My beliefs are so fundamental to my photography that I feel a few words are necessary.
To begin with photography
I only photograph the things that I know, care for and love: the Welsh countryside and coast, its wildlife and culture. My life revolves around doing as much as I can to protect and conserve the wildlife and landscapes of Wales and trying to capture something of that elusive spirit of place in my photographs. I share these images in the hope that they may inspire others to appreciate the wonder and value of nature.
Like most people who pick up a camera, most of my photographs are no more than a basic record, where all that really matters is the accuracy of depiction, without any interpretation. But this is not what really interests me: I want to create images with an intrinsic value that enhances and transcends the subject of the photograph.
As the language of expression, technical skills are essential but, used in isolation, they can create a colourless monologue. It is only by learning enough to set aside the mechanics of photography and gaining the confidence to ignore convention that we can develop a personal language and achieve something approaching creativity. The danger, of course, with anything so subjective, is that we create only illusions with no-one to admire them but ourselves.
I have always felt the need to make things, whether it is images, sculpture, furniture or wood turning. Though I always longed, most of all, to create images, I never quite succeeded until I discovered photography. As a teenager, I played around with a Russian Zenith E camera and black and white film, but without access to a decent darkroom this became rather frustrating. I discovered 35mm transparencies and developed some skill in taking wildlife, and particularly seabird, photographs. At the time I lived on Skomer Island, the most wonderful seabird sanctuary in Wales, and so there was plenty of opportunity to take the sort of photographs that eluded many other photographers.
When we left the island, my wife gave me a book of Japanese landscapes. These so inspired me that I turned to landscape photography - mainly the coast, woodlands and mountains of Wales - but after a while I tired of relying on the colours delivered by Kodak or Fuji. I desperately needed more control. There followed a grey period when my cameras were neglected and almost forgotten. Then, at last, high resolution raw digital images arrived. Finally, I could create the pictures I wanted, with the ability to vary saturation, exposure, contrast, clarity and so much more. Now, I rely almost entirely on Lightroom - the perfect photographer’s tool. It is easily mastered and provides amazing creative opportunities, delivering freedom, and perhaps honesty, of expression. By that I mean that the program allows me, and not Mr Kodak, to determine what the final image will be. Surprisingly, it has also reawakened my interest in monochrome photos. All the control, and so much more, that was once only available in the most sophisticated darkroom, is available on my computer.
I find creating anything an almost unbearable challenge. I am reminded of one of my favourite books, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ by Irving Stone, an account of Michelangelo’s life. Although it would be absurd for me to lay claim to any understanding of what creative genius may mean, I think it is possible to understand something of the sentiment, but, at my level, it is perhaps best translated as ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure’.
Photography is, in my world, the endless pursuit of that perfect image, though I doubt that I would recognise one if I saw it. Someone once told me, or perhaps I read it somewhere, that the only way to take a good photograph is to take the same photograph over and over again, and that is what I do. It means endless hours of waiting for the light, for that elusive, or imagined, perfect combination of form, composition, colour and contrast. That is the ‘pleasure’ part, as, indeed, is the anticipation: looking forward to seeing the image on a large screen, and believing that it will be just as I thought I had seen it through the camera lens. And then the ‘pain’ and frustration of reality: yet again the realisation that I had seen through the camera only what I wanted to see - a seductive illusion. Never that perfect image: always flawed. Sometimes I will sit and stare at a photograph for hours, trying to understand why it fails, and the longer I stare the more I despair. Occasionally, when I look back at earlier work I am pleasantly surprised, but I have learned not to stare for too long. So, the pain is trying to create perfection, but realising that, if I ever do, it will probably be a delusion and I should probably give up photography immediately.
I have already alluded to the principal driving force in my life - nature conservation. As a thirteen year old schoolboy I was so inspired and motivated by a visit to a nature reserve that, from that time on, I wanted nothing more than to become a reserve manager. Later in that same year I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published In 1962, her book focused on the hazards of the pesticide DDT, and questioned humanity's faith in technological progress. This book was a major influence in the founding of the environmental movement. Although I could not understand everything that I read, it evoked deeper feelings that added to my initial sense of inspiration, and I realised that I had to do something: simply being an observer would not satisfy my emerging ambitions. Eventually, I became the manager of the nature reserve that was the source of my inspiration: Skomer, the most wonderful, wild, Atlantic Welsh Island. It was my home for ten years, and will always remain my spiritual haven. In Wales we talk of ‘cynefin’. There is no English equivalent. It means ‘the land or place where a person belongs’, and is quite different to the concept of ‘land that we own’. Skomer is my cynefin.
