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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Behind the Scenes

I’ve returned home from a wonderful experience in London at the fifty-fifth Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, where my Yellowstone bison photo was declared the winner of the Black and White category, and I am still trying to wrap my head around the event and what this honor means. This is probably a good time to write about the experience and process of being a WPY winner. In a separate post, I will provide additional insight about the winning photo.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Invitation

 

 

“We’re very excited to inform you…”

In case you thought the winning announcement last Tuesday came as a huge surprise… it wasn’t. Category winners are informed of their status in March (only the youth and adult grand prize winners find out with everyone else that they won on the night of the competition). So we get to sit on the news and try to keep a secret for seven months before we can finally exhale.

Back in March though? That was a shock! After reading the first couple sentences of the email from the competition organizers, my initial reaction wasn’t entirely appropriate. The first words out of my mouth were, “Oh $#&@!” I was stunned and momentarily a little upset, because I instantly realized that the awards ceremony coincided with the trip to Tonga we had been planning for a couple years.

Tonga was a bucket list item, but I had always told myself that if I ever made it into WPY I couldn’t miss the chance to attend the ceremony. You never know when you’ll first make it, and you have no idea if you’ll ever get invited back, so London was a must.

I quickly tried to figure out if there was some way I could cut the Tonga trip short and make it to London in a day, in time for the award ceremony, but that was a pipe dream. Eventually we rescheduled the Tonga trip to August and were able to fit in both experiences this year, so everything worked out. But it’s not an exaggeration to say the award notification caused at least a little initial panic.

After I sorted through that jumble of thoughts in my head, I went back and slowly re-read the email. That’s when it finally hit me that not only was I invited to WPY, but my photo had been selected as a category winner. So out of 48,000 entries, mine was one of fifteen to twenty shots that had landed their artists a chance to be named “Wildlife Photographer of the Year.” Whoa.

I immediately dismissed any chance of winning the grand prize (you’ll be able to read more on my feelings about the image itself in my next post), but without a doubt this was a massive honor. These are our Oscars, after all. So, to borrow a decidedly British term… I can admit I am chuffed to have won one.

 

Prep Work

Fast forward several months. I was still doing my best to keep the big secret. Wildlife photography competitions would come up in conversations with clients or colleagues from time to time. I had to occasionally feign disinterest or be exceedingly vague about the topic. Overall, I think I did pretty well keeping things under wraps.

Besides, there was something more important to think about: clothing! If there’s one thing most serious nature photographers shouldn’t ever have to get hung up about, it’s fashion. I have become quite adept at not looking good when I’m in the field. In most cases, my appearance is downright silly wearing a big floppy hat, bulging pouches full of gear, muddy and/or torn clothing…

Suddenly, I was facing the prospect of having to wear a (gasp!) tuxedo for the first time in twenty years, not to mention cleaning up for the many other events scheduled for awards week.

Dress clothes

Formal clothes… a wildlife photographer’s worst nightmare.

Both Jenn and I spent far too much time (and even more money… so long, prize winnings!) trying to update our wardrobe for London. It’s about the only real downside of the whole experience, from a casually-dressed photographer’s perspective.

 

London

Fittings, shopping, and packing were finally done. Off to London! After spending the last several years flying internationally—mostly on twenty to thirty hour, multi-leg itineraries—a direct eight-and-a-half hour flight from Seattle felt like a breeze.

It had been over a dozen years since we’d been in London, my favorite international city. I was looking forward to getting back, even if we’d have limited time to explore in between all of the events tied to this year’s awards. We made very few plans in advance. One show and dinner out later in the week, meeting up with a friend and past client later. That was it. And why overplan? London is a place that’s easy to explore on foot. It invites spontaneity, so there’s not much need to stress about laying out a strict schedule.

We arrived a day before the first event. That’s always a good idea in order to acclimate to the time change (though I’d quickly find out that didn’t matter with all the craziness about to unfold). A fifteen minute nap on the couch was about all I needed to plow through the first day and get to bed at a normal London hour.

Enough about our vacation. Let’s talk about the Wildlife Photographer of the Year festivities. This is a major event which goes far beyond the award ceremony. Photographers were invited to participate in a number of different activities: a welcome reception (get to know your fellow honorees), press breakfast and preview (answer questions for journalists the morning after the ceremony), private opening (chat with and answer questions for VIPs invited in early), and for some a trip to 10 Downing Street to meet some political types. Sandwiched in between all that was the main event, the awards gala.

Natural History Museum, London

WPY was advertised heavily outside the Natural History Museum.

Prior to the Meet and Greet, we generally have no idea which of our peers will be joining us (assuming everyone honors the embargo). I assumed I’d at least know a few participants by name, reputation, and from past WPY results. But it was a pleasant surprise to run into at least one photographer I knew personally. A veteran of this event, he offered hearty congratulations to the rookie before heading off to chat up more of our peers.

