How does one of the most influential nature photographers survive a lockdown which is keeping him indoors while his natural habitat is outside?
To get an answer to this question I talked to the Swedish nature photographer and author Staffan Widstrand, multiple award winner in many international photography contests and author of 18 books, some rewarded as well. He has been a jury member in almost every imaginable photography contest and is one of the ‘founding fellows’ of the ‘International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP)’.
Staffan Widstrand was highly commended in the category Nature Art in the NPOTY contest 2019. What is keeping him busy lately now being outdoors is limited?
Red panda or Lesser panda, Ailurus fulgens, in the humid montane mixed forest, Laba He National Nature Reserve, Sichuan, China, Staffan Widstrand
Staffan has traveled the globe and photographed people, wildlife, and nature in almost every corner of the world. He sees himself as a start-up guy, helping to spark the big idea and to set it on its feet. Then when the initiative starts sailing it is time for Staffan Widstrand to shift his focus to the next challenge.
Amongst his most prestigious activities during the last couple of years he reckons his role and contribution to the initiatives Wild Wonders of Europe and Wild Wonders of China. The intent of these initiatives is sharing the amazing natural wonders of Europe and China to the world through visual content, stimulating people to connect to it. The ultimate goal is to find humanity willing to nurture and protect our natural heritage so that it can survive in the future.
“I have always been and still am deeply in love with nature. I feel great when I am outside spending time amongst wild animals, relate to them and realizing that I am part of it. And I love taking pictures, especially during early morning and late evening when beautiful light adds an extra layer to the scenery. For me photography is about bringing the dignity of people, animals and nature to the attention of the audience. I try to ‘portrait’ people or animals and even landscapes in a way they would present themselves, a way that would make them proud.”
Sichuan Golden Snub-nosed Monkey, Rhinopithecus roxellana, China, Staffan Widstrand
“I don’t work in a specific style, I take pictures with the passion of the moment. I leave it up to the audience to decide what could be considered as my ‘signature’. But there is a common thread in my work. I like to get close to the subject, to create intimacy, so I mostly use my long lenses. To emphasize the feeling of being close I often crop my frames very tight. And I don’t mind missing parts of the animal, to me, it is important that the feeling is there!
Furthermore, I also enjoy graphics in the picture and colour plays an important role.”
Golden Eagle bird, Aquila chrysaetos, adult male, Kalvtrask, Vasterbotten, Sweden, Staffan Widstrand
“My ultimate ambition is to make people fall in love with nature. Being in love with nature is necessary because we only care for and protect what we love. I feel successful if my photography has this effect on people.
Pictures are instruments to me, I use pictures or make pictures useful to as many people as possible. And preferably as large as possible! My picture of the Chinese Pallas Cat sneaking up to the camera for instance was used on a huge fifteen by four meters billboard, being the lead image for a giant outdoor nature photo exhibition, touring all of Chinas biggest cities and reaching many millions of people.
Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul), also called the manul, Tibetan Plateau 5000 m asl, Qinghai, China, Staffan Widstrand
I don’t consider myself to be the frontman of creative artistry. My focus is on making pictures that allow me to tell stories, triggering people’s interest. So my pictures don’t always end as winners in competitions but they are definitely useful in their context. For instance, the WWF used over 1000 pictures from the Wild Wonders of Europe project, showing the world that Europe is more than a bunch of ancient cities and has a lot of wild nature to offer. It changed the worldwide view on Europe! And the same happened with the results of the Wild Wonders of China project.”
Photographers with a message
“It is my goal to make our natural heritage survive into the future, so it is clear that I hate to see nature is being disturbed or destroyed. At this moment the Swedish forestry is raping the wild forests in Sweden at a scale comparable to the deforestation in the Amazon or Borneo, leading to enormous loss of biodiversity. About half of the harvested Swedish wood is used in the biomass industry, releasing CO2 again. Meanwhile, they present themselves as the gurus of sustainable forestry.
Oulanka, part of the Siberian Taiga belt, Finland, Staffan Widstrand
The forestry industry is misleading public opinion, spicing up their campaigns with pictures of the wild forests instead of monotonous plantages and clear-cut areas. They make sure that the worst locations stay hidden behind some leftover forest. I used the Covid19-related downtime to become a forest conservation activist. Together with nature photographer Marcus Westberg, we started an initiative called ‘skogsmissbruket‘ as a response to the extremely brutal forestry practices. We initiate discussions on Twitter using pictures of the most representative clear cuts, we offer free jpegs to those who seek attention for this horrific industrial activity. I consider it my mission as a nature photographer and conservationist to invoke my talent to act against this ‘Swedish crime against nature’.”
Old-growth pine forest, Muddus National Park, Norrbotten, Lapland, Sweden, Staffan Widstrand
“The main reason to participate in high-level photography contests like NPOTY is to see if you are still relevant. Studying the results of the competitors gives you an insight into the newest trends They show you where the bar is set and of course you can learn from other photographers. This will help you to make yourself more relevant.
And then if you win something you can go to the celebration and meet colleagues. Nature photographers form a community and if you belong to the top you are part of a brotherhood.
Last but not least there is the hunger for fame. It is always nice to get some attention and it hands you a platform to spread your message.
For sure I am planning to participate in the NPOTY 2021 contest and in many other good contests as well.
Eurasian Brown Bear, Ursus arctos.Suomussalmi, Finland, Staffan Widstrand
To those who are doubtful about entering a contest, I would say: don’t be afraid, just enter your work. And don’t be disappointed if you do not win, there are lots of good photographers out there. To prepare yourself you should develop a gut feeling about what the level is. Take a close look at the winners of the previous years but do not copy their work, juries want to choose another kind of picture than they did in a previous competition.
Keep in mind you are not the only one taking part, that the jury members have different opinions with different tastes and favorite styles etcetera. If you don’t win you didn’t have the right combination of factors needed to win on your site.
Remember that no portfolio is better than its worst picture. Combining nine toppers with one looser will mess up your portfolio. And don’t forget to deliver the maximum number of pictures allowed, thus offering the jury something to choose from. And read and follow the rules!”
Virgin boreal forest, Muddus N.P, Laponia World Heritage Area, Lapland, Sweden, Staffan Widstrand
“The importance of social media is diverse. It gives instant feedback, it offers a platform for networking and it presents a window to show what you’re up to. I see Instagram as a step up to professional outreach, Youtube is more a source for information to me. I am thinking my next step is making videos, I like the challenge.”
To finish the interview I asked Staffan Widstrand the following question: “if you could ask another nature photographer one question, who would that be, and which question would you ask?”
Staffan comes up with the following: “I meet nature photographers all the time and ask them questions all the time. The classic wildlife community consisted of lonesome photographers looking like the Marlboro man. Nowadays it is more a collaborative effort, it is a matter of sharing within the ‘brotherhood’.”
White-tailed Sea Eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, Flatanger, Nord-Trondelag, Norway, Staffan Widstrand