Marcus Westberg: Photographing Conservation Battlegrounds
Acclaimed photographer Marcus Westberg is an award-winning conservation and travel photographer and writer whose imagery is truly transportive.
Working mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, many of Marcus’ projects focus on documenting humanitarian issues and human-wildlife conflicts.
From working with non-profits deep in the African bush to capturing the essence of the Arctic, Marcus’ images and storytelling words have graced the pages of several leading publications.
His photos have also been recognised with multiple world-renowned photography awards.
We recently caught up with Marcus to talk about his journey in photography, trials and tribulations, storytelling, and more!
With a background in environmental science, how did you transition into a full-time photographer? Do you feel your background in the sciences helps how you capture the world around you?
An interest in the world around me certainly hasn’t been a disadvantage, though I value curiosity and critical thinking far more than any formal education.
Still, a background in environmental science did open a few doors for me early on.
Partly because that’s how I ended up in Africa, and partly because, as an unknown photographer, it seemed to reassure people in the field that I wouldn’t prioritise my work over theirs.
It also showed that I might know how to handle myself in the bush.
I made a very conscious decision to become a professional photographer rather than continue with my academic career, though it obviously required a fair bit of luck.
I started photographing during weekend hikes when I lived in Tasmania. I thought I was pretty good, which inspired me to pursue photography as a career when I moved to Kenya to conduct my thesis research.
A few years later, I went back to Tasmania to do a story for a travel magazine and looked through my old photos. I found two that were potentially useful – the rest were pretty awful.
Luckily, I didn’t realise that at the time, or I might never have given photography a proper go.
I knew the odds weren’t in my favour – this is right when I was starting out – so I approached it very pragmatically, giving myself a certain amount of time to first break even and then make a living.
I had managed to save a bit of my student loan and largely focused on minimising my costs, essentially living as a nomad for several years.
I’m still somewhat surprised that it’s worked out as well as it has, to be honest.
Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?
Not really. I was a photojournalism finalist in Wildlife Photographer of the Year back in 2015 – that is probably as close as it gets.
The truth is the moments that feel significant at the time aren’t necessarily the ones that have the biggest impact in the long run. In some ways, that’s not necessary.
What matters is to have the motivation and means to keep going for a bit longer… if that makes sense.
You might think that a magazine gig is the beginning of a new long-term career path. Maybe it will be, maybe it won’t.
Maybe it just helps you stay committed for the next few months, by which time something else will have come up.
That goes for careers, as well as life in general – you won’t know until much later which decisions and moments led you to where you end up.
For that reason, while it’s good to be committed, it also helps not to have all your proverbial eggs in one basket.
Many people think that photography can be a glamorous career. Whilst that may be true much of the time, have you ever had any difficult or frustrating moments when on a shoot?
Ah, blame Instagram for that.
Look, there are many things I would call the highlights of my career. Exciting. Interesting. Educational. Fun. I certainly feel very fortunate to get to spend time in the places that I do.
But glamorous? I’m not so sure about that.
Most assignments tend to bring at least some unpleasant moments, from broken equipment or missed flights to diseases, cuts, bruises, swarms of biting insects, or just plain discomfort.
The question is what do you do with that?
Do you let it dominate your state of mind, or accept it as something that you cannot avoid but will eventually pass, and focus on making the best out of every situation?
Over the years, I’ve been robbed and beaten up, held at gunpoint, and woken up to the sound of grenades. I’ve been sick as a dog, stranded in the middle of nowhere, interrogated by Thai police, and participated in car chases.
Not to mention the countless times when things simply haven’t worked out: bad weather, missed shots, broken equipment, and so on.
You can’t stop things from going wrong, but you can stop that from getting to you. Frustration is entirely optional. Inner balance really matters.
What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?
The challenge was, and is, to find a way to make a living as a photographer at a time when there are more photographers but considerably less money for photos than previously.
For most photographers, that means leading workshops and tours.
For me, it meant writing articles as well as photographing for them.
When I started out, and for quite a few years, I was blissfully unaware of how the industry worked or how unlikely it was that I would break through. I just did my own thing, I suppose.
You have worked a lot in Africa. What makes this continent so special to you, and do you have a favourite shoot/animal encounter from your time spent there?
I was initially drawn to Africa for its wildlife, as so many people are. That certainly remains a big part of its attraction for me, but it has become secondary to its importance as a conservation battleground.
It’s a place where a lot of important stories play out.
As someone who gets exhausted spending a single day in a city, Africa’s rural and natural areas have a huge appeal to me. I feel much the same way about northern Scandinavia.
Some years ago, I’m sure I could have rattled off a list of favourite animals to photograph.
With time, though, I’ve become more mindful of appreciating the privilege of spending time with any wild animal, from porcupines to pandas.
But okay, I’ll bite.
For me, I’d say being on foot with wildlife is key to how special the experience is.
I’m currently a big fan of the meerkats at Tswalu; I can essentially plonk myself down in the middle of a burrow system and watch them go about their business from there.
For the same reason, spending time with gorillas is always very special.
Whilst in Africa, you have captured incredible and moving images of rangers. Have you seen any changes in poaching over the years? How do you hope these images are received when people see them?
Thank you. It’s a part of my job that I really enjoy, especially in recent years when the focus has shifted away from constantly showing armed rangers in the field.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s so much more to these men and women than that one aspect of their jobs.
They are not superheroes, but ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
I like capturing them in everyday moments – working out or spending time with their families – because it’s so easy to connect with them.
Somewhat ironically, most rangers I have met love being photographed with their guns, though the family portraits tend to be popular too.
