Friday, May 13, 2016

Nature in HD*

(Autumn sunrise on the valley of Taranta Peligna, Majella National Park - Italy. 2009)

Shapes and lines, impressions and brush strokes of red, blue and black were shining on the screen: the picture of a deep canyon photographed at sunrise after a light snowstorm opened my lecture. The always pleasant-to-hear “Ooohs!” and “Aaahs!” were there to welcome its appearance and when I asked the audience wether they knew the location shown in the picture, people appeared confused. “Himalaya!” suggested a woman; “No. It's in Canada” shouted a man in the very back of the theater. I was disappointed or, better, I was shocked: two-thirds of the audience were represented by the staff of a national park in Central Italy and none of them was able to recognise a very distinctive valley of the nature reserve, which lied just 20 kilometres from where I was speaking! Could they really have overlooked the valley, or was perhaps the magic light in the picture making it look different? When I finally revealed the location, most people were suprised and a few smiled at me. One even said, “Oh yes, I was about to say so...”. Once again it seemed to me as if, ignorance apart, the trained eye of a photographer might have seen something special for the majority and realized an image that apparently went beyond the general perception of that particular subject.

A few years later, in a completely different situation, two curious Ladakhi men were , completely in awe, at the LCD screen on the rear my camera. They had paused on their walk to watch me photographing at the side of the trail. I was now showing them the picture I had just taken of the scenery in front of their village: round slopes of a very colorful hill ending against the rugged outline of an Himalayan peak. The view was breathtaking and the light of the afternoon was nice, but the picture was probably nothing more than a record shot. Yet, I was puzzled by the incredible response of those two men: they couldn't stop looking at the little screen and seemed completely speechless in front of it. Their astonishment was palpable and it made me reflect on the situation. The guys had always lived there and that scenery must have been nothing new for them. Tourists and cameras must have been seen in those mountains already for some decades. Besides, due to rather conventional light conditions, that very same scene must have occurred hundreds of thousands times in their lives. It must have been something else: it seemed as if they were seeing it for the first time.
These two anecdotes show some similarities, although they took place in two distinct contexts and are probably born out of two very different human experiences. Lack of interest and superficiality have possibly determined the people response in the first story, curiosity for what is new, exotic and perhaps the vivid colors of my camera to be considered in the second one. These two events made me reflect on the very peculiar reaction we manifest whenever we look at something which appears on a screen.
More than often we seem to be naturally drawn to look at a restricted, reduced and flat reproduction of reality rather than the world itself. Images seem more interesting and our impression of the subject itself seems in this way to last longer. Our brain (our “memory”) retains still images and these probably have a stronger impact on it than the flow of real events. It has always been like that, and since the digitalisation of photography and the wider access to cameras or camera-like devices the occurrence of this aspect could only increase. The result is now in front of everyone: looking at a screen has become today perhaps one of our commonest acts. Images grab our attention immediately: they provide some real fun that can be even shared with others. This is what makes photography and visuals magic and so incredibly powerful; it is probably the reason why me and you are now reading this blog.

(Slopes and ridges at sunset in Hemis National Park, Ladakh - India. 2015)

Yet, this aspect can also have some serious consequences, I am afraid. When in a culture images (“reproductions”) get more valued than reality; when our visual expectations of something start to be based mostly on pictures, then we need to re-focus our attention. What represents the great success of photography in our world, in fact, can eventually turn into its nemesis.The incredibly high standars nature photography has reached today and the (usually) peaceful competition they trigger among us, photographers, are pushing our imagery incredibly far; sometimes too far... On-location wildlife photography facilities and extraordinary post-production tools can easily allow some people to obtain images which have nothing to do with nature anymore. When these mix with the typical human desire to stand out, results can get indeed pretty “wild”. By commending such images, international contests and publications then boost this mechanism even further. But this is an old story... Even before digital photography came out, the trend was set already for a long time.Photography should retain its great value, which is being a powerful stimulation for us to set out exploring the world, a tool to make emotions timeless and share them with others; but this not at the expenses of losing connection with some real life experience.I feel we should make sure that for no reason images do get rated more than the vision and the emotions lived by the photographer in the moment he/she took them. At the end, photography is there to allow us, humans to communicate with each other about what we love, not to create an artificial, high-definition world, whose vivid colors might seem nicer but which would strip Nature of its ordinary, yet unfathomable magic.

