Lionesses at twilight, Chobe National Park, Botswana 1989.

Credit: Frans Lanting

Frans Lanting: a remarkable career looking nature in the eye

After 54 years as the home of nature photography, Wildlife Photographer of the Year recently honoured master photographer, Frans Lanting, with the competition's inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

Frans, the 1991 grand title winner, was recognised for his outstanding contribution to wildlife conservation over more than three decades.

Presenting the award at the Museum in October 2018, acclaimed photo editor Ruth Eichhorn described Frans as, 'an exceptional artist, and without any doubt a master - the man who gave us visual proof that animals are all very different individuals, who should be respected and recognized as such.'

Giant tortoises in pond, Alcedo Volcano, Galapagos Islands 1984.

Credit: Frans Lanting

It is this characteristic empathy, his groundbreaking eye-level perspective and unique ability to capture the inner-life of his subjects that has won Frans so many accolades in his extraordinary career.

He says, 'It's a wonderful honour to be recognised in front of so many peers, colleagues and friends, not to mention all these brilliant young photographers. It's quite special.'

Finding focus

Frans started taking photographs in his student days.

He says, 'I started doing wildlife photography as a hobby initially.

'I was studying to become an economist and I would sneak away to a nearby city park next to the university, and I would lose myself in the patterns of nature.

Water lilies, Okavango Delta, Botswana 1989. 

Credit: Frans Lanting 

'I had no idea that it would lead to a career. In those days there were very few role models.

'Wildlife photography is a wonderful way to become engaged in the world of nature. For me personally, it became an alibi to seek out things in nature. Having a camera and the challenge to produce images to capture a semblance of your own imagination is a wonderful thing to do.'

A world of empathy

From these origins, Frans's work has gone on to appear in numerous books, magazines and exhibitions across the world. He has shaped the direction of nature photography both as an art form and a tool for conservation.

Reflecting on his success, Frans says, 'To be effective as a photographer, you have to be able to lose yourself and become one with the subject that you are photographing.

'You have to be empathetic and be able to identify yourself with other creatures, no matter very small or very large.'

African elephants at twilight, Chobe National Park, Botswana 1989. 

Credit: Frans Lanting

'Empathy is central to being able to recognise the sentient beings for who they are – for their connection to us and our connection to them – it is a bridge over which we can all travel.

This deep connection is what renders Frans's work as a powerful tool for conservation.

He says, 'It was only after I moved to the United States that I connected with some of the great photographers established there, who were recognised not just as natural historians but as photographers in their own right, people like Ansel Adams and Philip Hyde.

'They partnered with activists who used photography as a way to achieve certain environmental and political goals.

'Photography was put on a platform, appreciated as works of art, and at the same time used as leverage for achieving campaign goals.'

Speaking of Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Frans reflects on the opportunity the competition has to continue to be a force for change when it comes to environmental issues. He says, 'The competition has become so diverse - there are so many different categories. But for me personally, it is very important that photographers are engaged with the world beyond their viewfinders and I feel that the competition still has opportunities to go further along that path.'

A Wildlife Photographer of the Year great

Having won Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 1991 with a portfolio of ten images, Frans is well placed to comment on how the competition has developed over recent decades.

He says, 'This competition has come such a long way and it really is a barometer of the growth in the world of photography, not just wildlife photography.'

'I think every one of the 100 images this year deserves to be congratulated. But the winner by Marsel van Oosten is a portrait that I wish I could have made myself. It applies very sophisticated lighting and turns the forest into a theatre. Everything is so well balanced - it's a magnificent portrait. Let's hope that that image helps with the recognition that those primates deserve in China.'

'What is quite astonishing to me is to see how in the last five years the emphasis of the competition has shifted from photographers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and a handful of other countries, and is now truly global.

Chimpanzee male at waterhole, Fongoli, Senegal 2007. 

Credit: Frans Lanting 

'It is very gratifying to see amazing images by people who are not well-recognised photographers.

'We're seeing more women and many more young photographers, so I think there's a vibrant future for this competition.

'I think we need to find ways to connect the passion of the photographers and engage them with the audiences who are really hungry to know more about what is going on, and find ways in which we can stimulate people to actually become part of the solution.'

Embracing a project

When asked what advice he has for budding wildlife photographers, Frans pointed to the wonderful diversity in species in contemporary wildlife photography.

He says, 'I'm very fond of the images of salamanders and frogs that are represented this year's competition, because that was a forgotten niche in the animal kingdom.'

'The big lesson to be learnt when you walk past the wonderful images is that you have to embrace a project, ideally something that is close to home or in a location that you can get back to time and again. 

Asiatic cheetah caught by camera trap, Naybandan Wildlife Reserve, Iran 2011. 

Credit: Frans Lanting 

'A mistake that many photographers make when they're starting out is to try and emulate what other photographers have done.

'The secret is in finding something that you can truly make your own, and the smaller the better I would say. The big magnificent landscapes and the large animals have been photographed so often that it's very difficult to come up with a new perspective.

'There are so many corners in the world of nature that have not yet received the attention of someone who is really passionate and imaginative yet. Every year we're seeing more examples of that, so I'm looking forward to next year.'

Visit Wildlife Photographer of the Year

A showcase of Frans Lanting's timeless photography features in this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

The exhibition is open at the Natural History Museum until 30 June. Book tickets now.