I’m not a wildlife photographer.
I follow photographers like Laurent Baheux and Richard Bernabe on Twitter. They are wildlife photographers; Bernabe is regularly flying to Iceland or the Antarctic to capture animals all over the world, while Baheux champions conservation of animals in their own habitat with his heart-rending black and white photographs of animal families, especially big cats (my favourite).
I’m not a wildlife photographer. I take photos at the zoo here in Melbourne, far away from the wilds of the natural habitats of the animals I photograph. But it’s become something of a lifeline for me over the past couple of years, and especially the last month or so where I have been twice already.
Each of the photography styles are very different, and oftentimes you will hear photography experts tell you that it’s better to hone your skill set into one particular direction; portrait, landscape, wildlife, weddings, infants, concerts, sports, etc. This is true, and at my heart I think I will always want to be good at portraiture. I think it’s what I most want to do. But at its core I believe that when you’re doing any kind of photography you’re calling upon the same fundamental skills; your base technical skill, intuition, practice, luck, and empathy. I strongly believe that empathy is what will set you apart as a photographer. You want to evoke feeling from your photographs, and how can you do that unless you know how to feel?
I like the fact that I can use those fundamental skills in an environment wholly different to the one I was used to. In a con situation, my mind is buzzing the whole time. There is no quiet, it’s all noise. When I’m doing a portrait, I sort of go into a trance where I couldn’t tell you a lot of what happened if you asked me afterwards. I’m usually overcome with nerves and focusing on all the things I need to remember.
But when I’m taking photos of animals, it is wholly external to me. I bring what I need to, but I am completely at the mercy of a subject I can’t direct. I can’t explain what I want. I can’t even really anticipate in the same way I sort of became able to with conventions; if you did it long enough, you could begin to tell when you would need to pay attention and when you would need to make a move. I’m going to watch this guest answer this question, because it is a moving subject and their facial expression will react in a way that shows they’re touched. This is where the music builds, so someone will likely be moved by the music and throw their head in abandon. It became like a dance I knew the steps to. But this … this is like waltzing with a partner who is breakdancing. I just have to be patient and let go.
And it’s so quiet, which is something I crave.
I acknowledge that photography at a zoo is a very sterilised version of taking photographs of animals. Going on safari and photographing wild animals would be different again, in a myriad of ways. But for awhile at least, this is my only option. I can try to frame and compose in such a way to focus on the animals themselves and not the enclosures, not the environment, but instead to try to make them and their behaviour and interactions the focal point of the photo. It’s taking small pieces of a puzzle and fashioning it into something in my control.
Given everything that happened last year, I’m just grateful that I have something that is driving me to take photos and driving me to improve. I was scared that I had lost something last year, but I feel as though I’ve taken it back.