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Neil Aldridge: conservation from behind the camera

 

Neil Aldridge is an award-winning photojournalist, professional wildlife
guide and conservationist.

Neil Aldridge, conservation photojournalist and BWPA judgeNeil Aldridge, conservation photojournalist and BWPA judge

He’s known for his work photographing stories about current conservation issues and exploring people’s relationship with the natural world. He’s also a judge at this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards – see some of the winners and the Coastal and Marine category (which WWF sponsored) on our Facebook gallery.

Here he answers a few choice questions on conservation photography.

What made you first want to pick up a camera, and start documenting conservation issues?

Photography is in my blood. My Great-grandfather was a press photographer in Yorkshire and my father and his father have both had successes with a camera. I’ve been taking photographs for almost as long as I can remember. Growing up in Africa I was spoilt for choice as to which direction to point my lens for wildlife and stunning landscapes.

It was after my wildlife guide training in 2005 that I started to look a little deeper and notice that a lot of photographers only photograph what is pretty or dramatic. Then, when I was planning my African wild dog story in 2008, I realised that the most important shots to the project were those showing the conservation of this endangered species. It was at that moment that Conservation Photojournalism was born both as my brand and my way of life.

Which of your conservation photos are your favourites, and why?

Survivor by Neil Aldridge Survivor: this charismatic alpha female African wild dog encapsulated the struggle of an entire species. In three years, she lost two alpha mates and all but one pup from three litters. She finally met her own end in a poacher's snare. © Neil Aldridge

One of my most important conservation photos started as just a pretty wildlife portrait. Perhaps it was that I was so uncomfortable at the time of taking the shot that I didn’t quite appreciate the beauty of the scene.

My image of Stellar – an endangered African wild dog – in an alert pose in autumnal mopane bush was given the title ‘Survivor’ and has been seen by millions of people around the world as part of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and International Conservation Photography Awards exhibitions.

Those that have followed my work and seen my book will know that her own story epitomises the struggle of her species. Stellar was tragically killed in a snare in 2011, an event which makes people knowing her story and seeing my images of her even more important.

A badger is released from a trap after being successfully vaccinatedRunning free: a badger is released from a trap after being successfully vaccinated against bovine TB as part of the badger vaccination trials in Gloucestershire. © Neil Aldridge

I would also have to say that my photographs of badgers running free after being vaccinated against bovine TB rank as some of my favourite conservation shots.

It was a good news story that I photographed for BBC Wildlife, but just shots of badgers in cages could easily have looked like badgers waiting to be culled.

The idea of low-down, remote-triggered shots came to me on location and the result ended up as the opening spread in the magazine.

What effect do you hope your photography will have on people’s perceptions of conservation?

The bottom line is that people love looking at pretty pictures of animals. The challenge that I set myself is making people want to look closer at the ugly photographs too and, hopefully when they do, they will see my messages. But that’s not as easy as you may think. Anyone can take a picture of a shocking scene with lots of blood but most people won’t want to look twice. You have to be clever with what you include in your frame.

I am interested in challenging lazy and arrogant mindsets with my work. I want to inspire common sense, consistent views and perspective. Too many people – from safari-goers to governments – have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude or a ‘not in my backyard’ approach.

A white-tailed eagle takes off with a fish in its talons.Eagle with fish: with a fish in its talons, an adult white-tailed eagle returns to the nest to feed its two huge chicks on the Isle of Skye in Scotland © Neil Aldridge

The number of people who read my book on African wild dogs and felt impassioned about the cause of this endangered African species but would happily go out and shoot a fox in the UK really depressed me.

It’s similar to the white-tailed eagle situation here in the UK too . I genuinely want to provoke people into thinking about why Africans should be expected to find a way to live alongside lions while people in the UK shouldn’t be expected to have to live alongside a bird or a badger.

You’ve taken some amazing photos all over the world. Can you tell us some of your techniques?

I work in a different way to many photographers. Rather than flying in to renowned locations like the Maasai Mara or Svalbard for short, highly productive (and often expensive) sessions, I prefer to take my time and get to know a location.

This way of working really paid off in Canada recently. I also prefer to work with local experts and NGOs. I have been lucky enough to work with some wonderful individuals and organisations so far, such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust in Africa and the Ancient Forest Alliance in Canada. This approach gives me the opportunity to develop deeper stories and often get better access.

Once on location I photograph with a real combination of equipment. I don’t like totally relying on a long telephoto lens and I find I am shooting with wider lenses more and more now to create more engaging and impactful shots.

A meerkat walking along the groundUsing wider lenses, such as in this photo of a meerkat, can give a more intimate angle - creating a more engaging image. © Neil Aldridge

I’m often using tiny amounts of flash to create my images these days too. It’s a technique that surprises many people, particularly in Africa. But, where there is lots of light, there are also plenty of shadows and a little lighting can just make the difference between a good shot and a great shot.

I always use a lot of field skills learned and honed through my guiding training to get my photographs. It’s not enough to just track or identify your subject, you have to be able to read behaviour and think about how you are going to leave the situation.

For me, the best photography experiences are not the closest; they are those times when I can leave a subject after photographing it and it hasn’t changed its behaviour. You have to respect your subject… or one day that elephant will get you!

Which wildlife photographers inspired you, and why?

I’ve never really been one for following the work of icons of photography. It can be a little embarrassing at times when other photographers talk about some famous National Geographic cover shot and I don’t know who the photographer is. For me, there have only ever been a few people who I have looked at their work and thought: “Yes, I want to take shots like yours.”

One of those is fellow South African photographer Wim van den Heever. While we’ve recently become friends, I’ve been following his work for some time. His action shots blow me away.

Joe Cornish’s landscapes make me want to be a better photographer. A more recent inspiration is Alex Badyaev. His understanding of lighting just makes me go “Wow”, and the fact that he is one of the nicest and most humble people I have ever met makes his standards even more aspirational. Stephen Dalton’s incredible work is inspiring me for an upcoming project too.”

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