The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has come a long way in 50 years. It was founded in 1964 by the publication we now call BBC Wildlife Magazine, back then the magazine was titled Animals (well, it's certainly self-explanatory), and the competition had three categories which attracted around 500 entries. It was fairly low key.
Today, being Wildlife Photographer of the Year is one of the most prestigious accolades in the field, and the competition now co-owned by BBC Worldwide and the Natural History Museum receives entries in their tens of thousands from across the globe. There are awards for specific environments, techniques, subject matter, and even an award for young people aged 10 and under, while the overall winner walks away with £10,000 and international acclaim.
As well as increased prestige, the competition has progressed in other ways to keep up with the changing world. Fiona Scott-Johnson, Head of Brand for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, explains, 'We champion ethical wildlife photography, specifically representation of the natural world as faithfully as possible, free from excessive digital manipulation, and with total regard for the welfare of the animals and their environment.'
For the second year running, Newcastle's Centre for Life is hosting the touring exhibition of winning photographs. Ian Simmons, Director of Science Communication at Life, says, 'We're all about getting people to be hands-on and creative in their approach to science and technology. We hope our audience might see these pictures and be inspired to do something themselves.'
There's certainly inspiration value in the history of the competition – seven winners in the past 30 years have been British, and the first ever overall winner was an amateur from England, Roger Dowdeswell, with a picture of a tawny owl carrying prey to its young. He was presented his award by a young David Attenborough.
'It's a lovely competition because it really is open to absolutely everybody,' Ian observes. 'You don't have to be tooled up with expensive kit to do it. I don't think anybody has ever won with a picture shot on a phone yet, but some of the pictures have been taken with very modest equipment.'
So what makes a great wildlife photographer? 'Patience,' says Ian, immediately. 'And inspiration. But mainly patience. You can be as inspired and creative as you like but if you can't hang around and wait for the perfect shot you're not going to get anywhere with it.'
'For me the key is originality, creative vision, a compelling narrative, and artistic intent,' says Fiona. 'If a photographer can show us something truly unique in the natural world – be that previously unseen behaviour, untrialed methods of image capture, or simply revealing the spectacular within the commonplace – then that is classed as great in my book.'
If you're thinking of entering yourself, you might be wondering if there's a pattern to the sort of photographs that win. '’You can't really come up with a formula for it,' says Ian. 'The photographs are all different but all utterly arresting. You'll find aerial photography of dolphins shot off the coast of the USA but at the same time you'll find shots of insects taken in back gardens.' Fiona adds, 'No one has ever won the grand title more than once, so there really is no guaranteed recipe for a winning photograph.'
But the competition is not just about giving photographers a pat on the back. It also serves as a reminder of our responsibilities to protect the natural world. 'Our role is not only to document wildlife, but to challenge opinion, stimulate debate, and raise issues surrounding conservation and protection in order to secure the future,' says Fiona.
This anniversary year for the competition is a pertinent moment to reflect on its future. Research by scientists at the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London published in September found that the number of wild animal species on Earth has halved in the past 40 years. Human destruction of habitats through pollution and deforestation, as well as unsustainable killing for food, has contributed to the decline in diversity. Latin America has suffered in particular, with wildlife declining more than 80 percent. It's sobering to consider the losses that have occurred just in the time the competition has been running.
On the positive side, our understanding of the natural world, and awareness of these issues, has increased. 'The 1960s saw a huge growth in the UK in public curiosity about nature, fueled by the development of Natural History broadcasting on the BBC,' says Fiona. 'By the mid-1970s, a growth in nature books – mostly identification guides and textbooks – further fueled our understanding. The transformation of global travel and the rise of the package holiday also opened up the world of wildlife and photography.'
This greater awareness can only have a positive impact on how we research, document and care for the natural world. Ian suggests that the competition presents a positive way of looking at environmental issues. 'You hear a lot about environmental catastrophe and climate change and I don't think that message works very well. What does work is telling people, "Look at all the amazing things in the natural world, don't you want to do something to keep them?"'
The winning photographs on show at Centre for Life this year range from cranes gathering over a misty lake at dawn to a school of tiny fish swimming between the long stems of colourful underwater flowering plants, and of course, the overall winner – a picture of a pride of lions by US photographer Michael Nichols. Ian says, 'You will see things that you will never see in any other way, and you will see things that you might come across every day, in a completely new way – which is a beautiful artistic experience in its own right.'
But can this sort of inspiration encourage us to reevaluate our treatment of the natural world? 'The competition harnesses the power of photography to inspire greater understanding of the natural world, and to encourage the conservation of its beauty and diversity for future generations,' says Fiona. 'Truly great images of nature can change the way we look at the natural world forever.'
Happy birthday, Wildlife Photographer of the Year – here's to (at least) 50 more years.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year
10th January–19th April
Centre for Life, Newcastle www.life.org.uk