Images and text © 2016 Bruno D'Amicis - all rights reserved worldwide

*Article first published in 2016 on "Forum Naturfotografie" magazine in Germany

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The truth which lies out of the frame*

(A young herder watches his cows at sunset on the shores of Lake Tana, Ethiopia. 2013)

Last year I had the great honour of joining the judging panel for 2015 of the World Press Photo Contest (WPP), one of the most prestigious competitions in the photography industry, if not THE most important competition in the World for what concerns photojournalism. This has been of course a very interesting and instructive experience for me. Although my contribution was limited to the sole Nature category, I have been nevertheless involved in the following debate triggered by the disqualification of Giovanni Troilo's story on the city of Charleroi, Belgium. The work of the Italian photographer had first been awarded in the “Contemporary issues” category, then, because of complaints forwarded by the Mayor of the city Troilo had photographed and of alleged falsifications (ie. staging) of some of the pictures, his submission has been scrutinized again by the WPP general jury and more in-depth. Some picture information were not in compliance with the competition's rules and eventually the prize has been withdrawn. But the fact that some images appeared to be staged was probably at the core of the issue. Well, this is nothing new, you might say, and everybody can easily follow the whole story of this controversy on the web rather than here. What is relevant, in my opinion, is the massive quarrel that these news have generated concerning the basic definition people have of photojournalism and documentary photography. Many top names stated that if those images would have retained the award, that would have meant the end of photojournalism. Others instead tried to argument that photojournalism as we (want to) know it is long dead and that we should finally come to accept the different ways now one has to cover a certain subject and tell its story. Interesting, but what on Earth does it have to do with nature photography?

In a world where photojournalism is still identified with authenticity, this story had some huge repercussions and invited each of us to reflect more in depth on the general idea of truth in photography. I asked myself wether documentary photography can be still considered genuine or not. I have looked at the issue from my perspective of nature photographer and considering the various degrees of tolerance this discipline allows. As you might foresee, I have realized that the answer is definitely not a straightforward one.
I had already partly written on this on my very first column appeared on these pages and, in different forms, this is surely a topic that has been debated “ad nauseam” on every possible existing platform. For example, I bet that in every nature photography association or club you might have knowledge of there must have been at least once a lively discussion on it. And, almost always, such endless debates remain unsolved...

Most of non-nature photographers (there are also some hardcore disbelievers, of course) often assume that our hobby/profession must be one of the very last strongholds of pure documentary photography and thus look in genuine awe at our images, evaluating them by the odd and “exotic” worlds they reveal to their eyes. Or, perhaps more na├»vely, they do so by commending the tremendous effort the photographer must have put in them. People still consider nature images “true” or want to believe they are. On the other hand, we all are aware of how far from reality unfortunately all this can be. I don't think I need to summon here the infamous facilities where animals are raised just for the purpose of the visual media industry (we used to call them “game farms”, remember?) or all the more or less harmful trickery we regularly make use of to take memorable images. Humans' ingenuity doesn't know borders and so there is a universe of available tricks, perhaps as many as the nature photographers shooting out there: they span from baiting brown bears with dog cookies, to spraying glicerine drops as fake dew on flowers; from cooling down restless butterflies in the refrigerator to simply whistle at a passing deer to make it look at the photographer... There are indeed endless possibilities to make our vision become “real”. The quality standards are so high that we are almost forced to embellish reality in order to make it more appealing, and because of this pressure the result often seems to justify any method. Some ways are easier to accept than others; some are “minor sins”, whilst other remain definitely bad behaviors. Even if we know that the situations are not so realistic anymore, in most cases we are not capable to judge the authenticity of the images and thus accept them with good faith. Apparently there is no hope for defining true nature photography, then.

Beware, I am not here to draw attention again on the ethical aspects of nature photography, but instead on what we consider as “true”. Let me explain it better with an example I know quite well: myself. I have always thought to be a true wildlife photographer. One who spends enormous time researching on a subject and waiting somewhere for it to appear or do something, and avoiding as much as possible any interaction with it. I mostly refuse to use tricks and sometimes looked with dismay at those photographers who made the goal prevail on the process. On many occasions, my fundamentalist approach has not turned very productive and I had to live with its consequences: much weaker images than those taken with other methods. But it has been always OK, since I strive to experience nature rather than represent it and to inform people with a correct message.
I have long considered this approach to be “authentic” and pure, but have never really tried to look at myself from an external perspective. Does my approach guarantee for true images or am I perhaps missing something?
The fact of being there, of leaving my smell around of drawing incidentally the subject's attention probably was already an interaction with the subject. Besides, since we all know that photography is more about what is left out of the compostion than what is in, my choice of lenses and framing together with the editing process is also there to determine entirely what I would end up showing people or not. These thoughts opened my eyes. There is no way any of my pictures could be considered fully authentic.
So, I started reflecting on the fact that photography, even in a scenario (the natural one) where our control can be minimal, is and will forever remain a form of art: the realization of a strong mental image. Therefore, we can't keep on fooling ourselves any longer by pretending photographs to be 100% true and pristine views of the world. We are humans and photography can be of our tools allowing us to explore the Planet, learn about ourselves, express our vision and share all this with others. Great, but this comes at the price that we will always be in the images, then. We must take into account the photographer's input every time we look at an image. This doesn't have to be necessarily bad, but can truth be found at all in documentary photography?

