The first thing to know about this year’s winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is that this time, the jury shied away from controversy with its picks. “Nice” is the operative word in the 2018 edition, unlike last year, when South African photojournalist Brent Stirton’s image of a slaughtered rhino forced people to confront serious issues facing wildlife conservation today.
The inevitable result is that, as likeable as many of the 2018 winners are, collectively they’re unlikely to stir the kind of difficult debate about species extinction and the wanton slaughter of rare animals for their body parts many conservationists — and wildlife photographers — say is even more imperative today, in a Trump world of climate denial and environmental deregulation.
That means fewer angry emails to contest organizers from parents upset that their younger, more impressionable children might be dissuaded from a career in conservation, because the winning image didn’t reflect the beauty and wonder of nature.
This year’s overall winning image — “The Golden Couple,” Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten’s tender portrait of a pair of rare golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana) taken in central China’s Qinling Mountains, certainly evokes wonder. The image was chosen over 45,000 entries, from 95 countries. It will be one of 100 other images to go on display at London’s Natural History Museum, the 54th such exhibition in the world’s most prestigious, high-profile wildlife photography contest. The exhibition opens this weekend, Oct. 19th, and closes July 1st, next year.
In her statement to the world’s media this week, long-serving jury chair Roz Kidman Cox admitted the winning image is traditional — it’s a portrait, pure and simple — but then added, “But what a striking one, and what magical animals. It is a symbolic reminder of the beauty of nature and how impoverished we are becoming as nature is diminished. It is an artwork worthy of hanging in any gallery in the world.”
On one level, this is true. It’s hard to imagine Stirton’s dead rhino, blood still congealing from the stump where poachers hacked off its horn with a chain saw, being unveiled at the Louvre or the National Portrait Gallery.
For all Cox’s brave words, though, “The Golden Couple” is unlikely to make people stop and ask themselves, what happened here, who did this, why did they do it, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again.
Admittedly, it’s also hard to imagine Cox’s email in-box filling up with angry comments along the lines of last year’s, “How dare you? I’ll never follow your rotten contest again” viral outrage. As many upset patrons were only too happy to remind Cox then, nature photography is supposed to be about awe and appreciation, about inspiration and inculcating our collective sense of wonder, and not something that’s shocking and awful.
I also know at least one prominent wildlife photographer and former WPOTY winner, a high-profile veteran who gives frequent lectures as part of National Geographic’s National Geographic Live! speaker series, who argues that the time for debate has passed, that it’s more important to shake people out of their complacency than to show them another pretty picture of a wonderful animal doing something wonderful. (Interesting fact: The award committee’s decision to opt for such a violent, off-putting image in last year’s edition sparked some of the most intense debate the jury committee can remember in awards history, but in the end the choice was unanimous. Yes, unanimous. Not only that, but that was reportedly the first time in the awards’ 54-year history that, in the end, the entire jury agreed on the final choice, without a single dissenting vote.)
Here, then, without further ado, is a selection of this year’s picks, along with a link to the Natural History Museum’s awards page, and a link to an investigative article about the precarious situation facing China’s dwindling population of golden snub nosed monkeys.
In a few days, I’ll be posting a profile of renowned wildlife photographer Frans Lanting, winner of this year’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, but first this.