You have to see it to believe it. If any cliché phrases could be applied to the smartphone generation, you have to see it to believe it has to be a contender. Without photographic evidence, it is difficult to prove to friends that you did what you say you did. If it’s not on Instagram, then why did you bother going to the Bahamas in the first place? Of course, the phrase doesn’t exactly mean that, instead it is more of a magician’s line, preparing the audience for feats that would otherwise be unbelievable. However, that is part of the job of a photograph, too, especially photography that has a message at its core. You have to see this to believe it, the photographer says, whether or not their image succeeds in its mission. An example: the shots coming from those affected by Hurricane Irma are the quickest and most shocking method of telling the world of the storm’s assault. While the majority of people are understandably sympathetic, some still refuse to leave the cosy little camp of climate change deniers.
Given the state of the climate, any photography focused on the natural world is, by its very nature, brought to us with implications; of the damage done to natural habitats, done to the population of sealife and exotic mammals. The Wildlife Photography Competition, run each year by the Natural History Museum, has reached a shortlist of entries and, due to their subject matter, they all present us with new angles of the modern natural world. Even those not directly concerned with human damage are reminders of what forms of life our influence affects. Like news of war in a far-off country, the degradation of the Amazon rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef are very easily distanced from our daily lives. Photographs like those shortlisted are antidotes to this ease of ignorance, or at least attempts at a cure. Either way, as Hurricane Irma has demonstrated, they will start a conversation.
In one of the shortlisted photographs, a young tiger recovers from having to have an injured leg amputated. In another, a mottled seahorse glides through water with the help of a discarded cotton bud. These two are arguably from which the winner should be selected. Though the other finalists have produced exceptional shots, those by Justin Hofman and Steve Winter hold a poignance that forces you to stop and look, to register what it is you’re seeing. Other competitors might have submitted more technically impressive shots, but they feel as if you’ve seen them somewhere before, the standard bulk of images that are found throughout competitions each year. Hofman’s underwater picture is titled ‘Sewage Surfer’, and it feels a strange juxtaposition to couple such a title with a creature like the seahorse. Which is why it should win. You have to see it to believe it.