Wildlife Photographer of the Year: hiding in the shadows
Wildlife photographer Florian Smit was guided by his curiosity when he revisited the abandoned house that he used to frequent as a child.
Inspired by how nature had begun to reclaim the building, Florian set up his camera traps to see the house come alive at night.
This striking image, which was highly commended in the Urban Nature category of this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year, is made all the more dramatic by the atmosphere of its location.
German photographer Florian Smit explains how this project came about: 'There is a small, abandoned house near my parents' house, which I have known since childhood. I stopped by there a few years ago. At first just out of curiosity. I had no photo project in mind when I visited there.'
From outside the house, he could see that 'some of the windowpanes had been thrown in' and 'the front door had broken open'.
Drawn in by the spreading nature, Florian made his way inside. 'Throughout the house were the personal belongings of the former owner' he explains, 'pictures, photo albums, certificates, bottles with alcoholic beverages, letters, candles, books - all over.'
He highlights the house's palpable atmosphere with his photos which show greenery and wildlife making their way in through the broken windows.
Stealing the spotlight
After the first night, Florian's camera traps had over a thousand triggers. 'At first I was disappointed because it was "only" rats, but then the idea came to me and I wanted to use the little rodents to capture this fantastic and somehow unreal mood of the house.'
Florian recognises that rats might not be everyone's first choice for a muse. 'For many people, rats embody something evil, impure and creepy. I found the combination of these feelings with an old, abandoned house just exciting.'
Florian embraced the coincidence of the rats in 'this bizarre setting' and the result was something truly eye-catching.
A reclaimed space
Florian's series captures the gradual rewilding of a space once inhabited by humans. The presence of the rats illustrates how nature can reclaim former urban spaces.
Rats are one of the few species that have benefitted from the spread of human civilisation. Like us, they thrive in cities where there is ample food and shelter.
In heavily populated areas rats navigate underground systems such as subways and sewers - this is where they are free to roam, away from the looming existence of humans.
When thinking about the composition of the image, Florian says he was 'particularly struck by the large window in the dining area of the house. The broken glass offered great structures. So I got the idea to work with shadows and silhouettes.'
His technical skill and knowledge of the site enabled him to set up the camera traps and flashes in the perfect position.
'I set up my camera outside the house and positioned a total of three flashes' he says. 'There was a flash right next to the camera to illuminate the facade. Another flash is in the house and lights the window from the inside, casting the shadow of the rat on the window glass. The last flash is on the other side of the house and illuminates the kitchen window opposite.'
'Many images were created in this set-up' Florian explains, 'but this picture fascinated me with the "typical" rat pose. The viewer immediately realizes what kind of animal it is. It is precisely this attitude of the rat that contributes so much to the mood of the picture.'
These photos may evoke a feeling of loss, as personal possessions are left to decay among fallen leaves and inquisitive rodents. Florian adds, 'It was shocking to see how quickly the property and personal things of a human life lose their value and are forgotten.'
'But, at the same time, it was impressive how quickly nature can make its place.'
Florian's adventurous upbringing encouraged his interest in wildlife photography. 'As a child, I travelled a lot with my parents through Europe,' he says. 'We were traveling in a self-made expedition vehicle. My father took photos while traveling and, as is often the case, I wanted to be like my father.'
'He inspired me and incited me to be better than him. We always held a kind of competition for the best pictures. And so nature photography became a big part of my life early on.'
Florian's recommendations for budding wildlife photographers reflect the local and personal nature of his project:
'You don't have to travel far and take photos of the rarest animals to get a good picture.'
'At home or close to where you live, you simply have more time and can work constantly. There is no stress and time pressure that you may have when traveling abroad. You can approach the work more carefully and try yourself and photography more.'
Florian worked on his project for almost four months, checking the camera traps every day and repositioning them to get new angles and new insights.
Sadly, over the course of the project, the abandoned house was put on the market and sold, so he could no longer access the site. Florian ended up with six pictures that he felt conveyed the emotion he had wanted to capture.
Visit Florian's website to see more of his wildlife and nature photogrpahy.
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year reminds us all how precious the natural world is, and inspires action to protect it. Every year, the exhibition helps millions of people to connect to some of the world's most endangered species and habitats. It encourages each of us to be an advocate for the planet.
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