to achieve what we thought was impossible,” 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition director-of-exploration and maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound said in a prepared statement. “Although the odds of success were initially against us, the mood within the team is upbeat, given the favourable ice and weather conditions, which we think will allow us to reach the search area.

“We now view this as the best opportunity to locate Endurance and we are relishing the chance to be involved is a search of such significance.”

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Thanks to the obsessiveness and penchant for detail of Shackleton’s master navigator and skipper Frank Worsley, the Agulhas II is not operating in the dark as it were. Worsley took great pains to record the exact coordinates of where Endurance went down, never dreaming of a day more than a century later when autonomous robot submarines could scan the sea floor.

This past Sunday, just 72 hours ago, the expedition was in the Erebus and Terror Gulf — named after Sir John Franklin’s two ships in Franklin’s own, ill-fated effort to find his way through Canada’s Northwest Passage in the high Arctic, at the other far end of the earth— calibrating high-precision acoustic positioning systems, which is a high-falutin’ way of describing the use of modern-day technology to track down a century-old shipwreck.

©John Shears/2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©John Shears/2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

The Agulhas II scientists and crew members have shared moments of unalloyed joy in their weeks so far, from an impromptu game of pick-up soccer on making first landing on the Antarctic Peninsular — recreating a game played by Endurance crew members a century earlier, before they realized the hardships and terror that lay before them — to bright-eyed selfie videos in front of walls of ice, shared in real time, on Facebook and Twitter. Before turning their attention to finding Endurance, the scientists spent the better part of a month collecting ice samples and surveying the effects of climate change near the Larsen C ice shelf carved an iceberg four times the size of Greater London in July, 2017. Satellite images from the European Space Agency have since revealed that the iceberg, dubbed A68, has moved away from the ice shelf and is floating out to sea.

This may be the Age of Trump, but the fact is that the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition is making real discoveries in the name of science, in fields that include oceanography, glaciology, biology, geology — and now, potentially, history.

Endurance beckons.

https://weddellseaexpedition.org

http://www.rgs.org/wse

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition






‘Dynasties’ and chimpanzees — “The Garden of Eden is no more.”

Cometh the weekend, cometh the summoning hour. 

This weekend, the David Attenborough-narrated program Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C) focuses on a war for power and succession among a chimpanzee clan in the eastern Sahel region of Senegal, where the Sahara Desert is making inexorable inroads against the cool, green forests the chimpanzees call home.

Chimpanzee first aired on BBC One in the UK last November, and its harrowing tale of an aging but wise and decent clan leader threatened by adolescent anarchists in the clan played like equal parts Macbeth and King Lear

Dynasties, from many of the same producers who brought the world Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unrelenting in its violence and tension, both implied and actual. The filmmakers followed the clan leader David and his bumptious sons Luthor and Jumkin for the better part of four years as a cohort of younger males challenge the alpha male and threaten to tip the troop into chaos as they fight to gain the upper hand. “This is a story of power, politics, and the fight for survival,” Attenborough intoned in his familiar dulcet tones in voice-over.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

For the filmmakers who followed the troop for four years, it was all that and more.

Episode producer Rosie Thomas, a 13-year veteran of BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, gave casual viewers insight into the day-to-day routine of following a chimpanzee clan in the wilds of Senegal in a compelling essay for BBC One’s main website, that shows quite a different picture to the one seen on the screen. 

“It’s 3.45 am,” Thomas wrote. “With the ping of the alarm we drag ourselves out of bed, pull on our field clothes, assemble in the kitchen and try to stomach some coffee and gloopy porridge. No one speaks other than the briefest of ‘mornings’ to each other. It's too early to think straight, let alone try and have a conversation. . . .

“Every trip the road looked different: the rivers might have filled or dried up, the grass could be completely burnt or even two metres high and looming well over the height of the car. So each time we had to relearn the roads. 

©BBC Natural HIstory Unit

©BBC Natural HIstory Unit

“We followed the chimps last night until they built their nests so we know where they are located now, but we must reach the troop before dawn to make sure we’re there before they wake up. The temperature is already high, and by the time you’ve walked for half an hour you’re dripping in sweat. If the chimps are in a difficult area you may have to wade through thick vegetation, or even across a river. And all this before the sun is even up. 

