The 54th rendition of ‘The Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibit was hosted at the Royal BC Museum from February 15 – March 24, 2019. Travelling from the Natural History Museum in London, the exhibit presented 100 photographs of flora, fauna, and landscapes from across the globe which were the results of a competition that drew over 45,000 entries from photographers spanning 95 countries. Photography in the exhibit was prohibited because the image copyrights were owned by the individual artists.
Displayed in the natural history wing of the museum, the photographs were presented on digital screens against a black backdrop so that they glowed faintly blue in the darkened hall. The overall impression was like walking through an aquarium, an illusion that was aided by the soft, ambient music which played throughout the space. The photographs themselves were vibrantly colourful (aside from three black-and-white entries) and presented a wide range of images from dramatic icescapes and volcanos to an unexpectedly mournful photograph of a mother gorilla carrying the bones of her dead infant. The show relied on the universal language of the visual. It presented the types of images that would be most evocative of care and awe for the natural world. Each image was accompanied by a comment from the photographer and a brief description of the image contents, including the location of the shot which was illustrated on a small world map. The viewer was also provided with the technical information of the image, including the camera model, lens, and basic settings used.
This show did not engage the local political or environmental context; there was no territorial acknowledgement in the gallery and the voice of the exhibit was quite clearly Euro-Western. However, the show carried a broader political overtone; the second introductory panel identified that the exhibit intended to explore the origins of life on earth and existing biodiversity as well as human impact on the natural world and themes of sustainability. This overtone was made explicit in the Documentary section which displayed photo-stories and single photos that commented on negative human interactions with wildlife. This part of the exhibit was intentionally set in a narrow corner; the uncomfortable but skillful images of abused and dead animals accompanied by explanations of their mistreatment in visceral language and the semi-confined space evoked feelings of fierce empathy in the viewer.
It was clearly the intention of the exhibit to elicit an emotional response from the viewer that may influence that individual’s engagement with environmentalism. Throughout the show, the image labels carried strongly environmentalist messages interspersed with natural history facts which balance the sometimes overwhelming political tones. The labels touched on issues of deforestation, overhunting, pollution, littering, climate change, and the illegal pet trade. This political tone contrasted strongly with other natural history exhibits in that same wing that were restricted to accepted facts about natural phenomena. This contrast may illustrate the way that modern museums have increasingly accepted their role as social educators and influencers.
The socio-environmental issues presented by this show elicited a sense of shared human responsibility for environmental degradation and crisis. As viewers stood in collective admiration of the magnificence of nature, they were made collectively aware of the peril and hardship that much of the natural world faces. There was a sense of impending loss as viewers were shown images of endangered and critically pressured species who may one day no longer exist outside a photograph. And yet, through skillful incorporation of the humorous and unexpected, like the image of a fish who is not classically good-looking entitled “Looking for Love,” (photograph by Tony Wu) the show avoided depressing the viewer unduly. It remained a family-friendly exhibit that illustrated a global connectivity between human cultures on the basis of a love for nature and the wild.
The exhibit may have benefitted from the inclusion of a commentary on the demographics of the photographers who entered the competition. As it stands, the exhibit showed a significant gender bias towards male photographers although global distribution was quite varied. As a photography show, the exhibit carried inherent questions about access to expensive technology that were not addressed. The origin of the show as a competition also influenced the way that viewers engaged with the photographs. In each section, the winning image was placed on the left, next to the introductory panel, which encouraged the viewer to read the section from left to right, starting with the winner before viewing the runner’s up. This organization created an inherent sense of assessment throughout the show. The grand title winners were presented within their individual sections and were also displayed in a separate construction near the end of the exhibit. Both grand title winners featured charismatic fauna and strong environmentalist messages. This section contrasted dramatically from the rest of the exhibit because it was lit much more brightly, and the walls were white. The winning images in this section were also larger than the rest of the photographs in the exhibit. This display technique created the sense that some images were more significant or valuable than others.
This show clearly fits into the context of the current global climate crisis. It was built on the persistent social idea that nature is at its best when undisturbed by humanity. This idea contributes to the perception that humans and nature are separate from one another, partly as a result of the Euro-Western voice that tells the story of this exhibit. The show reflects the uncertainty of the climate crisis because we, as a global society, do not know how best to curb our impact on the earth but we are continuously understanding that we should. By maintaining the distinction between pristine nature and human development, the exhibit presents an ongoing and dichotomous conflict. In this way, it is both relevant to and representative of the struggle of current environmental politics.