And that’s one of the nice (and most important) things about this week. It’s a great networking event. Sure, getting written up in the press, talking with stock agency reps, and glad-handing VIPs who may prove to be future customers or clients is necessary and useful. But I was more interested in meeting some of my peers.

Even though we’re all nature photographers, I’ve discovered that even in a relatively small community of shooters (e.g., Yellowstone-based photographers) there’s a broad spectrum of career paths, specializations, techniques, and experience levels. Imagine exploring these differences on a worldwide scale… that’s what it’s like at a major international award event.

Among my fellow honorees at WPY were filmmakers, camera trap specialists, underwater photographers, National Geographic legends, documentarians, part-timers, and hobbyists. A photographer may have taken their winning image while embedded in the rainforest or the Arctic for months, while another could have simply been on vacation. One winning photo took three years of planning and constant attempts… another was taken during a neighborhood stroll.

I spoke with photographers from Spain, Canada, France, New Zealand, China, Norway, Finland, Germany, England and elsewhere, and still wish I could have met even more in the short time we had. I gained insights into the competition from members of the judging panel, and learned more from museum staff about the massive undertaking the WPY show entails.

Immersing myself in the stories and insights from such a varied collection of artists and people behind the scenes was, by itself, enough to justify the trip across the pond.

 

Night at the Museum

Tuesday—the big day—finally rolled around, and it started early for myself and Jenn, though not by design. We had to tackle some business back home, unexpectedly, at 3:30 in the morning. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it all the way through the gala later that night on three hours’ sleep. We finally dozed off again… and awoke at 1pm!

Fortunately, that still allowed for plenty of time to get ready. I needed every minute, of course, and after a few atrocious efforts tying a bow tie for the first time, I handed that duty off to Jenn just before we stepped out the door.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year event really is magical. Initially, we were ushered through the Natural History Museum side entrance to the Jerwood Gallery. Semi-darkness, strategically placed lights, and a glorious scale replica of the moon (titled Museum of the Moon, by artist Luke Jerram) over our heads set the mood.

Museum of the Moon, by Luke Jerram

The Jerwood Gallery starts to fill on the night of the awards gala.

This initial reception gave us a chance to meet more new people. At this point I was still obeying my orders, playing coy about my status as a category winner when the topic of the awards themselves came up.

At last, we were invited into Hintze Hall for the main event. Tracking down our assigned tables, we settled in under the stained glass windows, high stone arches… and a massive suspended skeleton of a blue whale.

Natural History Museum Hintze Hall

We were served dinner during the ceremony, and I understood almost immediately that this was indeed a high class affair when the starters came out. The entire (vegetarian) menu was creative and delicious, right down to the “parsley sponge.”

There’s a lot to get through on awards night, so the schedule is strict and efficient. Renowned photographer, naturalist and television host Chris Packham was our host. He kicked things off with the Young Photographer awards. That was followed by the first half of the adult awards. I had already been warned: the Black and White category was tenth. It would be the last one presented before the break for our main dinner course.

Above our emcee’s head loomed a large projection screen, where the commended images are displayed. The excitement in the vast hall was palpable by this point and the mood was festive. Everyone is excited to see the incredible photographs about to be revealed, and all of the photographers seem to be rooting for each other (or at least keeping any critiques to themselves).

If you missed the live stream of the event, you can see it in its entirety here.

At last, my moment arrived. During a time when most of the room is tense, wondering who will win, I was tense for a different reason: the speech! I’ve never been entirely comfortable when it comes to public speaking, suffering from a bit of stage fright as a kid and still getting jitters in the few instances I’ve had to get up in front of a microphone as an adult.

The good news: I only had thirty seconds. As I said, it was a tight schedule. Earlier in the day I had pulled out the stopwatch to see what 30 seconds felt like. Much shorter than expected! This actually helped me, as it eliminated the majority of the different speech ideas I’d been thinking about since March, when I first found out I’d have to go on stage.

I managed to stumble through my speech and escape:

(If you’re wondering what I whispered to Chris Packham, I was complimenting his tie. Purple and gold, baby!)

Embed from Getty Images
And at that point the dinner break arrived. After receiving some congratulations from some of my new friends, I was whisked away for the live interview. It was similar to an interview conducted the evening before at the Welcome Reception, and I generally feel more comfortable in front of a camera than exposed on stage, so I enjoyed it. Not that I remember anything I said.

After that, I could finally relax. All pressure was off. I had no illusions about winning the big prize, so I was ready to live it up the rest of the way. As we plowed through the remaining categories, I joined the rest of the audience in murmuring (getting murmurs from the audience is one of the highlights of any photographer’s night!), whispering, analyzing and predicting winners.

Our overall winners were crowned, I chatted with one or two more people I recognized, and then it was time to leave the great hall and see our images on display. But not before an outlandish, ocean-themed dessert buffet. It was a work of art. We all took great pleasure tucking in and destroying it.

WPY dessert buffet

The remarkable edible dessert buffet.