“We locate the individual we want to focus on for the day (usually David), set up the camera and wait. We walk and we film, we walk and we film. It’s getting very hot now. We walk, we sit and we wait.”

Not for long. Because when something happened, as it inevitably did, they would see the kind of things that stay with one for a lifetime.

There are never happy endings in the wild kingdom, only temporarily satisfactory outcomes. The chimpanzees’ future is inexorably tied to that of planet Earth, and it’s still an open question as to how that story will end. 

Chimpanzee ends on a solemn grace note, with David temporarily back in control of his clan. As with any Shakespearean play, though, there are more acts to come.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit




‘Dynasties’ and lions — it’s not always good to be King.

Finally. The curtain is about to go up on Dynasties in the US, on BBC America (Saturday, Jan. 19 at 9E/8C, and subsequent weekends).

And while the audience is likely to be nowhere near as sizeable or far-reaching as that which watched Dynasties’ debut on BBC One in the UK last November, viewers in the most crowded, competitive media market in the world will finally be exposed to Dynasties’ tough, uncompromising look at the animal kingdom. (True to form, BBC America’s five episodes will air out of sequence with their original BBC broadcast; BBC America is opening with Lion (this weekend, on Jan. 19), followed by Chimpanzee (Jan. 26), Tiger (Feb. 2), Painted Wolf (Feb. 9) and finally Emperor (penguins, on Feb. 16).)

Dynasties, from many of the same producers and  filmmakers who brought you Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unique for two reasons.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

One, each episode revolves around a single animal family or clan and tells a tale of succession. Each hour-long episode focuses on a clan patriarch, or matriarch, as they fight for survival against a variety of threats, from the elements and climate change to human-wildlife conflict and —  shades of Shakespeare — murderous family members determined to usurp the throne and upset the natural order of things.

Secondly, each episode of Dynasties has a pointed environmental message, missing from many earlier David Attenborough-narrated nature programs, in which we learn that many of the threats facing the wild kingdom today are the result of our own actions, whether it’s contributing to climate change through our voracious consumption of the Earth’s dwindling resources or, more directly, as in this weekend’s opening episode, Lion, pastoral herders in Kenya poison a pride of lions to stop the lions from preying on their cattle, a critical source of income in many impoverished local communities.

Camera crews, field biologists and anthropologists followed each family group — lions in Kenya, tigers in India, painted wolves (African wild dogs) in Zimbabwe and penguins in Antarctica, over a period of four years, and witnessed some remarkable, never-seen-before behaviour over that time. It is the first time so many different, disparate variety of animals have been followed so closely over such a long period of time in their own environment, and that alone sets Dynasties apart from the other Attenborough programs.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

It also means, inevitably, that countless hours of film footage didn’t make it into the final broadcast version. The filmmakers’ behind-the-scenes stories are compelling in their own right, and that’s one reason I’ve decided to share some of them here, each week, before that week’s episode airs.

That means starting with Simon Blakeney, self-described dad and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, who followed a pride of lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve as part of the team that put together this weekend’s opener. (“Spent the last few years working on Dynasties with an amazing group of Lions,” Blakeney tweeted at @simon_blakeney. “All opinions my own!”)

Blakeney penned a handful of short essays about filming Lion, for BBC One’s main website when the series first aired, including a trenchant analysis of the perils facing Africa’s remaining wild lions today. (Little-known fact: Just 2,000 wild lions remain in Kenya, the land that made Born Free famous, but more sobering than that is the knowledge that Kenya, and the Maasai Mara, the northern extension of the world-renowned Serengeti ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the few remaining strongholds for wild lions left in the world. Period. End of story.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Naturally, Blakeney hopes the lions’ story doesn’t end there, and Dynasties is designed in part to shed further light on the lion’s plight, to an audience that might not otherwise realize just how perilous the situation is — as well as showing directly, day-by-day, how tough a lion’s life is, even at the best of times. One of Dynasties’ great strengths, as television and as mass  communication, is that it’s unflinching and uncompromising in its view. When a pack of two dozen hyenas decide to annihilate a young, inexperienced lion who’s wandered too far away from the safety of his pridemates, or an otherwise tough, self-confident lioness is forced to abandon her ailing, sickly cub, to move on with that same pride, Blakeney and his team of fellow filmmakers were there to record every moment — and a lot of that ends up on the screen, whether it’s painful to watch or not.

