To celebrate the launch of the inaugural Wildscreen Photo Story Panda Award at this year’s Wildscreen Festival, Arkive is getting to know the award’s amazing team and jury, who are themselves international photography professionals. Here we meet Neil Aldridge.
Neil Aldridge is the Technical Consultant for the Wildscreen Photo Story Panda Award. As a conservation photographer his images have won awards all over the world, including the World Press Photo environment category, the NPPA Best of Photojournalism award for environmental storytelling and the overall title of European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. His work has also featured in Wildlife Photographer of the Year and he has twice been a winner of British Wildlife Photography Awards.
Neil is also a lecturer in Marine and Natural History Photography at Falmouth University and a trustee of the charities Animals Saving Animals and Poaching Prevention.
As a conservation photographer, was there a defining moment that led you to start documenting conservation issues?
I grew up reading Getaway Magazine in South Africa and I remember being inspired to want to tell stories with my camera, not just take single shots. But it wasn’t until I began researching African wild dogs while training as a wildlife guide at Antares in South Africa in 2005 that I realised telling conservation stories and engaging people in these issues was how I could best contribute to saving species and protecting our environment. It took me another three years to save up the money and throw myself into the world of photojournalism. I’ve not looked back since.
How does imagery help in conservation efforts? How do you think photo stories with a clear narrative affect audiences compared to single images?
While some iconic single photographs do tell a story in one shot, the most effective way to draw an audience into an issue, to make them care and, importantly for conservation, to make them take action is to take them on a journey – to show them what the issue is, where it is happening, why it is important, who the people are at the heart of the issue and what the solutions are.
When a company builds a website, they talk about the journey they want to take their web visitor on from when they land on that site. As a storyteller, it’s the same principle. By thinking about narrative, I’m thinking about where I want my audience to go when they open a magazine onto the first page of my photo story. This may sound logical but it’s not as easy to deliver as it sounds. Where narrative-led photography really is helping conservation efforts is the ability to connect the audience with real people – whether it’s rangers, researchers, vets or even the unfortunate villager who is having her livelihood impacted. Now that we have learned to stop banging the drum just about the big iconic animal and embrace the people who can save it, we are switching more people on to the importance of saving our natural world – because they can see that human lives depend on it.
Over the years there have been a variety of photographic styles to document conservation stories: from hard-hitting and emotive imagery, to those showing the wonder of the natural world and the diversity of species. What do you think the role of conservation photography is in 2018 and going forward – to shock audiences or to send out positive messages about conservation and the environment?
Both. People take in information in different ways, even within audience demographics. Personally, when I’m looking at a story or watching a documentary, I’m still grabbed by the hard-hitting moments that some people find too much. Those are the moments that stay with me. And with the state that our planet is in, I don’t think that we can afford to filter or totally dumb-down our messages. People do have the choice to look away or turn the page if they want to, so I would rather see photographers still taking the pictures that have the power to stop an audience in its tracks. But, that’s the beauty of creating photo stories. You can include hard-hitting imagery alongside the solutions, the beauty of nature and the wonderful people dedicating their lives to stopping atrocities happening. That is what I have been trying to do with my work, I then work with an editor to decide what the best mix of images may be from a wider set to achieve the right impact and reaction.
The ‘plastic issue’ has clearly galvanised public opinion. What do you think are the other important environmental issues and challenges we now face?
I could sit here and say climate change or habitat loss but fundamentally our attitude towards the natural world has to change. How have we evolved to a stage where we think it’s okay to sell keyrings with live baby turtles sealed inside? We will never beat the trade in wildlife or protect key habitats and the species that depend on them if there is not the appreciation for what functioning ecosystems can do for us. Yes, policing illegal trade or logging is important but it’s like sticking a plaster over a gaping head wound. The real change has to come from ordinary people putting pressure on the decision makers to change policies – policies with a focus on sustaining life, not making short-term profits and winning votes. The plastic issue has been a positive example of this, but it’s still up to us to keep the pressure on governments to stay true to their words.
As a lecturer in photography are you seeing a shift in the topics that your students want to document or the stories that they want to tell?
I’m constantly amazed and inspired by the passion and broad knowledge of conservation topics within our student group at Falmouth. I get to learn about places, species and issues that I didn’t fully understand. But perhaps the biggest shift I’m noticing is in how young photographers are telling their stories and engaging their audiences. That’s what is really exciting. Yes the traditional, strong magazine stories or documentary films are there but we’re seeing installations, apps, 3D imagery and VR pieces. It’s an exciting time to be a young storyteller.
How can photography galvanise the younger generation into action? Is social media having an impact?
If I knew the answer to this I could be making good money advising major organisations on their engagements strategies. It’s a tough one because yes, smart devices have made it easier than ever for people to take and share incredible photographs of the world around them, but at the same time they are driving shorter attention spans, addiction to endless browsing and opening people up to targeted marketing and promotional campaigns with budgets that conservation causes just can’t compete with. But yes, the potential is certainly there for galvanising and mobilising people into action. I think we have seen some of this potential already in the activity that was stirred by the plastic scenes in Blue Planet 2.
Which environmental campaign has had the greatest impact on you?
I used to work on a BBC learning campaign called Breathing Places that drove action off the back of the UK-focussed BBC nature shows like Springwatch and Autumnwatch. The message at the heart of that campaign was ‘Do One Thing’. It was so straight forward, so simple for people to engage with. We just wanted everyday people to do something for nature, whether it was planting a tree, making a bug hotel, joining their local wildlife charity or getting out for a walk in the woods. As with everything, it was impacted by funding cuts when the BBC hit a crisis. I feel that we need something like Breathing Places to harness all of the positive energy that is created by the content we as photographers and filmmakers are producing.
Thanks to Neil for taking the time to share his thoughts. We’re really excited to see him and all the incredible photo stories at the Wildscreen Festival 2018!