This year I´ve been chosen by the german Gesellschaft Deutscher Tierfotografen organization to join the international panel of judges of the GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, one of the most renowned nature photo competitions in the world. As part of such a great honor and responsibility, talented photographer Werner Bollman wrote a nice interview in the GDT Magazine http://www.gdtfoto.de/content.php?siteloc=37&action=open&owner=11, I reproduce here in english.
Within the last two decades, I have entered many times in some of the most relevant photo contests of my gender, and quite often I was intrigued about the judging process. Thus, I hope this can give participants at least a few clues on my criteria, which helps to dispel the cloud inherent to such “secretive and ambiguous mystery”.
Angel, when did you start underwater photography?
Sensu stricto, I started shooting underwater with a Nikonos IV in the late eighties. Prior to this, I spent many years shooting in aquariums, and even using tanks to put my old Pentax K1000 in, and then submerge that bulky stuff in very shallow tidal pools to capture my first underwater images in the wild. Now I see how useful in life can be having poor resources, lessons I still have to put in practice today
What came first – an interest in the natural world or photography?
It was the fascination for nature of course. I specially will always remember when at four, my grandfather show me the first underwater view through the glass of a diving mask just floating on a shallow pool by the sea. That was a decisive imprint. Later, I found in photography the vehicle to canalize that passion.
What are in your opinion the most fascinating aspects about underwater photography?
In my opinion, working photography underwater does not differ much from doing it on land. There are of course some differences, but most of them do not really affect the photographic process itself. Choosing underwater is thus a matter of personal taste. Honestly, I am not sure why I specialized in underwater. I guess it was a mixture of things, including the facts I was born by the sea, my innate love for aquatic life, and most likely too my natural inclination to discretion, silence and solitude, which drove me straight to look for answers below the surface.
You’ve worked in marine habitats as well as in freshwater ecosystems. Are there essential differences in both kinds of photography?
Main differences are leeches!. Now seriously, I found no significant difference other than some technical aspects affecting your buoyancy and some optical features. However, I admit a special attraction for freshwater environments, since there is still a lot of work to be done, and also because the destruction countdown is running even faster there.
You have a very certain style, combining documentation and aesthetic aspects perfectly. Was that from the very beginning or did you develop your personal style over the years?
It is certainly overwhelming you see a clear style on my work, since I guess I could exhaust my lifetime trying to find it. In any case, remains true trying to blend art and science is the workhorse I always keep in mind when developing ideas and carrying them out in the field. In my opinion, a nice picture is only half a picture if there is no story to tell. I´m still thinking there must be some intention in photography, other than plain fun or aesthetics.
What constitutes a perfect image in your opinion?
I think we just start approaching to that concept, when technical criteria are not enough to explain what the image communicates by itself. In our days, seems to be a tendency to overrate technical aspects to the detriment of the ideas behind the shot. It also exist a natural tendency to dissect and explain everything, but photography is the art of communicate feelings.
What is more relevant to you, a perfect single image or a story?
It depends on the context, but I am more naturally prone to storytelling. I like working a single thing from different angles, so I can get a wider, more objective, perspective on the subject. Nothing different than in other aspects of my life.
Imagine you would not have become a wildlife photographer – what else could have been your profession?
I have done many things in my life until reaching this. None of them, including the most unpleasant, have been in vain. I strongly believe is not what you do to make your living, but what you are to yourself. Going right to your question, whatever I would have done in another life, it would have been near the water.
Are there photographers who have influenced your photography?
Of course there are photographers I love, but there are also painters, singers, and an endless list of ordinary people who influence me everyday. Inspiration is a magic which hides just around every corner, and photography is nothing but the sum of all your personal life walks.
You are very committed in ecological topics and many of your projects deal with the exploitation of the marine resources. How do you estimate the power of images in terms of nature conservation?
As visual animals we are, it is out of any doubt a proper management of imagery plays a key role on conservation. In this sense, it is not the power of the images itself, but also your skills to make them visible to others. Right or wrong, in our days a successful photographer is that who can manage to put their images at the right place, on the right moment. You might argue this has nothing to do with photography, and I could agree, but the new schemes are changing the old ways. Unfortunately, I am not one of those gifted with outstanding marketing and social abilities, but I keep on trying it.
You are a wildlife photographer and naturalist as well. Would you say that your scientific knowledge is an important basis of your photographic work?
In my case, I would say it is decisive. All of my work flow from a deep reverence to nature, and in a certain sense my photography is just a sort of “collateral damage” I have found to justify my living. I spend a huge amount of time thinking on my subjects, making research, and studying the better ways to approach them in advance, all in order to enhance the features I want to remark to endow personality to the animals, and thus provoking a response on human viewers, which is my ultimate goal. This is the photography I believe in, the old style. Luck may exists, but I still haven´t found it…
Your last book – “Tanganyika – Africa’s Inland Sea” – is about the underwater wildlife of Lake Tanganyika. Was it very difficult to realize such a great project in Central Africa?
It was truly challenging to me. I started working there in 2003 after leaving my work as a commercial diver in an offshore fish farm. Then, I was virtually unemployed and I decided to invest my scarce resources on establishing as a full-time professional photographer once for all, after more than ten years as part-time worker. That was my first international trip, and I just had 1000 euro for a five-week trip working alone in a remote part of Africa. Obviously, I paid the foolishness with no minor taxes. A snake biting, a few days illegally arrested, and a severe infection on my right arm, were just a few of them, but it worths the effort…ten years later. Then, other expeditions to the lake came with different degree of success, but all of them fruitful on the maturing process needed to develop new photographic and personal challenges in the complex Africa´s heart.
Do you work on new projects at the moment?
I am right now developing a new book on that amazing lake, as well as taking part on a BBC Natural History Unit TV production at there.
At the same time, I am also trying to find support for an ambitious project on my beloved Mediterranean sea, where I have built almost all my career. And of course, my daily work on new (and old) subjects, writing stories, and living, which is quite enough to be a professional photographer today.