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Veolia Wildlife Photographer Of The Year 2011 Exhibition Preview

Martin Jordan went to see if this year's exhibition beats last year's display.

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Article by Martin Jordan -

Most exhibitions are in galleries with white walls, wood floors, and enough lights to suck a wind farm dry. The Veolia Wildlife photographer of the year held at London’s Natural History museum is different. The walls are black, your eyes blink in the gloom, and the carpet gives a hushed atmosphere. On entering, you pad along a wall in the semi-darkness, until you come to the first picture, large and backlit... stunning.

This wildlife competition sponsored by the BBC and the Natural History museum must be the most prestigious in the world and attracts a truly international field. In fact there was only one British winner, more of him later.

I’ve been to this annual exhibition many times, and I am always impressed and inspired. The standard is always extremely high, though if I’m honest I don’t think this is a vintage year, less wows! than usual.

The competition is open to amateurs and professionals alike, but what they all have in common is a love of wildlife and generally a deep knowledge of the critter they are photographing. These people have a passion bordering on obsession. How else can you explain tracking an animal for days or weeks in freezing temperatures or in the boiling sun, and often putting themselves in harms way in front of Polar Bears, charging Buffalos or angry Hippos.

After viewing all the photos two things struck me about the exhibition; there were an awful lot of shots with water in, and many more with snow. I guess the judges pick what they like, and nobody looks at the result in the round. I couldn’t help thinking, after yet another snowy shot Ok, Ok, I get the idea: white makes a great backdrop.

The Assassin by Steve Mills
Photo © Steve Mills - The Assassin

I was amazed the shot of two male frogs fornicating (was the top one gay, or should he have gone to spec savers?) in water next to a snowy bank didn’t win as it ticked both boxes.

Another little gripe. There were landscapes on display as well. I found these distracting from the main event, when I’ve got my animal head on.

The photographers, who had showed up, loitered in front of their respective works, making themselves available for informal interview. People were also asking them to autograph their photos in the glossy book of the exhibition. Most of the photographers I spoke to were amateurs but I guess even a pro would be quite chuffed to feel like a star for a day.

I noticed Andy Rouse, see my previous interview here, had a highly commended picture of a gorilla, he wasn’t there though, doesn’t get out of bed for less than a win...

All of you people in ePz land that love taking pictures of Robins, well there was a great robin shot. Seems you don’t have to wrestle a gorilla to get an award winning photo. There’s hope for all of us.

Racket-tail in the rain Petr Simon
Photo © Petr Simon - Racket-tail in the rain

Another avian shot I enjoyed was of a humming bird mid hum. As I stood there in the gloom admiring it, I became aware of women of a certain age in ‘my space’. Being as we were so close, it seemed rude not to say something. "Nice humming bird," I opined. "Yes I love them, I have a tattoo of one." Before I could say "Really?", she was rolling up her sleeve to reveal a large humming bird. Its green iridescence was really quite impressive, I felt better for seeing it...

After having looked at all the pictures and got an overview, it was time to interview some of the winners. I always feel a bit nervous before the first interview, but there was no need, photographers are a friendly bunch and these guys were no exception.

The first guy I spoke to was Frenchman Joe Bunni, I was intrigued by his close up shot of a wild polar bear in water. I was somewhat surprised to find out Joe is a dentist by profession. How does a French dentist get to swim with polar bears?

Joe Bunni - Polar Power
Photo © Joe Bunni - Polar Power

Well he spends his hard earned cash looking into people’s mouths, living the dream and organising amazing trips. I had to admire his can-do sprit, hire a guide, hire a boat and captain and crew, get a the sort of equipment you wouldn’t find at Snow and Rock, find yourself a polar bear, put your dry suit on , slip into the water with camera. Simples.

Or maybe not so simple, he told me it took 4 days to find the first bear, a mother and cub. Just to be sure the first time, rather then hold the camera in the water, he attached it to a boom. He said the mother got very aggressive and swam towards the camera at amazing speed and smashed it! They made their excuses, and continued looking for a lone bear.

Joe Bunni
Joe Bunni

Another striking photo, in a very strong portrait section was a shot of a grass snake by a waterfall taken by Marco Colombo. Marco is a student from Italy who has a ‘thing about reptiles’ He got a tip from a friend, while rafting had seen snakes along the river bank. Very soon, after an hours drive from his house, Marco was standing in a river shooting towards the bank.

Marco Colombo
Marco Colombo

Marco explained that the snake was probably just keeping cool in the mist from the waterfall, and possibly taking the odd frog. For me what makes this shot, is that the snake is echoing the shape of the vines, and of course the light is wonderful. Not sure I would have put this picture in the portrait category, seems more like an environmental shot.

It was a pleasure to talk to Steve Mills, the only British winner he proudly informed me. Steve is a teacher/writer based in Whitby North Yorkshire, who has a passion for birds and has been photographing them for 20 years.

Steve Mills
Steve Mills

The amazing thing about this incredible shot (you can see it at the top of the piece) which won the bird behaviour category is that is was taken 500 yards from his house! Timid birds had to be bolder to find food in the snow. Steve saw some exposed grass near his house, and thought this might be a spot where birds like Snipe might come to feed. He drove his car all 500 yards from his house, parked up and waited. Apparently a car being an inanimate object it acts like a hide. Steve winds the window down rests the lens on the door and waits...

This day Steve got lucky, a hungry snipe caught by an even hungrier Merlin. But hey, you make your own luck. Steve knew he might have captured something quite special, but the first four or five he downloaded where all flawed in some way, he thought it might be a case of the ‘nearly’ shot... then he saw the winner. I particularly like the strong eye contact.

Still life in oil © Daniel Beltrá.
Photo © Daniel Beltrá - Still life in oil
The overall accolade of Wildlife photographer of the year was won by Daniel Beltra for his shot Still life in Oil, (good title). This shows a group of rather confused looking Pelicans in the first stage of having the oil washed from their feathers, after the BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a fantastic photo, it’s a sad story beautifully told. The lighting is superb, the colour palette all gorgeous browns, the composition spot on. I think this could become an iconic photo.

Daniel Beltra
Daniel Beltra
Daniel also won a special prize of wildlife photojournalist for six images covering the fall out from the BP spill. They were all shot from the air. I was lucky enough to meet Daniel at an exhibition of his showing the deforestation of the rainforest see here: Daniel Beltra Exhibition It’s his signature style is to make a depressing scene look beautiful and reach out to more people.

Daniel a Spaniard living in the states has worked for Greenpeace for many years, and covering the oil spill was a project for them. Daniel is a very modest and friendly guy; I was very pleased for him that he gained not one but two prizes.

So if you want to see some great wildlife photography get yourself down to the Natural History Museum open until 11 March 2012, after which it will be touring the country. You can see more of the images here: NHM Exhibitions

I guarantee you will be inspired pick up your camera and point it in the direction of some creature, could be polar bear, a shark... or a Robin. Whatever, there are prizes up for grabs next year.

Article by Martin Jordan -

The Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine and is sponsored by Veolia Environnement.

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21 Oct 2011 2:17PM
Nice inspiration. Best Regards.
Zelda 15 New Zealand
26 Oct 2011 9:35PM
Wow, the beauty of the images is impressive. I only wish I was near enough to see this exhibition with the backlighting. Martin I have enjoyed your article.
26 Oct 2011 10:49PM
I enjoyed Martins report of the exhibition. It shows that I am far too lazy to ever be a successful wildlife photographer. The winners, who aren't lazy like me, take pictures that the rest of us can admire. It would be wonderful if the exhibition could be shipped to Australia so that I could see it in person.

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