The Scottish photographer Niall Benvie has worked as a photographer and writer for 20 years. He has a special interest in the nature/culture dynamic, something his images immediately show. I had a chance to interview him recently about his work and projects.
Niall Benvie was a speaker at the recent WildPhotos 2013, presenting the Meet Your Neighbours model. But the photographer's name is associated with multiple projects around the world, from Wild Wonders of Europe or the International League of Conservation Photographers to 2020VISION. In this interview, we cover his photography, the future projects and also his passion for working with other photographers.
Q When did you first pick up a camera? What first attracted you to photography?
I bought my first SLR camera when I was 13, in about 1978. I was becoming really interested in wild plants at that time. I wanted to create a record of the species I found.
Q At what point in your career did you decide to become a full time photographer?
After an earlier career, ages 18–25, running our family’s small fruit farm, I went to University to read geography and contemporary European studies. All the time though, I was making contact with magazines and established wildlife photographers to get an idea of what it would take to become a professional. I founded the Scottish Nature Photography Fair in my second year at University. The first one took place in 1991 and it is still running, under new management, today.
Q Which photographers have influenced you? And outside of photography, are there areas from which you take inspiration?
Laurie Campbell, John Shaw and Tom Mangelsen were the main influences at the start of my career. Latterly, I have drawn inspiration and comfort from the work of, amongst others, Pål Hermansen, Vincent Munier, Natalie Fobes, David Liittschwager, Susan Middleton, James Balog and Jan Töve. Orion Magazine is the single most important source of ideas and stimulation.
Q You were a speaker at WildPhotos 2013. How does it feel to see that your efforts, together with Clay Bolt, have attracted such an interest in the Meet Your Neighbours project?
It feels, after four years, that the project is just beginning to get going. I am delighted that so many photographers can be part of the initiative and create their own local projects.
I have to say that there was no grand plan. It was just two guys shooting pictures on white backgrounds that needed a context to make sense of the work. We found it in shifting the spotlight to species people can go and see rather than the remote and isolated. People need to feel connected to what’s on their own doorstep before there is any hope of becoming concerned about bigger environmental issues.
Q What are your expectations and aims for the near future regarding the Meet Your Neighbours project?
There is everything to do. We want to amass the biggest collection of overlooked creatures and plants from around the world. We would like to see the MYN approach regarded as the standard one for recording biodiversity and used on many more expeditions, involving MYN photographers.
We would like to find a commercial partner who supports public exhibits of the work. Personally, I would like to get our menu stand exhibit into an Ikea store: the Edinburgh one attracts 100,000 people every week. That is a big audience.
Q Your name appears as a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), and a founding Director of Wild Wonders of Europe along with other initiatives, as the 2020VISION. How important is it that photographers get together under multiple banners?
These banners simply represent the projects I’ve been part of that have reflected my passions at different times. But more generally, I hate working by myself now. There is no creative feedback, and I believe that a dedicated group of like-minded creative people can achieve a lot more than individuals struggling away alone.
Q You've written a number of book. Recently though, you've written the eBook, The Field Studio: How to Photograph Nature on a Perfect White Background. What is it that moves you to write books? Are they the best way to teach people photography? Do you have any new book/ebook planned?
I won’t produce any more “how-to” books in printed form. Their usefulness has been superseded by eBooks. I would still love to produce, one day, a book that is an object of beauty in its own right. It is more tangible, more enduring than an eBook. But I want to produce beautiful eBooks too. I will start work on the next one that challenges traditional notions of nature photography early in the New Year. I love having written a book, although I’m not so in love with the process of writing them.
Q You're a nature and wildlife photographer, but some of your work is not the "common" nature and wildlife photography. You've created photos with signs exploring environmental themes, and suggest that panoramas no longer need to have straight edges. You also seem to be very keen on exploring patterns. Although, you seem to approach all of it with very specific ideas. Can you explain how you do it and what, exactly, you want to tell the world?
In short, while most photographers photograph what’s in front of their eyes, I am more interested in photographing what’s on my mind. I have a big problem with the lack of respect with which we treat the non-human world. We should be better than that. We have the capacity for restraint that few other animals have, yet we seldom exercise it.
We tell our children to hold back, but as adults, all those good human values go out the window. Ultimately, conservation is an ethical practice. We don’t know for sure what the best thing for the planet or ourselves is in the long run, but we need to set down some markers and stick to them.
For me, a planet with less, rather than more diversity is negative. I also hate when people don’t think for themselves and allow themselves to be defined by what they consume. That’s not very human either, and I have no hesitation in poking fun at it and challenging the easy way to think and act.
Q You come from film times, but have embraced digital technology from very early on. How far do you think a nature photographer can go in terms of post-production?
It can go as near or as far as required to clarify the viewer’s understand of the image or to make it easier for them to “read.” That’s why I actually put words in some of the photographs. Photography is about feeling as well as seeing and if some particular process can be used to evoke the desired feeling by the viewer, then I will use it.
Q In terms of gear, what can usually be found in your bag?
I don’t use top of the range cameras any more. They are too expensive and replaced by the maker too often. Instead, I normally use a Nikon D700 with a 16–35mm, a 24-70 mm, a 70–210mm, a 500mm, a 1.4x converter, and a 150mm macro. I often have a second bag with Elinchrom RQ flashes and large softboxes. I recently bought a GPS for the D700 and add value to client’s images by embedding GPS metadata.
Q New photographers and readers always want to know the secret of success, or at least, how to move from the amateur field into the working photographer area. Is there a shortcut to achieve the status or is it a long winding road? Any tips for those wanting to try it?
First and most importantly: find a context for your pictures. Most of the good photography being produced is like the noise at a party with lots of interesting people. You hear only random, interesting words – the good photographs – but alone they mean nothing.
The photographer’s job is to form sentences, to give a context to their pictures, so that they can be heard above the din. The photographs as a set become about something. They acquire meaning.
The human appetite for stories is as old as our own history. Practise your skill at finding and telling stories and you will be ahead of the crowd. And make sure they are stories that resonate with people.
Q What are your projects for the future? Is there a specific direction you want to take your photography?
For the last eight years, the projects I have been involved with have all been about ideas rather than specific issues. I want to stick with MYN, but I also want to find an important story (something on the scale of the tar sands tragedy in Canada) to collaborate on with some colleagues.
Oh, and I want, somehow, to continue earning enough money each month to support my family. That remains first priority and isn’t always very easy these days.