How wildlife photography depicts our humanity

200 or so odd days into the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the new hobbies many of us have picked up to add some variance to our quarantined lives, things are feeling repetitive and the reduction of our capacity for social interaction is weighing on many of our minds. It’s especially difficult to get anywhere natural as we all feel cramped and fatigued by the indoors. Luckily, the Natural History Museum’s wildlife photography awards offer some escape to a natural – if not intangible – world.

This year, professional and amateur applicants submitted almost 50,000 entries to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Up for grabs are various categories ranging from animal behavior to urban wildlife. The Natural History Museum in London is set to open the exhibition on Oct. 16, but has released the “Highly Commended” category for the public to view online.

 I found myself particularly drawn to the title of each piece. We don’t name photos before we take them for obvious reasons – they don’t exist yet, which is to say even if we think we know, roughly, what we’ll capture, we can’t be sure. Once each photograph is taken, however, the photographer guides each potential viewer with the title they do choose. Each title is the representative for the photograph’s interpretation. 

The title lays the framework for what the photographer would like us to see. The titles are both a reflection of and framework for the photograph, as they are what the photographer perceives, as well as what the photographer wants the viewer to feel. When the photo is titled, the photographer has to transform the feeling from an intangible ideal into tangible words. The words become an expression, a description based on context and composition of the subjects of the photograph.

One of the most striking pictures, “Paired up puffins” by Evie Easterbrook, shows two puffins staring at the camera. The puffins show a wondrous glance encapsulated longer than the actual glance in reality. Both birds in the pair belong to the same nest and regularly bring sand eels to the nest, according to Easterbrook. Distance reflects human tendencies of affection or animosity. The distance between two people can reveal the nature of their relationship, as those who are closer have a deeper relationship than those who stand apart. Today, distance is mandated and has become the new way of life as we are sequestered away from each other. This is not so in “Paired up puffins,” as the closeness evokes feelings of human desire for close social interaction. 

The very human urge to capture the raw, natural moments that wildlife photographers chase shows our appreciation as a species for moments of unadulterated, authentic existence. 

Distance is also seen in “Head start” by Dhritiman Mukherjee, as it depicts a male gharial, a crocodile-like reptile, being the host platform for numerous of its offspring that are on its back. The cramped space is flooded with about a hundred small offspring, which when applied to modern societal behavior seems like a distant past or a hopeful future.

Both images are remarkable in the fact that they depict nature in its pureness. They are wonderful sights, as shown by their “Highly Commended” placements within the contest. The positioning of the camera and the moment captured evoke emotions because we can relate to the subjects of the photographs.

Humans have the tendency to use external mediums as a mode of self-reflection. The photographs are a single moment in the life of the animals. There is sparse context before and after the moment the photograph was taken, but emotion is still extracted based on what we experience in life. Unlike human photoshoots, where models are positioned in order to evoke different emotions, the puffins and gharials in the photo are not placed in specific angles or poses but are instead a product of circumstance. The very human urge to capture the raw, natural moments that wildlife photographers chase shows our appreciation as a species for moments of unadulterated, authentic existence. 

The wildlife photography on display at the Natural History Museum can teach us a lesson as we continue to struggle through this pandemic: There are always moments that we can appreciate. The two puffins and the gharial with its offsprings both show seconds of animals’ lives which are forever encapsulated in color, safe from the bleaching of memory. In our current circumstances, we may tend to overlook small successes, deeming them unnoteworthy. Just as photographers recognize the power and closeness of these photos, we should reflect on the small moments of closeness in our own lives. 

Contact Daniel Orona at [email protected].