Some of the most memorable footage he got didn’t make it into the final cut, Blakeney admits. That’s just  one of the harsh realities of documentary filmmaking. An hour might sound like a long time — actually, each episode clocks in at just 48 minutes, give or take — but in a format where every second counts, four years of filming inevitably means a lot of compelling footage won’t see the light of day.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Decisions about what to leave in and take out invariably come down to subjective opinion and the vision to see a project through to its end, in a way that is coherent, disciplined, tightly focused and communicates something vital and important to the audience.

A personal favourite of Blakeney’s, in which lions exercise a peculiar habit of hunting wart hogs during those times of the year when their regular food source, the annual wildebeest migration, moves on to greener pastures — which is about six months of the year. (Lions are territorial, unlike some predators which simply follow the wildebeest across national borders from Kenya into Tanzania and back again, depending on the rains; lions stay where they are. Also, there are other lions, in other prides, with territories of their own, who will fight any intruder, great or small, to the death — literally — to protect their own.)©BBC/Natural History Unit

“The warthogs live out on the savannah and they’re very quick,” Blakeney posted on the BBC site. “They would outrun lions in a straight race. If they’re being chased, the warthogs will often bolt off into one of their many burrows, usually old aardvark burrows or similar. . . . This could involve a lot of digging. The cubs in particular weren’t very good at digging because they were smaller and not as strong as the adults. The warthogs would get pretty disgruntled and they’d scoop up big facefuls of mud with their snouts, and then chuck them at the lions as they were trying to dig them out.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

For all the hardship and tough times Dynasties’ lions went through, Blakeney had some fond memories, too. The filmmakers found themselves getting close, sometimes uncomfortably close, to their subjects, even thought they consciously tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, for ethical reasons as well as reasons artistic. (It never ends well for a wild lion who becomes habituated to human contact, intentional or otherwise.)

“On another occasion, about nine months in, one of the adolescent males walked round the back of the Land Rover I was sitting in,” Blakeney recalled, “and just appeared right beside me. If I’d wanted to, I could have reached out and stroked his mane as he walked past. I was on the radio at the time, which had quite limited range, so I was sitting right at the edge of the seat and hadn’t seen him coming. I jumped out of my skin when he suddenly emerged on the open side of the car. It’s easy to forget how big they are until you are up that close.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

The picture facing Africa’s wild lions is concerning. The IUCN Red List of threatened species officially lists lions as “vulnerable,” which is to say their future is far from assured.

Small-scale conservation groups, such as the locally-organized Ewaso Lions group in Kenya’s northern, semi-arid Samburu district, are doing what they can to lessen human-wildlife conflict, but the issue is complex and the problems are many.

Dynasties, in its own small way, hopes to spread the message to as many ordinary, everyday people — people who will probably never be able to see a wild lion in their lifetimes — as possible. If for no other reason, that makes Lion worth watching.

50082527_2149056225173995_6514856705266810880_o.jpg



Ni! He’s a lumberjack — and now a knight — so he’s OK.

It was his presidency of the Royal Geographic Society what done it, as the English say.

That, and the James Joyce Award, bestowed by Dublin, Ireland’s Literary and Historical Society, not to mention the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and — just so the (ex) colonies aren’t shut out entirely — a gold medal for achievement(s) in geography from the Royal Canadian  Geographical Society.

Also, by all accounts he’s a swell guy, judging from his self-description as being a man of “amenable, conciliatory character.”

Perhaps this charter member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe can wear the mantle of “Sir Michael” after all, despite being a willing participant in some of Monty Python’s most irreverent — and anti-establishment — sketches, including the Lumberjack song (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK; I sleep all night and I work all day” / [chorus] “He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK; he sleeps all night and he works all day”) and the Parrot sketch, arguably Monty Python’s most famous — certainly the most readily quoted — sketch, inspired by Michael Palin’s trip to an auto mechanic who refused to accept there was a problem with his car.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

In my previous life as an entertainment-industry reporter, I talked to Palin a couple of times — most notably when he was promoting Sahara, his 2002 BBC docuseries account (film and book, both) of his transect of the Sahara Desert, “meeting people and visiting places.” There was the pink touring bus in Libya, his remark on revisiting Tunisia that this is where he was crucified (in Life of Brian, filmed in part in Tunisia 12 years earlier), and his sheepish admission that his Sahara expedition almost ended before it began, when he twisted his ankle while playing a pick-up game of beach soccer with street urchins in Morocco. When I asked him about possible future expeditions, in 2003, he seemed ready to admit that, at age 58 and with considerable prodding from his wife of 37 years and growing objections from BBC’s in-house travel insurance advisor, it was perhaps not a good idea to keep returning to war zones for the sake of a TV show. 

