A lion cub locks eyes with yours, inspecting you with an intense curiosity as the last of the day’s embers fizzle out. It’s just you and him. You try to move but can’t, paralysed by a mixture of fear and fascination. Mosquitoes whine; birds sing; and the warm wind flicks specks of sand into both of your eyes. But still, neither of you breaks the stare. You can’t. You won’t.
It’s moments like this that keep me coming back to the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. It may be a cold, dreary Winter day in London, but for that moment you’re in South Africa, face to face with a lion cub at sunset. You forget everything else around you, unable to concentrate on anything but the exhilarating sensation of a lion cub’s eyes burning into yours. And when you eventually do muster the strength to peel your gaze away from his, you’ll find yourself transfixed by a herd of elephants at a waterhole; a lone ibex, shrouded in fog on top of a mountain; and 97 other stirring scenarios that transport you to undiscovered corners of this amazing planet that we call home.
Not had the pleasure of visiting yet? You really should. The exhibition celebrates the extraordinary talents of both professional and amateur photographers, united by their ability to capture the beauty and intrigue of life on Earth. Curated in categories such as Underwater Worlds and Animal Portraits; there are 100 award-winning images on display, chosen out of over 43,000 entries not just on the basis of their ‘creativity, artistry and technical complexity’, but also on the stories they tell.
And this is what makes the Wildlife Photographer of the Year so special. It’s not about knowing your aperture from your ISO (yes, I know NOTHING about either); it’s about appreciating the powerful language of wildlife photography. By carefully selecting and composing a single moment in time, these photographers make us see the natural world in a different way, whether it’s the world introduced to us by Attenborough, or the world on our doorstep. You get a rare glimpse of the endangered Siberian tiger on a snowy Russian shore; the prism-like flightpath of a kingfisher leaving a river; a mother feeding her chicks in the home they’ve made in a Swedish car graveyard. Much more than just cute, fluffy animals and beautiful landscapes, these photos are about something different; something that moves, something that stirs, something that makes you think.
And think, I have. It’s been over a month since I visited the exhibition, and whilst most photos have been reduced to a hazy, happy blur, six photos have lingered. These six I can recall instantly, their images indelibly imprinted in my mind as some of the finest, most perfect wildlife photographs I have ever seen. I’ve attempted to articulate why below, but really, words are pointless. As the Chairman of the competition’s Jury, Jim Brandenburg, wrote in his foreword to the 2013 portfolio, ‘In the end, the photographs speak for themselves. Photographs are their very own language.’
The Northern Lights are number one on my bucket list, and pictures like this are the reason why. Nature at its most hauntingly ethereal, this image is my gateway to Narnia; a window to a world that seems too magical to be true.
The magical kokerbooms
COMMENDED: Botanical Realms
This was one of those ‘shake your head, rub your eyes and crane your neck’ moments. An enchanting mirage that toys with perspective and reality, it’s no surprise that the photographer ‘felt this was possibly the most beautiful picture [he’d] ever created.’
Little bird, big water
SPECIALLY COMMENDED: Animals in Their Environment
Two years ago, this bird was me. Well, sort of. I was stood on a viewing platform, facing the violent ‘Gargantua del diablo’ at Iguazu Falls, and like this bird I felt small; insignificant; and completely overwhelmed by the ferocity of the waterfall. Although I took photos, it seemed like a futile gesture – I couldn’t make sense of the sight right in front of me, so how could a static snapshot capture it? But this picture did just that. It captured the roar I heard as the water charged over the precipice; the vapour that soaked my skin; the terror, exhilaration and vulnerability churning in my stomach. And most of all, this photo reminded me of feeling powerless, yet empowered; strengthened by proximity to such unfathomable force.
The President’s crown
WINNER: Botanical Realms
This photo still gives me tingles. A 3,200 year old giant sequoia in California’s Sequoia National Park, the photographer had to stitch 126 images together to show the tree in its totality. And this isn’t even the tallest, widest, or bulkiest tree on earth – THERE ARE BIGGER TREES THAN THIS. This photo makes the impossible, possible; showing the true scale of one of nature’s giants.
COMMENDED: Animal portraits
How can you not love this one? The composition is perfect, the colours are dazzling and you just can’t help but smile. But more than just novelty value, it’s a fascinating insight into a life we would never see. An enormous duogong and two miniature yellow fish swimming in tranquil harmony? Wonderful.
Commended: Behaviour: Birds
I’m not ashamed to admit that this one made me shed a tiny little tear. Taken at Bempton Cliffs on the Yorkshire Coast, it’s a touching portrait of two northern gannets; birds that pair for life. And yes, it is what it looks like, the male really is gifting the female a floral necklace; a token of his devotion to her. Are you melting yet? This picture was my highlight of the entire exhibition, a moving depiction of the simplest but most universal of emotions: true love.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is an unforgettable exhibition; one that no words could ever really do justice, so I’ll leave it there. If you haven’t already visited, just go. You won’t regret it.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year is owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide – a big thanks to them for allowing the use of the photographs featured in this post.