Co-founder of Photographers Against Wildlife Crime™, Keith Wilson, on the power of photography and the fight against illegal wildlife crime.
In 2015, I met Britta Jaschinski at the opening of a big cat charity photo exhibition at a London art gallery. As well as Britta, many other UK-based wildlife photographers were in attendance, each with a photograph for sale for the fund-raising event. Britta looked around the premises and expressed surprise that wild animal pelts adorned some of the gallery furnishings, including a zebra skin rug that we both inadvertently found ourselves standing on as the speeches commenced. The irony was not lost on us that a fund-raising event for an endangered big cat was taking place in a room partially decorated with wildlife products.
Looking back now on that first meeting, it perhaps seems fated that we were to begin a working relationship that has seen us embark on publishing a new book and accompanying exhibition, designed to use the power of photography to raise global awareness about the illegal wildlife trade. The project officially launched on October 16 last year with an extensive gallery of images in The Guardian online. The pictures were taken by some of the world’s most committed wildlife photographers and photojournalists, enlisted by Britta and I, to highlight the deadly reality of animal abuse, poaching and trafficking. The picture selection also included poignant studies of the heroes on the ground trying to rescue and rehabilitate the survivors of this horrific trade. We decided to call ourselves Photographers Against Wildlife Crime™, which is also the title of the new book.
These are no ordinary photographers: each has extensive experience of recording the harsh and upsetting realities of the illegal wildlife trade. Some, like Karl Ammann, have been doing so, often alone, for more than 30 years; others, such as Canada’s Jo-Anne McArthur, have created their own NGOs to expose the abuse of both farm animals and wild species. We were joined by overall Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners past and present: Brent Stirton, Michael Nichols, Steve Winter, Daniel Beltrá and Jim Brandenburg. Between them, they have taken some of the most graphic images of deforestation, rhino and ivory poaching, tiger and trophy hunting ever seen.
Adrian Steirn was an immediate inclusion once we saw his powerful and beautifully composed images of Zimbabwe’s ‘Pangolin Men’, a team of dedicated field workers tasked with rehabilitating these endearing scaly anteaters rescued from poachers. It was one of these images, all taken with a Leica S, that became the cover of the book, one of our earliest picture editing decisions. The significance of the pangolin taking such a prominent position is best explained by Adrian: “Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal on our planet, yet most people have never heard of them, let alone seen a picture of one,” he says. “I wanted to take portraits using a creative direction that would be impactful enough to command attention and to influence people so they would take the time to know what pangolins are and to learn how dire their plight has become.”
The other Photographers Against Wildlife Crime™ are no less astounding in their dedication, knowledge and proficiency: multi award-winners Brian Skerry, Bruno D’Amicis, Charlie Hamilton James, Chris Packham, Klaus Nigge, Neil Aldridge, Ole Jørgen Liodden, Patrick Brown, Paul Hilton, Olly & Suzi, Tony Wu, Adam Oswell, Sudhir Shivaram, Peter Chadwick and China’s Zheng Xiaoqun, have covered everything from shark finning to the hunting of polar bears; the trafficking of gorillas to restaurant tables and fennec foxes to pet shops. Many of these species are being hunted, trapped and snared to the brink of extinction in an illegal global trade worth more than $20 billion a year.
The impact of this trade on the environment is best summed up by Brent Stirton, whose controversial image of a rhino killed by poachers was awarded the overall prize in the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest. He says: “What I’m seeing is absolute decimation of environmental spaces and species like never before. Most of the world doesn’t really understand what’s going on with its own planet.”
And then there is Britta Jaschinski herself: for more than 20 years she has worked tirelessly, sometimes undercover, exposing the ill treatment of wildlife in captivity and more recently documenting some of the grisly collection of 1.3 million wildlife products confiscated at borders and airports by authorities in the United States.
Within the 184 pages of this book, are a series of photo stories designed to convey the true scale of the illegal wildlife trade in a concise and impactful way to whoever thumbs through its pages. As co-photo editor with Britta, as well as the main writer, one of my key responsibilities was to ensure that the text provided both an accurate assessment of each issue and a direct link to the photographs chosen to tell the stories. For this reason, quoting the photographers about the subject of their images was a vital inclusion. In addition, the contributions by such esteemed journalists and experts as Sharon Guynup and Jill Robinson enhanced the integrity of the overall story.