(How to stay married for 49 years, Palin told The Telegraph in 2015: “Sex has nothing to do with it.” How English!)

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

Why not follow in the footsteps of the early English explorers’ search for the source of the Nile, I suggested. I’m sure Sudan is a safe place to travel, BBC camera crew in tow, I told him. As for Uganda, how bad can the Lord’s Resistance Army be? They’re with the Lord! They’re doing the Lord’s work, where it’s most needed — in the wetlands of northern Uganda and South Sudan. Your wife would be thrilled. I suggested.

Once a Python, always a Python: He laughed.

He never did do Search for the Nile, but he still racked up the travel miles, camera crew in tow: the Himalayas in 2004, “new Europe” in 2007, Brazil in 2012, and this past year, North Korea.

He admitted his fellow ex-Pythons were somewhat mystified by his sudden post-Python wanderlust: In their eyes, truth be told, it was kind of weird.

No matter. Fast-forward to the New Years Honours list, the 2019 edition, when Palin, already made a CBE in the year 2000 (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), became the first member of the Monty Python comedy troupe to be given the full knighthood. Sir Michael it is, then. Palin, now 75, was knighted for his services to travel, culture and geography, and for being a global “Ambassador for Britain.”

©BBC/Michael Palin

©BBC/Michael Palin

Palin took the honour with characteristic British understatement. What, you were expecting him to go the full Mick Jagger? (When the Mick became Sir Michael Phillip Jagger, knighted for his 40 years of service to popular music at Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday bash at Buckingham Palace in 2002, Rolling Stones biographer Philip Norman sniffed, “Jagger does not deserve a knighthood.”)

The Queen personally avoided bestowing Sir Mick with the honour, because she believed him an inappropriate candidate for the honour, owing to his anti-establishment views — or so it was said at the time.

The Monty Python comedy troupe wasn’t exactly pro-establishment in its day, but that geography thing — Pole to Pole in 1992, Around the World in 80 Days in 1992, going Full Circle around the Pacific in 1997, following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway Adventure in 1999 — helped tip the scales of atonement for his sins of irreverence during the Python years.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

After learning that he had made the Queen’s New Year Honours list, Sir Michael hinted to the BBC that he’s getting a little old to trash a hotel room, Mick-style.

Instead, he told the Beeb, he may “just have a quiet celebration, just myself and a glass of Horlicks, and then go to bed.”

Horlicks, for those not in the know, is a malted hot drink developed in the early 20th century by founders James & William Horlick and sold as “Horlick’s Infant and Invalids Food,” with “Aged and Travellers” added to the label later. 

Don’t buy this “Ready for Retirement” act for a second, though. Sir Michael always knew the value of a good sound bite.

Instead, look to an admission made earlier in his career — but not so long ago that it’s forgotten by now — when he said, “Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.”

There are some miles to go yet on that particular road. Think of it as a road less travelled.

“I enjoy writing, “ he wrote in Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years. “I enjoy my house, my family and, more than anything I enjoy the feeling of seeing each day used to the full to actually produce something. The end.”




Weddell Sea Expedition 2019: All begins well that (sort of) ended well.

As you saw in my last post, the 2019 expedition —months in the planning — has made landfall, if you will, on its way to one of the harshest regions in Antarctica. Their official mission is to gather vital data on the rare and little-studied species of marine life which call the icy western Weddell Sea home, and to monitor the effects of rapidly accelerating climate change.

The unofficial mission is to find the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance,  which could only endure so much before it was crushed by pack ice and abandoned at 5 p.m. local time on Oct. 27, 1915 — this, after Shackleton and his crew of 27 had survived nine months trapped in the Antarctic ice, four of those months in winter darkness.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

On this past New Year’s Day, while countless partygoers around the world nursed a hangover from the night before, the roughly 30 scientists and 138 crew members aboard the expedition ship SA Agulhas II played an impromptu game of soccer on the Antarctic ice — 104 years to the day after Shackleton and his crew played a New Year’s Day soccer game of their own, even if they called it football. (That event was photographed for posterity by Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley — who, it’s often noted, deserves much more credit than he’s received over the years for making a record of Shackleton’s exploits for future generations.)

