Tony Wu has just been awarded first place in the prestigious 2010 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. His image, of four sperm whales taken in Dominica, is on display in the Natural History Museum, London. For many, this represents the pinnacle of recognition, and he kindly agreed to an exclusive interview about the award and his photographic philosophy:
Hi Tony, congratulations on winning the Underwater World category of the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the year. How does it feel?
It feels wonderful getting recognition, but also, I’m particularly happy that a photograph of sperm whales was selected. Sperm whales aren’t as well known as some of their cetacean cousins, like humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins and such.
And to the extent that they are known, people often have a somewhat negative view of them, a legacy of the malevolent white whale in Moby Dick and stories from whaling days about sperm whales turning to attack their hunters. It’s rewarding to have the opportunity to portray these graceful, intelligent animals in a positive light, especially given how good these whales have been to me over the years.
Have you entered before?
I entered the WPOTY contest once a long, long time ago when I first started underwater photography, but this is the first time I’ve entered since I figured out which side of the camera is which! Actually, I don’t enter contests often. The last time I entered a contest prior to this was in 2001, when I sent my book Silent Symphony to the Festival of Underwater Images at Antibes.
When you entered, did you think that you had the winning shot?
Yes and no. I certainly felt that the shot was special. After all, how often do you get four sperm whales posing at close quarters in perfect light, great visibility, with beautiful composition and smiling faces? But the standard of images selected for the WPOTY contest is generally so high that I didn’t have any expectations when I submitted it.
Going back further, did you think when you pressed the shutter that the result was going to be so well received?
I’ve found over the years that it’s almost impossible for me to predict what images will or won’t be well received. Art is very personal, so sometimes other people like what I create, but sometimes they don’t. So as a general rule, I photograph for myself, meaning that I don’t think about submitting to contests or what other people will think, at least not while taking images!
What sort of treatment did your image get in post? Was it in Aperture (☺)?
With an image like this, dominated by blues and cyans with low contrast, there’s not a lot of post-processing (besides conversion from RAW to tif) to be done. In fact, there was virtually no post processing for this image. But, yes. I used Aperture 3. Aperture has made my life so much easier, in terms of organizing and processing images. I highly recommend Aperture (or Lightroom) to everyone.
How important are competitions to you and secondly, to underwater photography in general?
Entering competitions hasn’t been a high priority for me, but in general, I think that photography contests are important for many reasons. Contests provide the means through which people around the world can share some of their best images. Competitions give aspiring photographers a chance to compare their work to that of their peers. But most of all, contests are about having fun, sharing images, experiences, stories, etc., and also, about having a chance to meet like-minded people.
One of the best parts about this WPOTY experience for me was having the opportunity to meet a lot of talented and inspiring people while I was in London. There were, of course, quite a few underwater photographers (including several Wetpixel members), but it was more than that.
It was the entire “ecosystem” of participants, including photographers, judges, contest organizers, media, members of the public—all of whom share a deep passion for nature and photography. This is the real value of competitions, forging a sense of community and inspiring participants to greater achievement.
I notice that the Veolia is a still competition only, do you think they are going to have to move into moving images, given the proliferation and performance of video in SLR cameras?
That’s an excellent question, for which I have no answer. I certainly hope that competitions in general will embrace the many possibilities created by recent changes in technology. Change always takes time, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see moving images playing a bigger role in photography competitions that traditionally consider only still photographs.
What do you think singles out this image? (Don’t be bashful!) As photographers, I think we almost always submit images that we like, what is it about this one that sets it apart for you? I think many of us are simply not sure why we like them, are you more scientific about it?
I wish I could tell you that I have a methodical approach and know exactly why I like or don’t like a given image. But I can’t. It’s usually nothing more than gut feeling, in general, I need to get a “Wow!” feeling from an image for it to be special. That is, of course, subjective, but it’s probably the most important factor.