Of course, using photography to publicise the plight of endangered species is not a new undertaking. Some books are published specifically to raise money for conservation projects devoted to the protection of certain species, such as elephants and rhinos. These books feature positive and reassuring images of the lives of wild animals in environments seemingly devoid of human threat. Photographers Against Wildlife Crime™ however is a very different book, both in terms of its purpose and the choice of images. Covering such a deadly and ruthless trade means having to examine hundreds of graphic, heart-breaking images and choosing those which best present the reality of the story. It is not a comfortable reality but as Britta says: “We know that photography can be a powerful tool. By joining forces, we have a unique collection of the most beautiful, sometimes hard-hitting, but always inspiring images.”
But how can a hard-hitting and graphic image be also beautiful and capable of inspiring the viewer to act, rather than turn the page, or worse, close the book all together? The simple answer is that Britta and I have had to rely on our own professional instinct and experience to achieve a balance that holds the viewer’s attention no matter what the emotional impact. The photographs are a mix of the downright shocking (for example, Paul Hilton’s shot of 4000 dead pangolins defrosting after their seizure from a shipping container) and the truly uplifting – I defy anyone not to feel pure joy at the sight of Jo-Anne McArthur’s photo of a gorilla in the hands of her smiling guardian, as they move to a new sanctuary in Cameroon.
While Paul’s photo cannot be overlooked for the enormity of the atrocity it exposes, it is Jo’s moment of positivity that backs up Brent Stirton’s statement of hope in our publicity video: “It’s still solvable,” he says. “You know, the amazing thing with the environment is that it is the greatest unifier on the planet. Whatever happens to the planet affects us all.” Interestingly, Brent may have won wildlife photography’s ultimate prize last year with a stark, flash-lit image of a dead rhino butchered for its horn, but he is also the author of one of the most heart-warming and sensitive photos in the book: a young volunteer from the NGO Care for Wild Africa, wraps her body around an orphaned and wounded rhino calf like a mother would comfort her child. This image is an unabashed tear jerker, it’s inclusion guaranteed.
Editing a photo book is never easy when you have three or even four times as many images as you need, all of them powerful, beautiful and moving. But given the calibre of the contributing photographers and the insight they provide through their images of one of the world’s most shameful practices, I expected nothing less. From an editor’s perspective, I am particularly excited by the prospect that this book will bring together the images of a collective of photographers, who until now have spent decades as lone (and often lonely) voices in their efforts to bring the horrors of the illegal wildlife trade to the world’s attention. Unique is a much over-used word, but in this case it holds true: Photographers Against Wildlife Crime™ is unique because never before has the illegal wildlife trade been brought into sharp focus across so many subject areas by a group of photographers dedicated to this task.
With the English language edition now printed and ready for launch, our hope is to produce a second bilingual edition in Mandarin and English for the Chinese market. As most people know, China is the largest consumer of wildlife products, but the fact is we are all culpable. Europe, the UK and North America are also massive consumers of illegal wildlife products – how else do 1.3 million such products end up in a warehouse in Colorado, confiscated at borders and airports by the US Fish and Wildlife Service? Britta has the pictures to prove it, some of which are in the book. It is only fitting therefore that the photographer herself, who was last year named European Wildlife Photographer of the Year for one of those photographs, should have the last word: “Our images are the proof that photography matters. Without photography, the world’s conscience will wither.”
We are most grateful that Leica Camera UK is generously hosting and sponsoring our book launch and corresponding exhibition, featuring 30 prints.
The exhibition, is running from May 14 to June 7, at the Leica Studio Mayfair, 27 Bruton Place, London W1J 6NQ
Photographers Against Wildlife Crime™ will officially launch on the 18th of May, 2018. Price £40. Find out more: www.photographersagainstwildlifecrime.com
Photographers Against Wildlife Crime™ are:
Adam Oswell • Adrian Steirn • Brent Stirton • Brian Skerry • Britta Jaschinski • Bruno D’Amicis • Charlie Hamilton James • Chris Packham • Daniel Beltra • Jim Brandenburg • Jo-Anne McArthur • Karl Ammann • Klaus Nigge • Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols • Neil Aldridge • Ole J Liodden • Olly & Suzi • Patrick Brown • Paul Hilton • Peter Chadwick • Steve Winter • Sudhir Shivaram • Tony Wu • Zheng Xiaoqun • Writer: Keith Wilson