It’s very difficult to make generalised statements about poaching. There are some great success stories, particularly in isolated, remote wilderness areas where human settlements are small.
These are crucial refuges for the future of many species. They still require significant investments and compromises, but models such as the one used by African Parks have proved hugely successful.
On the other hand, in places where human pressure is high – the Greater Kruger, for example, or the Maasai Mara – the challenges are enormous.
The organized crime syndicates responsible for the illegal trade in rhino horn, ivory, and other valuable commodities are ruthless.
Just a few months ago, a South African ranger, Anton Mzimba, was gunned down in his home.
Targeted assassinations are a scary escalation in what is essentially an arms race between those trying to exploit wild animals and those trying to protect them.
As a winner and finalist of several photography competitions, how important do you think these are for up-and-coming nature photographers?/
That depends. As I mentioned, one of my first big breaks came from being a photojournalism finalist in Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
On the other hand, I received around 20 awards during the pandemic, but all the ceremonies were cancelled, and the media paid a lot less attention than they sometimes do.
I don’t know that even winning categories provided much of a career boost.
Consistency helps for recognition though, and when the ceremonies aren’t cancelled, they provide a nice opportunity to meet with fellow photographers as well as editors and other people in the industry.
What is an accessory you recommend all nature photographers take with them on a shoot?
For one thing, even if it’s your job, it’s important to essentially see potential photos as a bonus.
Don’t let your satisfaction be dependent on whether you get the shot you wanted or not.
I mean, most professional conservation or nature photographers are poorly paid with no job security, working long, and uncomfortable hours.
The one massive perk is being able to spend time in nature. I know that’s not exactly an accessory, but it’s too important to leave out.
Other than that, I’d say the only essential accessory these days is a smartphone.
You can use it to navigate or check when and where the moon will rise, record conversations and videos, find your car, take notes, or do research.
Not to mention listen to podcasts or audiobooks on long, uncomfortable trips.
You have worked on an incredible range of projects that highlight raw and urgent issues that the natural world faces today, from wildlife crimes to human-animal conflicts. How do you prepare mentally for these collaborations?
I don’t. I just try to arrive with an open mind.
It’s never nice to see suffering, of course, but very few situations are entirely without nuance and complexity.
To be honest, some of the most depressing work I have done has been documenting the clear-cutting of my native Sweden’s old-growth forests, because it’s so senseless.
Even then, you just have to focus on the thought that the images might help accomplish something positive.
In the end, you have to find a balance that you are comfortable with between your well-being and the impact you want to have.
Interviewing a survivor of multiple gang rapes and six months of being kept as a sex slave, as well as the doctors and nurses who helped her and others like her in DRC, was probably the closest I’ve come to not being able to keep it together.
But as I was not in any imminent danger myself, other than being sick with malaria, I would have no problem doing it again.
On the other hand, as much as I admire war photographers, I would not choose to become one, for my own sake as well as that of my family. It’s simply not a risk I am willing to take, regardless of how important it is.
In your opinion, what is a key element when capturing images to tell a story?
There’s so much that can be said about this.
You need to know what the story is you’re trying to tell, for one thing. That might change as you go, but you need to keep thinking about it.
For another, it helps to know who your audience is. How much can they be expected to know and understand? What’s likely to captivate them?
It’s also good to have an idea of whether you need to tell the story with only photos or using a combination of images and words, and if you need to tell the story in a single frame or ten.
That’s before we even get started with composition and subject matter.
I suppose it comes down to two questions: have you managed to communicate the story to your audience, and have you elicited the emotions you want from them?
I would add one more thing. I kept saying “you” here, but something we should try to do is honour the story that the people we work with want to tell.
It might not always align perfectly, but it helps to be somewhat on the same page, and people are more likely to feel seen and heard if you don’t arrive with the narrative already fully formed.
Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your early/amateur days, and one from your professional career. Why do you like them, what made you so proud of them, and how do you feel about the older image now?
The first image of veterinarians conducting a health check on an orphaned mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park, DR Congo, was my first real breakthrough.
It was a photojournalism finalist in Wildlife Photographer of the Year back in 2015. The woman who would one day become my wife is also in it which, in hindsight, makes it even more special.
While I would probably have handled the session itself differently today, I ended up with several images that still hold their own.
A few years later, I won the same category in European Wildlife Photographer of the Year with one of them, so all in all it was a productive couple of hours at Senkwekwe.
Not to mention how extraordinary the experience was, of course.
The second image is from last year when I was doing a job about rangers in Namibia. The aim of the project (there were four of us working in different parts of the continent) was to photograph and film rangers going about their daily duties.
We were hoping to find living rhinos, but they were being very elusive, and the guys decided to take me to the carcass of one that had been shot a few years earlier.
It’s not a perfect shot, but I like the obvious emotional connection and the sense of loss it conveys.
If you could give our audience one piece of advice to help them progress in their photography, what would it be?
Be kind and curious. Mostly because it’ll make you happier, but also because opportunities are more likely to come your way if you’re a nice person.
If you can add a solid work ethic and a bit of talent too that then you certainly won’t be at a disadvantage.
Be helpful and generous whenever you can. Be willing to learn. And learn to let things go. The disappointments, the frustration, the missed shots – learn from your mistakes but don’t hold onto them. The moment an opportunity is gone, move on.
Finally, don’t compromise on your values. Ethics truly matter. Of course, you don’t want to be judgemental, but it’s incredibly important to have a clear idea of what you’re okay with doing and what you aren’t.
Poor choices can ruin careers, but more importantly, even if nobody else finds out, you’ll still know and have to live with them.