Opinion: Gorilla Gravestones and Human Whales

Gorilla Gravestones Whale

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Last year was a bit of a watershed for me, a time to come up for air, to reflect and re-evaluate. Amongst the more notable milestones was the anniversary of my half-century on this wonderful but crazy ball of rock; a sobering point in life, worthy of both celebration and lament in equal measure.

Whilst travels took me to North America, Iceland, Norway and Svalbard – all great adventures with stories to match – it was an event in November that finally brought clarity to a scrambled head that has remained scrambled for far too long.

I was humbled to be invited to be Guest of Honour at the Montier-en-der photo-festival in France. This annual event attracts 45,000 visitors and some of the world’s top photographers (no I’m not sure why they invited me either). One afternoon during the festival I attended a funeral, a funeral for a Mountain Gorilla. The lawned courtyard in the town centre was carpeted with 200 (mock) gravestones with a gorilla photograph adorning each one. The assembled crowd of 300-plus stood in sombre silence, anticipating what was to come. The doors at the end of the courtyard slowly opened and into the winter sunshine emerged an ornate silver casket borne by six solemn pallbearers. As the casket was laid down in front of the crowd, Montier’s mayor delivered an evocative and moving account of the dead gorilla’s life. How he had been born into a safe, secure family in a pristine forest; how he had grown amongst other gorillas; how he had matured and eventually had young of his own and finally, how he, and others of his kind, had died as the forest and all the creatures that had evolved to live there, perished at the hands of another primate, one which only thought of short-term gain.

I found myself deeply moved by this innovative enactment; not so much by the plight of the gorilla, but by the commitment of Gilles Martin, the photographer behind the event, and the courage of the local authorities to support such a contentious ‘funeral’ with all its potential for religious and cultural division. The event exposed its audience to raw emotion and this for me, is what photographers are capable of. This for me, is what more of us should be doing – pushing the boundaries, stretching our audience both philosophically and emotionally. Making a difference.

As more and more of us seem compelled to justify what is perceived as a self-indulgent pursuit by pledging to save the planet with our pictures, we’ve probably arrived at a crossroads. I find myself wondering whether ‘conservation photography’ has become something of a marketing tool, a ‘Fairtrade’ badge. Many nature photographers, myself very much included, talk the talk but do we really walk the walk? Are we prepared to stick our necks out and stage a mock gorilla funeral? Or create a Human Blue Whale with 60 naked women? Or risk our own safety in pursuit of something we care passionately about? Like Britta Jaschinski or Brent Stirton? Photography is indeed a powerful medium but only if it is mobilised.

I’ve spent the last 50 years trying, and failing, to make sense of this shrink-wrapped world. The fact is I just don’t get it. But I do get the difference between right and wrong and as John Muir so famously articulated, conservation is exactly that: a battle between right and wrong. Photography on its own isn’t enough: it’s all about engagement, communication. It’s time to walk the walk and do what’s right.

What do you think?


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Based in the Scottish Highlands, Peter Cairns is a nature photographer with 15 years professional experience. Tooth & Claw, Highland Tiger, Wild Wonders of Europe, and more recently 2020VISION, are all projects that have been an integral part of Peter’s career. He is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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