Of course it can! The truth is still out there, shining bright as never before. Only we shouldn't look for it in single images. The truth cannot be found in the picture: it lies out of the frame. ­It spills from the approach and the intention of the photographer. His or her choices define the message and thus confirms the power, and the responsibility, offered by this visual media. It shouldn't be seen as a defeat but actually a great reaffirmation of the importance of the individual's own vision and commitment.

pictures and words ©Bruno D'Amicis - All rights reserved worldwide.

*Article first published in 2015 on "Forum Naturfotografie" magazine in Germany.

Monday, September 14, 2015

To Everything a Story: Like an hammer

Like an hammer
Picture and text © Bruno D'Amicis - all rights reserved worldwide

January, Central Apennines, Italy
The ridge was now just fifty meters above, I pressed on and made the last paces in apnea. It was over: I climbed for almost three hours in the darkness, panting and cursing my heavy backpack and the 500mm, camera and tripod leaning on my right shoulder, to reach at sunrise the mountain meadow where I had found so many wolf tracks the previous week. Before getting over the ridge and thus reveal my human silhouette above the horizon, I ducked, placed camera and tripod on the ground, dropped my bag and crawled to the rim, binoculars in hand, to check the situation first. I slowly scanned the surrounding grassy slopes ending on that natural terrace: in the morning light a big herd of deer and a family of wild boars were peacefully feeding on the opposite side of the meadow. No sign of wolves. I retreated to change my wet shirt and eat a snack in front of the grand landscape. The sun was getting stronger by then. I moved back to the ridge and sat under a big rock, resting my aching back against it, in plain view: I knew it was over for that morning. The deer had immediately seen me and were now all staring in my direction: 160 eyes following my actions and making me feel naked. I had disturbed them and they started moving higher and farther. But then I noticed what seemed a deer resting alone and much closer. Just 100 meters from me and partly hidden by a bush of juniper. I raised the binoculars: a spectacular wolf in its prime winter coat was sleeping, completely unaware of my presence! I could see its ribs rising with the breathing and its legs moving frantically: it was dreaming. Although I could have photographed it already from my position, I didn't think twice and in a bunch of seconds I was already dragging my camera setup to find a better and more open view of the animal, for a cleaner composition. I moved carefully but I was completely visible: yet the wind was blowing towards me and I was confident the wolf would not notice me. Fast-beating heart and sweating hands, I was already tasting the images I would take that morning.
Just ten meters to my left and I could admire the wolf in its entirety. It did not move. I checked it with my binoculars and I was shocked to see its amber eyes fixed on me, more curious than afraid. Instead on freezing immediatly, I hurried to setup my tripod and shoot. What a mistake! The wolf was already on its legs when I could focus my lens; it started running away as it heard the first burst of pictures.
It all had lasted a few seconds and where before I was experiencing a precious wilderness moment, now only emptiness and silence were around me. After the wolf presence was gone and all the deer escaped, I was just in a mountain meadow: I had ruined everything. And because of photography.

May, Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia
Three weeks of hard fieldwork had already passed without any fennec sighting. Me and my two assistants had criss-crossed 50 square kilometers of desert, just to find empty burrows and unrelenting sand storms. In this time span, I had taken maybe less than 100 images (mostly landscapes or wildlife tracks) but my camera equipment was already full of grit. I had come all the way from Italy to southern Tunisia to start a photographic project on the fennec fox, but until that day all which could justify my decision was a single fox track in the sand and the stories of my guide, Bechir.
But things were now about to change. We had moved farther from the village, to explore a more remote patch of desert and make use of a military post and its nearby well as base camp for ten days. Wind was blowing strong when we arrived and for the next two days, the moral was low and we couldn't do much else than sleep, read or play chess. Eventually on the third morning the air was still and crisp: perfect for tracking. Full of expectations, Almost immediately and not even one kilometer from our camp I came across a fresh fennec track that looked as etched in the sand. I whistled to my assistant and we started following it. We followed it for one hour, up and down the small dunes. It took us first to an old nomads' fireplace, then to a fresh pile of camel dung, then to a gerbils' den (where the fennec had dug a hole) and after a couple of loops almost back to where we first had found it and then, it disappeared! “Impossible”, I thought, and once again I let despair take over me. On that moment the whole trip, which was supposed to be the beginning of a great project, instead started looking like a big failure.
“Bruno, regarde ici!”, Bechir called from behind a nearby shrub. He had found again the track, which had been partly erased by a soft breeze and was now going into another direction. We walked behind it as it kept going in a straight line, as if purposefully towards something. It was exciting and we started walking faster. Eventually it brought us to a patch of small dunes covered in retam bushes and other shrubs. Ten more meters and it disappeared again. But into a small burrow this time. The fox tracks were also all over the place, crossed by the smaller ones of its pups: we had found our treasure!
With the belly full of butterflies, we winked at each other and quickly made our way back to camp to not disturb the den: I would have gone back in the middle of the day, alone and with my camouflage tent, in the hope to watch the foxes coming out at dusk.
At noon the breeze grew stronger soon becoming a fierce wind, blowing sand into nostrils and eyes. Although I knew it was risky for my equipment to take pictures in such conditions, I went to the den anyway, if not just to glimpse its residents and finally see my first fennec! I walked softly, on bare feet, and concealed myself under a shrub and behind a dune some 200 meters from the den, terrified at the idea of disturbing them. Like most of the canid species, in fact, fennec foxes do immediately move their pups to a different den if threatened.
The hours passed slowly, then evening came and with it another gorgeous sunset, but the wind was blowing hard, making it difficult even to keep the eyes open. If something was living in the burrow, I could not see nor hear. Besides, all my worries were for the equipment sadly full of sand. All this struggle for nothing, I kept on thinking.
That night, the dinner was a silent one. We were all tired from the previous weeks and desperately in need of a breakthrough.
On the next day, I was already up one hour before sunrise and walking carefully towards the den and the lookout point of the previous day. It was a peaceful morning. When the sun rose I had not seen anything, so I approached the den to check if there was any sign of activity. The sand around the burrow was untouched and I was then sure the foxes had moved right after we had found it. It was enough and I was ready to go back home: I was wasting my time there. Back to camp, I recall Bechir and Zyed, my other assistant, breaking my stubborn silence and begging me not to give up but to try again the coming evening, which looked promising because of the wind absence. “Le fennec n'aime pas le vent” kept on saying Bechir. More to please them than with a real purpose, I took equipment and water and walked the distance to the den, this time hiding among some vegetation a little closer to the burrow. “At least, I will be a little more comfortable...” I thought.
It was again a long waiting and I was sweating copiously under the camouflage blanket in the afternoon heat. Dozens of flies kept on harassing me as long as the temperature didn't decrease at sunset. Thirty minutes after the sun had dropped beneath the horizon, the sky and the highest dunes were still pink. It was then when I glimpsed a little whitish shape apparently flying on the ground. The first fennec fox of my life was an adult one returning to its pups. It was much smaller than I thought; beautiful as it ran with its incredibly light pace, which almost didn't move the sand grains under its paws. I guess my face blushed for the deep emotion as my hands trembled when I tried to follow the fox in the viewfinder. An istant before it reached the burrow, two fluffy balls bolted out from it. I don't like to use human adjectives to describe animals, but those two fennec pups were THE cutest thing I had ever seen in my life. In a fraction of a second, they were already lying under the mother suckling milk. I was so grateful and could not believe my luck, because I was watching something that few humans had ever witnessed, let alone photographed! I “woke up” and started taking pictures, although the dim light was asking for dramatically long exposures. But, in the fossil silence of the Sahara, the shutter of my camera sounded like an hammer against the anvil. No matter if I was using the “silent mode” and that my camera was engulfed in a cumbersome blimp: its noise was still impossible to conceal. After two single frames, the female was already looking into my direction. And, although I was well concealed, she could figure something was not right. One more frame and she flew behind a dune; the pups diving back into the burrow. I should have been happy: I had finally seen and photographed my first fennecs, documenting a unique moment of their life! But, once again, I felt as the magic was over. Sure enough, the female moved her pups overnight and it took me five more days to locate the new burrow. I could carry on my work, then, but with more care than on this first encounter. Still, a moment like that didn't repeat itself anymore during my stay and I wondered if I should have enjoyed it without taking pictures instead.

Now, these are just two stories among many, but as usual my pen took me much further than these pages allow. I lost count of the times when I regretted being a photographer. Once it is the pathetic weight of the backpack to ruin a walk; once it is the noise of the camera to scare an animal; sometimes it is the worry for the safety of the equipment to curse a journey, but above everything is the urge of taking good pictures that can often spoil our best moment. Photography claims for such a high attention for details, in fact, that sometimes it can be a serious obstacle to a direct experience of Nature and makes me often think to give up on it.

But, then, I wonder: would I ever climb for three hours in complete darkness with twenty kilograms on my back or spend four weeks roaming a desert, if there would be no challenge of making an experience timeless and accessible to everyone else through the impact of a good picture?