After Skomer I moved to North Wales and was given the responsibility for 5 magnificent National Nature Reserves, including mountains, woodland and coast. Later, I co-ordinated the management of all the National Nature Reserves in Wales. I have long been at the forefront of developing management planning for nature conservation, and this includes considerable international experience ranging from Costa Rica to Uganda and Estonia to Spain. My book ‘Management Planning for Nature Conservation’, first published in 2008, has become a standard text on conservation planning. http://www.springer.com/environment/environmental+management/book/978-94-007-5115-6 Until recently I was the general secretary of the Conservation Management System Consortium. http://www.software4conservation.com/cms-consortium I am an Honorary Lecturer in the School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography at Bangor University. ( http://www.bangor.ac.uk/senrgy/staff/alexander.php.en ) In 2012 I was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology. I am a trustee of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and Chairman of the Pembrokeshire Islands Conservation Advisory Committee.
What is nature conservation? A decade or so ago I became somewhat obsessed with trying to understand what nature conservation might mean, and one of the more useful thing that I read was a simple statement made in 1976 by Derek Ratcliffe, an outstanding scientist and conservationist: “The question of whether we conserve wildlife and habitat because of its right to existence poses one of the ultimate philosophical problems, and can only be answered in terms of personal credo”. Nature conservation can mean so much or, sadly, so little. Each of us has our own understanding, and there is no universal truth or definition that everyone could accept. At this time, I was fortunate enough to attend a short course at Schumacher College, an international centre for nature-based education. Stephan Harding, a lecturer at the college, introduced the idea of preparing a personal statement of our relationship with, and commitment to, nature and life, a statement which could guide future actions. This process of concentrated deep thinking and the preparation of a written statement was one of the most worthwhile that I have experienced. Since my initial attempt, I return at intervals to rethink and review my statement, to develop my understanding and continue my search.
I rely heavily on Aldo Leopold for sources of reference and for personal inspiration. Leopold was one of the first to recognise that people need a spiritual relationship with our natural environment. It is remarkable that today, over 60 years since Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) was first published, so many books and other publications turn to him as a principle source of guidance on environmental ethics. It may be because his writing is so accessible, so lyrical and such a joy to read. Or it might be because his writings are as fresh and relevant today as they ever were. As a book reviewer once wrote, ‘if there are cracks in time, Aldo Leopold fell through one’.
There is one quote which I unashamedly plagiarise:
‘There were once men capable of inhabiting a river without disrupting the harmony of its life.’
I begin my personal statement with:
I believe that our ultimate goal should be to find a way of inhabiting our world without disrupting the harmony of its life.
I believe that we are part of nature and not separate from it. All life, human and non-human, shares a common destiny, but our species is different. We are the only species that presumes a right to make decisions about our environment and the fate of all other species that inhabit this earth. This is an extremely privileged position. If not much else from those days, I will always remember my school motto: ‘Ymhob braint y mae dyletswydd’. Loosely translated into English, this means ‘with every privilege there is an obligation’. Nature conservation is not only something that we do but something that we must do.
I believe that all living things have intrinsic value. I think that all life is valuable, irrespective of its utility, and that all life, including that of our own species, is interdependent. (I turn to James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis to support the concept of interdependence.)
I do not believe that nature conservation should be based on some sophisticated version of cherry picking. We should not direct our attention to whatever we happen to perceive as being valuable in any place at any particular time. We should understand that values will change with time; something that has no recognisable value today may be extremely important tomorrow.
Our responsibility to nature is to keep options open for the future, to provide optimal conditions for wildlife, wherever and whenever we can. (We don’t want everything everywhere, but there should be somewhere for everything.)
Nature conservation, the maintenance of life on this planet, will benefit from a pluralistic approach. We should recognise that there are a variety of equally valid, but sometimes contradictory, values, theories and actions. People and their values are important: I might not share their values but I must respect them.
Mike Alexander FRSB CIEEM