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographic Society

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographic Society

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

The Weddell Sea expedition is enthralling stuff, especially as it comes in cynical, jaded times, when global anxiety and an all-pervading sense of gloom rule the day. Social media gets a bad rap — it probably wouldn’t be as bad if only users learned how to use it, but that’s an argument for another day — but the age of instant communications has its upside: Not only are events from the Weddell Sea expedition being shared around the world in real time via Twitter (@WeddellSeaExped) but the UK Royal Geographical Society, one of the expedition’s primary sponsors, has made teaching resources available for educators, presumably for those public schools that haven’t trashed their history and geography programs.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Why do we care about Ernest Shackleton more than 100 years later? Perhaps it has something to do with courage. And competence. After all, in an age when little of social or political consequence ever seems to get done — when more people are concerned about who got voted off The Voice last night than finding a way to fix Brexit, the polar ice melt, species extinction and our growing climate emergency — the idea that, with cool heads and strong leadership, more than 20 human beings can survive nine months trapped in polar ice and then navigate their way to safety in lifeboats across 1,300 km (800 miles) of open water — in Antarctica, no less.

And then there’s the place itself. Even as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft discovery of the most distant object ever explored at the edge of the solar system continues to make news headlines, Antarctica remains the last great unknown in the annals of contemporary exploration of the world’s land masses. Much like the snowman-shaped, 33-km (21 mile) long asteroid 2014 MU69 orbiting the edge of the solar system, well beyond Pluto, much of Antarctica remains unchanged since the beginning of recorded time, in no small part because of the desolate conditions.

“There’s no way to make anything like this . . .  type of observation without having a spacecraft out there,” New Horizons deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin told reporters in a press conference just days ago.

The same could be said of SA Agulhas II and the Weddell Sea Expedition. It’s hard to beat being there.

http://en.mercopress.com/2019/01/04/falkland-islander-in-expedition-to-locate-shackleton-s-stricken-endurance-in-antarctica

http://geographical.co.uk/people/explorers/item/1365-on-this-day-1915-shackleton-abandons-endurance

https://www.rgs.org/about/the-society/what-we-do/teachers/weddell-sea-expedition/

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From ‘Terror’ to ‘Endurance,’ a New Year’s Day expedition for the ages.

On this New Year’s Day, fresh off sea trials, the SA Agulhas II, one of the largest and most modern polar research ships in the world, will quietly weigh anchor and set sail for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

As with oceanographer Robert Ballard’s historic search for the Titanic, the mission is two-fold. There’s a main mission — science and research into the real-world effects of our growing climate emergency — and a less publicized but no less worthy mission, to find the remains of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship Endurance

It was thought unlikely, if not  impossible, for example, that anyone would find Sir John Franklin’s HMS Terror, which was abandoned to heavy sea ice in the high Arctic — together with Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus —  in Britain’s disastrous the mid-19th century expedition to find a way through Canada’s Northwest Passage.

SA Agulhas II/handout

SA Agulhas II/handout

All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, making it the worst disaster to strike Britain’s Royal Navy during its long history of polar exploration.

And yet, little more than two years ago, a diving team on the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation’s research ship Martin Bergmann found the Terror in virtually pristine condition, its three masts broken but still standing, at the bottom of the aptly named — and previously uncharted — Terror Bay, just south of Victoria Strait, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

Nearly a century later, the Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton found himself mired in similar circumstances on the other side of the world — literally — when his ship Endurance became  trapped in sea ice during an attempt to make the frist land crossing of the Antarctic continent.

Endurance was slowly crushed in the thickening ice; the crew escaped certain death by camping on the sea ice until it, too, disintegrated.

Unlike Franklin, however, Shackleton managed to lead much of his crew to safety and eventual rescue, by sailing 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the Antarctic to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic in a seven-metre (23 feet) lifeboat, in one of the great tales of survival in maritime history.

©NASA

©NASA

Fast-forward to Jan. 1, 2019, and the SA Agulhas II is about to set sail on a 45-day scientific expedition deep into those areas of the Weddell Sea that are still covered in ice, despite it being the height of the Antarctic summer.