Specifically for this photograph though, it’s not so much the visual impact (though that’s obviously important), it’s the feeling and emotion embedded in the image, the bond among the four whales, and the bond with me while I was taking the photograph. I was really close to the whales, and had been swimming among them for a long time. Anyone who’s been in the water with large cetaceans knows that it’s impossible for a human to initiate interaction. The whales initiate, execute and terminate any interaction. In this instance, I swam down to meet the whales, but actually, they swam up to meet me. Time stopped as the five of us hung in the water, looking at one another, the whales considering me as much as I them. I think that brief moment of interspecies contact comes through in this image, which is what makes it somewhat more than just a pretty picture.
If you had to single out one major photographic influence on you, who or what would that be?
Ansel Adams. Completely different disciplines, black-and-white landscapes versus color underwater images, but the same nonetheless.
Many of Ansel Adams’s images have that intangible “Wow!” factor. Composition, lighting and such are of course important, but it’s the final product that counts. He produced images that aren’t just burned onto a piece of paper, but forever embedded in my mind. That’s a quality that all photographers should strive to emulate.
Do you think that the time you have spent with the humpbacks in Tonga and other sperm whale encounters helped you to compose or get this shot? Does experience with a type of animal (e.g. whales) count in getting winning images? Or is it just being in the right place at the right time?
Oh yes, of course. Being in the right place at the right time counts for a lot, but knowing what to do, how to do it, and most importantly, what not to do, is all important. The time I’ve spent in the water with various cetaceans is to this photograph as the foundation is to a skyscraper, unseen, but absolutely critical.
Was the Dominica trip particularly productive for you in terms of quality images? I gather there is a permit system in place for photographing sperm whales there. Did you find this a hindrance, or is it an acceptable level of bureaucracy?
Yes, it was a very productive trip. Sometimes, everything falls into place. This trip was one of those times:
The weather was great. The water conditions were near perfect. The whales were in the right mood. The local knowledge was spot on. My travel companions were perfect.
There is a permit system in place. Having that system is vital.As much as I love the whales and want everyone to see how wonderful they are, it’s important to keep in mind that they are wild animals, big ones at that, and they can easily inflict damage on boats and people. In addition, swimming in open water is totally unlike scuba diving, so just because someone is a diver does not automatically mean that they can swim. In fact, in my experience, most divers are, let’s say, suboptimal swimmers. Any encounter with wild animals involves risks, and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, especially in open water. The permit system represents one important level of sanity check.
I notice that sponsor Veolia has added the word “Environnement” to their company name for the contest; do you think that competitions like this and the images they produce can be a positive force for the environment?
The One World category had several images depicting marine environmental problems, including shark finning-does this reflect a greater awareness of these issues? Are photographers just seeking to engage more with marine issues?
I think it’s a combination of a positive—the fact that photographers are generally more aware of these issues—and sadly, a negative—a reflection of the fact that such instances of our abuse of nature are increasing in number.
The results of the Veolia competition are an indication of trends in fashion in underwater photography, and I notice all the images are of “big” animals. Do you think this is a trend at the moment? Is macro so yesterday!?
I don’t think so, and I certainly hope not. The overall winning image was a beautiful macro photograph of leaf cutter ants, so I don’t think the competition frowns upon macro photography. In general, judges are probably looking for images that most people can relate to and understand easily. Big animals are usually more familiar than small ones, especially when it comes to marine residents. Most people know what a shark, whale or dolphin look like, for example, while few (beyond the diving community) would recognize a nudibranch, leafy seadragon or shrimp goby. Macro photography can be as or more challenging than creating aesthetically pleasing wide-angle images, so I hope photographers and judges alike will continue to recognize macro subjects as well as big ones.
If you were to offer advice to photographers seeking to emulate your success, what would it be?
First, be original, and don’t follow the crowd.This has always been important, but even more so now, given how quickly information spreads through the Internet. Just because everyone is going to specific place, trying a “new” photographic technique, or discussing the use of a specific camera or other equipment doesn’t mean that you should jump on the bandwagon and follow suit. I almost always do the opposite. It’s more difficult, but pays off in the long run.
Second, don’t obsess over photo equipment. Make the most of the gear you have, and keep in mind that 99% of cameras are better than 99% of photographers, so if there’s a problem, it’s usually not the camera’s fault!