Brent Stirton’s haunting image of a dead rhino, killed and butchered for its horn, was already widely known before it won Tuesday’s top honour at the 53rd Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.
Stirton, a lifelong documentarian and senior staff photographer with Getty Images’ Reportage unit, photographed an eye-opening spread for National Geographic — both the magazine and the website — before rhinos became the tipping point of the worldwide conservation movement.
Stirton won the top award after earlier winning in the photojournalism category before a black-tie audience at London’s Natural History Museum.
Winners in each category faced off for the WPOTY equivalent of best-in-show, capping a confusing process in which a dozen semi-finalists were released to the media last month. The fact that Stirton’s image was even in the running — it was curiously omitted from September’s selection, along with several other finalists for the top award — would have been a clue right there as to the eventual winner. As jury chair Lewis Blackwell told the assembled audience, the final decision was unanimous.
That in itself may well be a first for a photo contest involving a panelled jury — judging photography is subjective, after all, and subject to individual, personal tastes — but then hardly anyone looking at Stirton’s image, either for the first time or after multiple viewings, can fail to be moved.
Stirton is no dilettante who got lucky. Luck plays a huge role in wildlife photography — that, and patience and a willingness to put in the hours — but in this case Stirton called on a lifetime of placing himself in life-threatening situations, camera at the ready.
His CV reads like a modern-day Robert Capa of combat photographers. Stirton works on a semi-regular basis for the Global Business Coalition for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the Ford, Clinton and Gates foundations, and the World Economic Forum. He’s on the road an average 300 days out of the year. His work has been published in Time, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, Geo, The New York Times Magazine, as well as by Human Rights Watch andCNN.
A Canon ambassador, he has won the prestigious World Press Photo seven times, as well receiving citations and plaudits from the Overseas Press Club, Days Japan, the Deadline Club, China International, Graphis, the American Society of Publication Designers, Germany’s (news) Lead Awards and the London Association of Photographers. In addition, Stirton has two United Nations honours to his name, for his exposés on the global environment, and for his photo essays on the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS.
He has said photojournalists strive every day to find new ways to tell an old story. And the trade in illegal wildlife trafficking is an old story indeed.
In his own work, Stirton consciously looks for images that will move people and galvanize them to action, in ways that extend beyond the 24-hour news cycle.
The single image that changed his life, he said, came in 2007, when he witnessed park rangers with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Virunga National Park anti-poaching unit hauling the bodies of four mountain gorillas — one of the world’s most critically endangered animals — following their deaths under suspicious cicrumstances.
One of the gorillas was a silverback alpha male and the leader of the group. The others were females, two of them with babies and the third one pregnant at the time. The babies were never found; it is thought they probably died of stress and dehydration.
Stirton went about his work clinically andprofessionally, but deep down he was both shaken and angered. He resolved then-and-there to use his camera to expose and document the illegal wildlife trade, for the rest of his career in photography.
“The image of the dead silverback gorilla in Congo transformed my thinking about photojournalism and the environment,” Stirton posted on Getty’s InFocus page. “It got a huge reaction that I totally wasn’t expecting. The reason that image affected me so much was that it was a genuine crossover photograph that talked about both conflict and the environment in a single frame. It made me realize how connected those two things are.”
Though based in New York, Stirton’s recent work has focused on his home continent of Africa, everything from unexplained mass die-offs of hippos to the massacre of elephants for their ivory, to the recent, dramatic spike in rhino poaching for their horns.
It’s not often that Stirton is caught at a loss for words, he told his audience Tuesday, after the top award was announced.
“I have huge admiration for all those of you who go out and spend months in a single place, in tremendously difficult conditions, trying to take a unique picture of wildlife,” he said. “I look at these images as the reason behind my work. . . . My job is to reinforce the magnificence of these creatures.’ These pictures are evidence of their magnificence.
“I always think that photojournalism is the red-headed stepchild of the photography world, when it comes to wildlife. I always have that in my mind. So for you to think this of me, for the kind of work I do, in this space — I’m blown away.”
‘Blown away’ is as apt a way as any to describe his image of the dead rhino.