A photograph showing a lone polar bear walking among a field of black rocks

The Challenge was highly commended in the 2019 Animals in their Environment category.

© Françoise Gervais

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: a call for action

As the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition retires its Earth's Environments, Creative Visions and Black and White categories, Competition Manager Gemma Ward shares what's new for this year. 

Three new categories have been introduced for Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Natural Artistry, Wetlands – The Bigger Picture and Oceans – The Bigger Picture. It is hoped that they will create a call for action for the competition and shine a light on some of the world's most vital ecosystems.

Inspired by new strategies from both the Museum and the competition, Gemma believes that these new categories will help to 'engage the public with climate issues and also attract the images that are telling these important stories and which have a strong message'.

'We have also simplified the titles of the Wildlife Photojournalism and Wildlife Photojournalist Story Award categories to Photojournalism, to make it clear that the coverage is environmental in the broadest sense and not restricted to wildlife conservation and welfare issues' Gemma explained.

'There are so many crucial stories to be told and there's more and more of these images being awarded.'

The beauty of nature

This desire to advance environmental advocacy within the competition also informed the creation of a new category called Natural Artistry. When considering the now-retired Creative Visions category, Gemma asked herself, 'How do the images in this category create advocates for the planet?

A photograph of white sand dunes in Brazil

The Sand Canvas won the 2016 Creative Visions category.

© Rudi Sebastian

'We needed to have a category that would capture those simply beautiful images that don't fit into other categories. Not every image has to have a narrative. There are some that just illustrate the sheer beauty of nature, that are incredibly emotive and would create advocates for the planet through people falling in love with nature and just seeing the beauty of it,' she explains.

'Hopefully, this revamp will attract more of those pictures, which don't necessarily need to be abstract but an imaginative way of seeing nature.' 

Though the Black and White category has been retired, black and white images are allowed in all the categories.

Ecosystems in focus

Following the Museum's declaration of a planetary emergency in January 2020, Gemma wanted to expand on how the competition engages the public in climate issues.

'My initial thought was to have a climate change category,' she says, 'but then when I did some research, I found that actually it's a very hard topic to photograph. There are very few photographers actually shooting climate change and we could potentially just have a category of flooding, droughts and fires.

'They're important pictures and we have our photojournalism category for them, but really I felt like what we needed to do was to delve deeper and this is where the focus on Oceans and Wetlands, as new categories for the competition, has come from. 

A photograph taken underwater showing a seahorse clinging to a plastic cotton bud.

Sewage surfer was a finalist in the 2017 Wildlife Photojournalism category.

© Justin Hofman

'These ecosystems are in need of a critical call for action for their protection' Gemma says, 'because both are seriously under threat, and Wetlands are disappearing pretty quickly, and so hopefully this will shine a spotlight on them and bring more awareness to their vital role in tackling climate change.

'I think a lot of people don't know much about them and the importance of them, this is where the competition and the photographers work together.

It is this ability of the competition, to inspire learning, that Gemma loves so much. 'For me personally, I love Wildlife Photographer of the Year because I learn new species and new behaviours every year that I never knew of and that fascinates me.

'Photography is the best communication tool to do this. The photographers themselves are remarkable people, from all around the world, who report on the natural world - I bow to and salute them all.'

It is also hoped that these new categories will make the competition more accessible and open it up to more photographers. Unlike the existing Underwater category, which gets stronger and stronger each year, images for the new Oceans - The Bigger Picture category can be taken above or below the water, 'so it's not just for underwater photographers at all,' Gemma says.

A new perspective

As Wildlife Photographer of the Year looks towards its fifty-seventh year, Gemma considers the growing popularity of conservation images among the public. She says, 'What's interesting is that the exhibition visitors are loving the wildlife photojournalism categories, so hopefully these new categories will fall into their hands as well because they obviously appreciate these important stories and this will provide more of that in the exhibition.'

A photo of a group of elephants walking through the remains of a jungle.

Palm-oil survivors won the 2017 Wildlife Photojournalism category.

© Aaron ‘Bertie’ Gekoski

Outside of the exhibition, conservation and photojournalism have also shone through in the People's Choice Awards. Gemma explains, 'For the last few years it's the conservation images, voted for by the public, that have made the top five, and 10 years ago it would have always been the cute and cuddly or the pretty portraits, and so there is a real shift in the public's perception and interest in conservation photography.'

This shift has been felt within the photography community as well. 'A lot of wildlife photographers have felt that they wanted to do more storytelling pictures and that's how a lot of conservation photographers have come about,' Gemma adds.

With the natural world in crisis and ecosystems across the world facing destruction, it has never been more important to create advocates for the planet. Wildlife photographers are an important piece of that puzzle.