The Agulhas crew will study the effects of climate change and global warming. 

In July, 2017, a giant iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg  — or four times the size of Greater London, if you prefer — calved off the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsular, the northernmost arm of Antarctica and a hotspot for research because its retreating glaciers are a significant contributor to the global rise in sea levels.

The expedition includes more than 30 international scientists in numerous different fields. The 13,500-tonne, 135-metre (450 feet) icebreaker  Agulhas is equipped with drones, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and deep-diving Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) for collecting data well below the sea’s surface.

National Maritime Museum/archives  - Photo by Frank Hurley

National Maritime Museum/archives - Photo by Frank Hurley

The Endurance is there, just waiting to be found, as the 2016 discovery of Terror proved.

The bigger picture though, appropriate to the increasingly heated conversation about climate change due in the coming year, is all this melting ice — in both polar regions — and what it means to the planet’s future, in both the medium and long term.

As Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences at Imperial College London told The Guardian just days after the iceberg A68 calved off the Larsen C ice shelf in July, 2017, “There is enough ice in Antarctica that if it all melted, or even just flowed into the ocean, sea levels [would] rise by 60 metres.”

Of course, as the Shackleton expedition proved — not to mention the disastrous Robert Falcon Scott “Scott of the Antarctic” expedition just three years earlier, Antarctica has a way of dashing the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“Antarctica is a place of extremes,” John Dowdeswell, director of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute and the Weddell Sea expedition’s chief scientist, told Guardian science editor Ian Sample just days ago.

“But if we are that close to one of the most iconic vessels in polar exploration, we have got to go and look for it.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/26/expedition-scientists-map-larsen-c-ice-shelf-weddell-calving-




 



How newly discovered cave art is changing our perception of early humankind’s story.

Human pre-history keeps changing. Buried down on the list of year-end science stories that grabbed headlines in 2018 — somewhere between the growing impact of livestock on planet Earth’s increasingly fragile ecosystems and speculation about how Bajau ‘sea nomads’ deep-diving the waters off southern Philippines have changed the way we think about natural selection — was newly discovered evidence that Europe’s hegemony on humankind’s story may be misplaced.

In November, a newly uncovered cave painting of a wild banteng, a kind of wild cattle, on Borneo was found to be 40,000 years old, older than the prehistoric Lion-man ivory sculpture discovered in a limestone cave in southern Germany’s Hohlenstein cliffs region, in 1939.

©Pindi Setiawan/The Guardian

©Pindi Setiawan/The Guardian

The Lion-man, dubbed Löwenmensch, was important to science because, until this past year, it was believed to be oldest-known animal-shaped sculpture in the world and, more importantly, the oldest-known uncontested example of figurative art — proving that, while humankind’s early ancestors might have walked out of Africa, it was in Europe where those same ancestors first learned to appreciate art.

That was the theory, anyway.

It was always bound to be controversial, and not just because it caters to a specifically Eurocentric view of civilization but because of nitpicking over artistic interpretation. Carbon dating determined a flaked stone found in Blombos Cave in South Africa — a stone with hashed patterns made by an ochre crayon — was at least 70,000 years old, but the experts decided the markings “fell short” of being identifiable art.

©Wikimedia Commons.

©Wikimedia Commons.

Evidence of identifiable art is important to palaeontologists and art historians alike because it supposedly shows the emergence of minds like our own — civilized, if you will, and reflective of behavioural modernity. Modern-day Homo sapiens are smarter than Homo neanderthalensis — Neanderthals — the thinking goes, because we can tell Michelangelo from Andy Warhol. (Even by this reckoning, early Neanderthals may not have been not as dumb as they looked: a cave wall discovered on Spain’s Cantabrian coast in February of this past year revealed abstract paintings of mysterious figures dating back some 65,000 years; the only people known to be living in northern Spain at the time were Homo neaderthalensis.) As Dr. Adam Rutherford, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science, remarked in a year-end essay for a UK news site, “Neanderthals were simply people, too.”

As human population expands and northern glaciers recede, more and more previously unexplored quarries and caves are being examined and scrutinized. Who knows what hidden tales the coming year will uncover?

Humankind’s history has not been written just yet. Only the early chapters.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/dec/23/the-science-stories-that-shook-2018-genetics-evolution-climate-change-artificial-intelligence


©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Finding light in the darkness: An elephants’ tale for Christmas.

