Wildlife Photographer of the Year
This year I had the honor of finally following in Mary's footsteps in garnering a First Place finish in the world's premiere and most important nature photography competition. In 1994 Mary actually won two first place awards, in Bird Behavior and in Endangered Species, and we traveled to London for the awards ceremony. Her bird shot was a full-frame image of two great egrets fighting while in flight, shot with a manual focus 300mm lens. Her endangered species shot was of a tiger in India that, sadly, was poached just a year later, and her image, of the tiger walking off along a vehicle track, seemed tragically prophetic.
Since that time, Mary and I have had a total of at least 10 other images in the competition, with a few Runner-Ups and several commended (basically third place) images, and with this year's win we now have a total of 13 (maybe 14). I suspect that we have won more places in this competition than any other husband/wife team, an accomplishment that we're quite proud of, even if that seems a brag ... but it is a fact.
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As one of the first place winners I was in contention for the most treasured prize in wildlife photography, the top prize of Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Thirteen other photographers, all winners in their respective categories, were also in contention (as was Mary, previously), but the winner isn't announced until the evening of the contest.
There is nothing like this award ceremony in the nature/wildlife world, as it is truly the natural history world's version of the Academy Awards. This was the third time I've made the awards; the first, as Mary's guest and chief supporter, and later as a second place finisher, but since my last visit the ceremony has changed dramatically.
A huge video screen broadcasted the speeches of the two presenters, the same screen projected all of the images while we had dinner, and the winning images as the awards were announced. The ceremony and the awards took place in the main hall, in the shadow of the Museum's largest dinosaur skeleton, a Brontosaurus (old name), with a wall of faint blue lights mimicking the night sky, while a fog machine puffed a cloud-like atmosphere against the ceiling lights. It was truly a spectacular visual, and no doubt added to the tension of those in contention for the top prize.
The affair was 'black tie optional' and perhaps 30% of the participants actually wore tuxes. I was glad I actually wore a suit, one of only three times I've had occasion to do so in the last year, and the only other time was when Mary won in 1992. It was somewhat amusing to see some of the photographers I've known in the field now dressed up, and looking pretty sharp, and not in their usual field duds.
Honestly, I didn't think I had a chance of winning, as my jaguar image was a straight nature documentary shot, and was really a lucky capture of an unexpected event. As the other images were projected my suspicion was confirmed as there were some truly inspiring images, and as I looked at these entries I picked three or four as worthy of the top prize. I would not have wanted to be in the position of having to choose the top image -- each offered its own special quality, representing planning, time, luck, and photo skill in various combinations.
Nonetheless, it was a contest, and you never know exactly what the judges were looking for, so there's always the chance, and that generates a bit of nervousness.
I wasn't disappointed when my name wasn't announced as the winner ... well, not too much. With 49,000 entries from 90 countries this year it was an honor to win anything, and a lot of fun attending the event.
Meanwhile, Mary was leading our photo safari in Kenya! Fortunately, all of the participants have traveled with us before and were quite supportive of my going to the awards, but it did feel weird leaving the safari, and I certainly would rather be photographing in Kenya than walking around in London!
Some of the winning images can be seen at the BBC web site, a portfolio of inspiring shots that, of course, includes the winning shot. I was especially impressed by the kids who had won or placed in the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. I'd had the bias that these kids may have just had the opportunity to travel to exotic locations and shoot impressive images using mom or dad's expensive gear. Perhaps that's been the case occasionally in the past, but not this year, to be sure! It was really fun talking with these photographers, some of whom did shoot side-by-side with their fathers, but spending hours in blinds and catching shots with young reflexes that their fathers missed. Writing about this now, I feel humbled, and I hope you check out the shots to see what I mean.
Ironically, in 2009 I finished second in Animal Portraits, with the first place shot in that category winning the over-all title. Later, that image was disqualified, but my second place shot didn't become a first, nor did one of the other first place shots get awarded the coveted prize. The title simply was not given out that year, which was a disappointment for everyone involved. That disqualification was quite a scandal, and resulted in a lifetime ban from this competition for the photographer.