It was such a heart-wrenching sight. An iconic inhabitant of the Arctic, this hulking yet majestic furry creature is usually pictured roaming across stark snowy or icy terrain in search of sustenance, sometimes with an adorable cub in tow.
As one of my favourite animals, polar bears never fail to captivate me, for their soft-like exterior appears huggable, their faraway existence seems surreal and their frozen homeland so poles apart from our tropics that images of them never fail to give me that magical Narnia feeling.
But here was harsh reality. By a blue sea with barely any ice left, a polar bear lay slumped over rocky ground, shockingly emaciated and lifeless. Its premature fate was most likely a consequence of climate change and the inability to survive in a fast-changing environment.
That was the implication mentioned in the photo caption by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen who’d captured and posted the photo online.
The image had squeezed my heart and overwhelmed me with such sadness that I recall tears welling up.
We’re so accustomed to seeing pictures of living animals that exposure to dead ones are an unpleasant jolt, especially when it concerns a vulnerable species heading for extinction.
Such is the profound ability of wildlife photography to tell visual stories about the other inhabitants with whom we share this planet while highlighting important global issues. “Threats to wildlife and damage to landscape and ecosystems can feel very distant and remote, not our problem. Wildlife photography has the power to bring wildlife directly into people’s lives, and, hopefully to make them care,” believes Graeme Green, a British journalist and wildlife photographer who has contributed to international publications such as The Sunday Times (UK), The Guardian, National Geographic, BBC Travel and Wanderlust.
For the past 15 years, Green, who hails from Northampton, England has travelled to some of the world’s greatest wildlife destinations, where he has photographed a diverse array of creatures in their natural habitat. From lions on the grasslands of Kenya to leopard seals on ice floes in Antarctica, he has seen firsthand incredible animals that most of us could only ever see in a documentary or on the Internet. Thresher sharks have swum right over his head. A huge silverback mountain gorilla once ambled peacefully past him in the mountains of Uganda. Just a regular day for a wildlife photographer.
It’s easy to get hooked, says the Englishman who also loves photographing people, places, cultures, landscapes, and street photography. Through an email interview, he divulges that his passion for wildlife photography is about “being in some of the world’s most beautiful natural environments, spending time with some of the most remarkable creatures on the planet, and also exercising that creative, artistic side of yourself to take the best photos you can.” That combination, he adds, is simply hard to beat.
Asking him to name some of his favourite places in the world to photograph wildlife is like asking a Malaysian to pick their favourite local food. A long list is inevitable and the answer could continue for days, but among his highlights are the frozen wilderness of northern Japan where he has found red-crowned cranes, white-tailed sea eagles and foxes.
He also cites the pure white and blue landscapes of Antarctica which make incredible backdrops for photos of leopard seals, penguins, whales and more. But there’s a special love for Africa where he recently spent much time on assignment in Kenya and Tanzania. “Ruaha National Park in Tanzania is one of the world’s greatest wildlife locations, a massive wilderness with lions, leopards, cheetah, elephants, hyenas, lizards and hundreds of different birds. I think I took some of the best pictures of my career there. But honestly, I’m always excited to discover somewhere new that I haven’t been before.”
Currently on the move in Asia, Green is no stranger to Malaysia either, making visits every few years. As much as he enjoys the city life of Kuala Lumpur, it’s the wildlife that attracts him - but not the kind roaming around the watering holes at night along Changkat Bukit Bintang. Some of those are far too wild!
One of his favourite locations is actually Sarawak’s Bako National Park. “There’s such diversity there, from proboscis monkeys and silver leaf monkeys to pit vipers hiding among the trees. For me, wildlife photography doesn’t have to be about the Big Five or iconic creatures. Smaller, less familiar animals can be just as fascinating to see and photograph, and there are plenty to be found, if you look, in Bako,” confides this adventurous traveller.
Over in Gunung Mulu National Park, he recalls the challenge of photographing the ‘bat exodus’ (“thousands of black dots in the sky might not seem initially to be that photogenic”) which prompted the need to dig deeper into his creative resources, eventually producing a shot that he’s particularly proud of.
REALITY IS DIRTY
As exciting and adventurous as it seems, a wildlife photographer’s job is fraught with occupational hazards and challenges, which includes having no concept of overtime. Hours can be exceptionally long and travelling conditions are usually far from first-class. Any hint of glamour in the lifestyle is just an illusion. “You spend a lot of time at a laptop, editing work, sending emails, talking with editors, fixing logistics, filing articles and sets of photos,” reveals Green, who has also taught photography and offered guided trips.
Sometimes working conditions involve driving for hours over bumpy roads. Occasionally, it involves trudging barefoot in the dark through a cold sludge of mud, clay and a lot of bird excrement to photograph flamingos at dawn by a lake.
“This wasn’t my happiest moment as a photographer,” he recalls. But these experiences are often the only way to get to where he needs to be. “Out in the field, it can be extremely hot or extremely cold. It can be uncomfortable, dusty, and dirty. Nothing might happen for hours and hours. But all that is immediately forgotten when something incredible happens and you’ve got a camera in your hand.”
Compared to other types of photography, capturing still images of wild animals is particularly challenging. “You always need to be ready in wildlife photography. Life moves pretty fast, and you don’t get a second chance to capture a moment that passes. If you’re photographing a monkey leaping from a tree or a pair of big cats facing off in a fight, it’s very hard to politely ask them if they’d mind doing it again!” The key is to think ahead, shares the self-taught photographer, and that means learning about animal behaviour, their daily routines and environment, in order to try and predict their next movement.
Green recalls the challenge of trying to photograph Gelada monkeys, also known as bleeding heart monkeys, living up in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. For several days, he sat up on the high plateaus with hundreds of them as they went about their daily life, eating, grooming, and mating.
Yet it was difficult to get a clear, proper frontal shot. “They were a challenge to photograph. Because they tend to like privacy when they’re eating, they turn their backs a lot. That struck me as funny: here’s an animal that’s happy to mate surrounded by several hundred of their friends and family, but they don’t like to be seen putting a bit of grass into their mouths!”
Patience was undoubtedly a crucial factor in overcoming that challenge and is also his highly recommended tip for taking better wildlife shots. “Take your time and really think about what you want to achieve. A lot of people are just hurrying on to the next wildlife sighting,” says Green before elaborating: “Sometimes, you have to wait for the right light, the right moment, and you have to think about and change your position or the way you’re working. For me, one outstanding shot is worth more than 1000 hurried, mindless snaps.”
When I ask him what kind of response or impact does he hope his photos will have on people, the roaming Briton replies: “In these times, when people are bombarded with thousands of images every day, I think just getting people to stop and look at an image is a response in itself. There has to be something remarkable in a photo to get people’s attention and get them to pause or stop scrolling.”
Green has received many different responses over the years, some small, some large. Those from renowned industry peers are always satisfying, such as from Art Wolfe, an American photographer and conservationist, whose testimony described how “…Green’s skills pack a one-two punch for writing and photography. As a writer, he brings humour and compassion to his subjects; as a photographer, he brings them to life.”
Our little blue planet is teeming with so much fascinating wildlife, most of which the average person will only ever admire through the lens of someone like Green. Without the dedication and compassion of wildlife photographers, we would likely never know the beauty within the animal world and also its fragility. I know that I’ll never forget that image of the lifeless polar bear, a species, which to me, serves as a barometer of our planet’s health.
Done the right way, Green believes that photography is a powerful force for good. I can’t agree more. “Some images have a huge impact, but we’ve all become very good at passing by or ignoring urgent stories and messages we should pay attention to. If a photo can help get people more interested in protecting the natural world, it’s doing an important job.”
For more on Green’s work, visit www.graeme-green.com/