Christmas. An uncertain ending to a bleak year. And, to those who pay attention to such things, signs of more bleakness to come. Hurricanes, cyclones. Droughts, forest fires. Dying oceans. Shrinking glaciers, melting polar ice caps. A climate emergency in the present, and a looming mass extinction in the future. Feckless leadership. Unquestioning followers. In the kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Christmas is traditionally a time of hope and spiritual renewal, regardless of one’s social, political and religious affiliations, but this Christmas seems empty somehow — a throwback to Dickensian times, perhaps, this time with the added distraction of frenzied technology and the ever-present threat of Big Brother, looming over us, driven and enflamed by social media.

And yet.

There are still good, kind people out there. Science and technology is still capable of producing surprises. And miracles. There have been scientific advances in the past year that take the breath away.

Earlier this month, a 15-year-old, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, and a 92-year-old, Sir David Attenborough, stood and delivered before an international conference on climate change, and the world listened.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

NASA landed a space probe on a predetermined, precise spot on the red planet, Mars, after a journey that lasted seven months, over 300 million miles.

The true wonder, which would’ve been unthinkable just a few years ago, was that NASA’s InSight probe beamed pictures from a neighbouring planet, in real time, in such a way that you could watch them on a screen the size of your hand, on your phone.

And in an early Christmas present for anyone who cares about elephants and the health of the world’s remaining wild creatures, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the African country of Zambia, together with the conservation NGO Elephant Connection Research Project ( ECR), provided long-awaited proof of the viability of “wildlife corridors” that connect far-flung populations of wild animals across national, political boundaries. Wildlife corridors for animals such as elephants are essential for the revitalization of threatened and endangered species.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

In the case of the Zambia elephant, the pleasure lies in the details. An elephant bull was fitted with a remote tracking collar in 2017. In the past year, he was shown to have walked a long, circuitous route from his original home in in Zambia’s Sioma Ngwezi National Park to neighbouring Kafue National Park, a distance of 390 kilometres, in 14 days, accompanied by six other elephants, through another country.

In moving to Kafue from Sioma Ngwezi through the broader Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), this elephant and his companions demonstrated that restless tuskers wander in and out of neighbouring countries whenever the mood suits them.

Elephants have been known to wander back and forth between Namibia, Zambia, Angola, Botswana and even neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa. The regional transfrontier park system, as represented by the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, recognizes the right of wild animals to travel across national boundaries in protected areas, regardless of any political tensions that may exist between countries. The transfrontier park system was originally proposed in part, co-developed, established and enforced by one of the region’s great elder statesmen. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name was Nelson Mandela.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Information and knowledge are vital not just to existing wildlife populations, but for future populations as well. WWF Zambia’s communications officer, Nchimunya Kasongo, noted in a press statement that this isn’t just about elephants. Information gleaned from the satellite-collaring of elephants in Zambia — 15 collared to date — is crucial to understanding the right and wrong way to use land in such a way that subsistence farmers won’t be terrorized by seven-ton elephants, and the elephants in turn won’t be shot by angry farmers. It’s all about lessening the chances for human-wildlife conflict.

The future of the world’s large endangered wild animals, not just elephants but also rhinos, lions, gorillas, jaguars and polar bears wildlife is not only tied to climate change and habitat loss but also making sure the animals who call the wilderness home and the people who live there don’t come into conflict.

Why does this matter? We’ve trashed the planet in recent decades, in thrall to the demands a miserable, insecure society, even as the language of environmental protest has changed. A new, younger generation is involved, and they are engaged in ways we never were. Many of them know, even if we have forgotten, that economics and the environment are inextricably interwoven, in the same way an elephant from Kafue, Zambia is connected to another elephant from Khaudom National Park in Namibia.

Here’s one final thought to leave you with, on this Christmas Day 2018, this one brought to you by Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green party in Wales and England, writing in The Guardian:

“History is not pre-written, or destined to repeat itself. Offering the hope that with political, economic, social, educational and environmental transformation we can build a society that works for the common good, within the physical limits of this one fragile planet, is politically essential. The politics of the far right is built on fear and we must not feed that.

“Business as usual isn’t an option. But then that is one thing that certainly is not going to happen. That’s good news, for our planet and for its people.”

Merry Christmas, good people of Planet Earth.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons