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 jury, who are themselves international photography professionals. Here we meet Peter Cairns.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I spent my childhood in the English Midlands, but I’ve been based in the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands for over 20 years now.
I’ve been a freelance nature and conservation photographer since 2000 and am a founding director of The Wild Media Foundation, a social enterprise that generates conservation media through projects such as Tooth & Claw, Highland Tiger, Wild Wonders of Europe and 2020VISION.
In 2015, I founded SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, a company dedicated to producing compelling visual media that promotes the benefits of a wilder Scotland.
I am also Board Member of Scottish rewilding charity Trees for Life, and a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
What was your exposure to photography growing up?
Very little until my early adult life. My Grandad was a keen photographer but I took little interest until my mid-twenties. He did however, instil in me a passion for birds and when that resurfaced in later life, it provided the catalyst for my early attempts at wildlife photography.
What in your opinion makes a good photo story?
There’s a word that I use a lot in evaluating stories I document myself and those covered by others: Compelling. Is this story compelling? Does it captivate my interest and perhaps more importantly, does it move me? Our job as conservation photographers is firstly to inform. If we can then inspire, that’s a bonus. The Holy Grail however, is to influence. If a story influences a change in mindset or motivates an action, it’s been successful.
Do you have any memorable photo stories of your own?
I tend to forget pretty much everything I’ve done as soon as I’ve done it! I’m not one for dwelling too long on the success, or otherwise, of my own work. There’s always so much more to do. That said, certain stories do have a habit of bouncing back to life years ahead and that is true of some work I did on Scottish wildcats which is still doing the rounds ten years after the images were taken.
You’re Project Director of SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, why is rewilding important to you and Scotland as whole? And how do you best communicate your rewilding vision to a wider audience?
Most of the projects I’ve been involved with over the years, and the lessons learned from them, have culminated in SCOTLAND: The Big Picture. In some ways it brings me back to working very close to home where I know the lie of the land physically, culturally and politically. It’s important to understand the context of a story to tell it effectively.
Despite notable conservation success stories, Britain is one of the most ecologically depleted nations on Earth. All of our large carnivores have gone. Most of our large herbivores have gone and across huge areas of Scotland the land is degraded and pretty much devoid of life. Rewilding offers an opportunity to revitalise vast landscapes and to restore the natural processes that sustain all life. This cannot and should not be achieved at the expense of people but to the benefit of people. In terms of communicating what is quite a complex message, we tend to tease out individual stories within the wider story, using species like red squirrels or ospreys as “ambassadors” of the wider rewilding narrative.
There’s no silver bullet at work here. It takes time to change people’s belief systems and we’re on that journey of change. Every now and then we see a glimpse of success – from someone reading our books or attending a presentation perhaps -and that spurs us on. Visual storytelling does make a difference.
You are on the jury for Wildscreen’s inaugural Photo Story Panda Award. Why do you feel it’s important that Wildscreen is including stills photography within the Panda Awards and the Wildscreen Festival?
When I look back over the last 20 years, there are images that are seared onto my mind. They made me think differently and act differently. I want as many people as possible to see compelling images created by talented photographers and to feel differently as a result. Wildscreen is providing the mechanism for that to happen and I’m delighted to be part of it.
If you could give 18 year old you one piece of advice for building a career in photography, what would it be?
Think hard before you jump – you need to be financially sustainable to enable your voice to be heard – that’s not easy these days. Let your head rule your heart, not the other way around.
Secondly, build relationships – they will become your greatest asset. There, that’s two bits of advice!
Thanks to Peter for talking to us, and we look forward to seeing him and the fantastic array of submissions at the Wildscreen Festival 2018!
Revisit the Arkive blog soon to meet the rest of the Wildscreen Photo Story Panda Award jury.