I’ve been fortunate to see the WPY exhibit a couple times in the past, both in London and during the traveling exhibition. It’s a fantastic display, with large backlit photos shining on black walls in the dimly-lit exhibition hall. We only had short opportunities to see the commended photos on the big screen during the gala. This gave us a chance to study them in detail (and also see a slideshow of the People’s Choice candidates that just missed the cut).

Max and Jenn at WPY55

Getting ready to enter the gallery and check out the photos!

A couple years ago in Washington, DC, the Nature’s Best ceremony ran well past its allotted time, so we ended up with very little time in the gallery itself before museum personnel closed everything down and kicked us out. This time, despite the regimented schedule, the awards ran long and we got kicked out again… but I knew I’d have a couple more chances to explore the exhibit the following day.

As we were leaving, Chris Packham approached. “Bison, right?” I admitted it was mine. He leaned in and whispered that it was his favorite. A wonderful compliment, though I had to ask why he hadn’t been on the jury in that case! I thanked him, but wondered how many others he complimented similarly. Until someone sent me this clip.

Thank you, Chris.

 

Aftermath

People have mentioned that getting honored by WPY can be a career-changing experience. I can’t be sure of that yet… but everything blew up almost immediately.

First, an outpouring on social media and via email. Next, and completely unexpectedly, print orders! Where did those come from??? After having two photos up in the Smithsonian for year, I didn’t get a single print request. Suddenly they were flooding in. Some folks managed to snoop through my site and found the bison photo in my photo archive. Others were having more trouble, or were asking for custom options (if you want to order, try here or here), so I had a lot of messages to tackle.

I had to move fast, first responding to those who had ordered, and then answering the other queries as they flooded my inbox. I was totally unprepared for the onslaught, but I wasn’t going to put it off until next week. I also had to update my website to make it easier for people to find a way to order.

When we finally got into bed, our wake-up call for the media breakfast was only two hours away.

Wednesday featured two more official events, plus a midday nap, and a lot more orders and emails. It was an exhausting, exhilarating experience. I loved every moment, especially at the end of the night when I knew everything was over and I wouldn’t have to wear a tie again for a long, long time!

These return trips to the museum also afforded me a chance to chat more with judges, patrons, and “the audience,” as well as my peers. Hearing (or overhearing) the reaction to my own photo was both rewarding and educational. Not everyone liked it, a lot of people loved it more than I ever anticipated, but regardless of which side of the fence they were on, it was good to learn about the different ways people interpret a given image.

WPY media preview

Likewise, I learned more about my fellow photographers’ creations, and their careers. Several of my peers lead far more adventurous lives than I do, and their work is far more important. Many are immersed in conflict zones, addressing environmental concerns through their work, or documenting important topics like animal abuse and rescue. I like to bill a ten day jaunt in Costa Rica as an “adventure.” Three months embedded with the military while tracking illegal gold miners in the jungles of French Guiana is a real adventure!

Emmanuel Rondeau

Multiple WPY honoree and camera trap master Emmanuel Rondeau explains the secrets behind his jaguar shot, which was Commended in the Animals in Their Environment category this year.

As things wound down, the final evening wrapped up with exchanged business cards, Instagram accounts, handshakes… even some hugs. A small group of us even ended up closing a Chinese restaurant late in the evening. Sure, we were exhausted, but it was a real treat ending the WPY experience with new friends.

WPY55 group dinner

WPY55 honorees and their better halves, from left to right: Max, Jenn, Irene, Aurelie, Javier Aznar González de Rueda (Highly Commended in two categories!), and Emmanuel Rondeau (Highly Commended both last year and this year!).

So what does this all mean? A lot more work in the short term. Once the winning images hit the papers, I realized I had (again) misjudged the impact of not just placing in the competition, but winning a category. Winning images were showing up worldwide in various publications, and many of the people contacting me afterward had seen the photo online, on TV or in a newspaper. This thing is a big deal.

So I’ll ride the wave for a while. And in the meantime, I find myself filled with a new urgency, and some extra motivation. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year experience exceeded whatever I thought it might be these last several years. I find myself wanting to get back as quickly as possible!

Huge thanks to the WPY jury, NHM staff and all of the brilliant people involved with this year’s event, as well as my fellow photographers for your insights and inspiration.

View the full gallery of WPY55 winners and honored images here.

Read my thoughts about the winning photo and how it was made here.

4 Comments

  1. Reny October 21, 2019 Reply

    Great story about your trip to London and the behind the scenes info.

    Loved your speech, and what an honor that Chris Packham liked your picture best!
    It sure was obvious that you were more relaxt during the interview than during your speech. It is nice to hear your voice again.

    Once again, congrats to winning this huge award, so well deserved !

    • Author
      Max October 21, 2019 Reply

      Thank you, Reny. Hopefully I can replicate the experience soon. 🙂

  2. Laura Kvasnosky October 24, 2019 Reply

    congratulations for this recognition, Max. cant say i am surprised. way to go!

  3. Dan Carr November 1, 2019 Reply

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing the experience.

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