January 23, 2007

Keeping Wildlife Coverage Wild, Engaging

John Whitfield has written a post over at El Gentraso critiquing the latest Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit in the Natural History Museum in London, asking and answering:

Does, and can, wildlife photography develop and change — like, say, portrait photography does. Obviously equipment gets better, but do the genre's aesthetics develop? Not much, would be my suspicion. There seems to be a very narrow version of what's beautiful and impressive about wildlife, that doesn't have a place for anything scary, or horrific (does anyone photograph parasitoids eating their way out of caterpillars?), or strange.

It is to be expected, in a sense. It seems that the museum's curators believe that the general public does not want to see nature red in tooth and claw - penetration of all sorts, generally, consumption - even though those images would be more striking than any other. It doesn't help that companies like Shell sponsor these displays, and have a bad enough image as it is.

In essence, everyone wants to play nice in the sandbox - the photographer caters to the contest, the museum caters to the sponsor and to the public to ensure continued support.

I visited the National Museum of Natural History in DC a couple weeks ago, and saw a similar (if not identical) exhibit, displaying the same types of images of the wild - silhouettes of giraffes against fluid sunsets, tottering penguins, big cats, flowers, etc. Though the images were beautiful, they were tame. My time was much better spent in the fossil halls, contemplating the ancient plains of North America.

But this is the acceptable state of nature coverage. Conservationists strive to present a socially palatable image of wild animals to the public, but in doing so, sometimes slip into insipidity, presenting an image of themselves instead as a sappy, new agey moron.

Animal Planet is one of the biggest culprits. Ninety-nine percent of the programming is horribly produced garbage, especially the shows made in the US. I hate being so critical because the intent of these shows is genuine, but the execution is another matter. The opportunity to engage the public in a very real way is wasted. It doesn't have to be a climate change/pollution/habitat loss sobfest either.

Their approach is too heavy-handed, treating the viewer as a student instead of a colleague or friend. Good nature programming requires a light touch from a knowledgeable presenter, one who has the ability to unfold information as in a story, to emphasize discovery and inspire wonder, to ask simple but intelligent questions and showing the audience the answer. It's like slowly unlocking door after door for the participant, the stuff of fiction writing.

Attenborough's "Life" series (which I have been watching for the third (?) time) is the epitome, as is most PBS programming, like Nature and Nova. They instruct, not insult, with a careful hand and an aversion to pseudo-hip MTVism (with the exception of the silly string theory CGI-fest Elegant Universe).

I don't think nature has to be made fun; it is fantastic on its own. But it takes the right stuff to get the point across effectively and appeal to everyone, and that takes finding the right host. In the meantime, I'll be waiting for Animal Planet to step up to the plate.

Don't get me started on the Discovery Channel.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting points! I do disagree with your evaluation of Animal Planet, however. I personally know quite a few kids who have gotten really interested in animals, conservation, zoology, etc. as a direct result of watching Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin. So I think in that sense, getting the next generation interested in the natural world and protecting animals (even animals traditionally considered "icky") their approach works. If those fluffy shows work as a bridge to getting kids to actually study biology, I think that's great. And I admit I enjoy Jeff Corwin's show even though it's mostly eye candy. :-)

    I also sort of understand the trend towards "pretty" nature photography. I guess that approach may be the best to get the general public, who are generally totally disconnected from the natural world, to care at all about protecting endangered species. Although it really annoys me when grizzly bears and other predators are portrayed as "cute and cuddly" (the worst example of that recently was the movie "Grizzly Man". Ug.).