Staffan Widstrand is a world-renowned wildlife photographer and a strong advocate of nature conservation, biodiversity and rewilding. His project Wild Wonders of Europe, which presented the natural heritage of Europe to the World, reached 800 million people and his photos have been published in major media like National Geographic, GEO Magazin, Der Spiegel and many others. He strongly believes that emotionally strong imagery has the power to make us protect nature, because we love it.
Staffan, you are now working on the “Wild Wonders of China”. What is that project about?
We are trying to showcase the natural heritage of China. Most people in China and even more outside China have very little clues about what the country’s rich natural heritage looks like. Most people think of China as a place of massive industrial production, environmental destruction and ancient history and art. But we are saying there is a yet untold story about its wonderful and amazingly rich natural heritage.
I must admit I have never thought about China in terms of natural beauty, either.
Most people struggle to think of even one wild Chinese mammal, besides the Giant panda. The reality is though that China is the third country in the World when it comes to the number of wild mammal species, I believe after Peru and Brazil. We plan to make more than a hundred photo expeditions all across the country and tell the story about China’s vibrant natural heritage through all kinds of media, TV-documentaries, IMAX movies, social media, books, exhibitions and magazines.
How concretely would that help conservation?
We, humans, are very emotional beings. If you want nature to be saved, you have to let people love it. But how are they supposed to love an animal, if they don’t even know it exists, and if they have never ever even seen a picture of it? We want to help restart this ancient love affair.
Photo: Staffan Widstrand/www.staffanwidstrand.se
A Love affair?
Yes, a love affair. If you love nature and feel it is a part of you, you will want to protect it. If it gets hurt, you also get hurt. We want to see people saying, “Oooh, that’s a cute animal.” “Uuh, that’s an ugly, fascinating one.” “Aaah, that is so beautiful.” We need many to feel these kinds of feelings.
How about the city people, who rarely see any animals? Can they fall in love with them?
The city people are maybe not the main problem here. Countryside people all over the world tend to be used to killing wild animals to eat them. That is more and more a problem. The fact that people who live in cities are becoming middle class is a good sign. The nature conservation idea is fully connected to the world’s middle class. The upper classes are maybe busier making even more money, and the laboring classes are often fully focused on getting food on the table. In China, the middle class is soon larger than the whole population of Europe. When they start taking more care about their own natural heritage, it will be a great success for nature conservation.
What about the Chinese government? Does it support wildlife conservation?
As opposed to many other big countries, when the Chinese leaders feel they need to change something, they just change it. China banned hunting ten years ago. If that was in Sweden, such a decision would have started a civil war. Nine years ago, China banned logging in almost the whole country. The forestry industry said, “But wait a minute. We employ several million people.” The government told them, “Find some other business.” Since the ban of logging, forest is coming back big time. Due to the hunting ban, many wildlife populations are increasing by 10-30% per year. That is amazing and quick progress!
That sounds promising. Where do you see it going?
Because of the speed of their conservation efforts, China will soon be far ahead of us. Ten years from now, I bet Chinese nature conservation will be held up as a showcase for the rest of the world to learn from.
We are talking nature conservation, not environmental protection. The environmental measures are mainly technical, it is not quite the same thing as protecting the wonders of nature. Conservationists and environmentalists often have different opinion about things. A lot of so-called “Green development” is actually directly destroying our natural heritage.
Can you give me an example?
In my view, Bio-energy often destroys wildlife habitats and biodiversity. We put wind farms and solar panels into the wildest natural areas and grow fields of gene-manipulated monoculture corn to produce biofuels, which leads to ruin for biodiversity. As a conservationist, you would rather have people saving energy, producing it in the cityscapes or in places where nature is already compromised. Production of energy should rather be in our backyards, on the roofs of our ugly industrial buildings for example. I think many environmentalists are interested in nature at a sort of global level, but they often have a problem seeing what it looks like on location.
This is very interesting. Does it mean that protecting environment at the global level can ruin nature at the local level?
Sometimes it does. I will give you an example. There used to be a plant to treat leukemia which grew in one forest in Madagascar, later they cut the forest and the plant is gone forever. For me biodiversity is number one. If we don’t have it, we don’t have anything. That is why I care about conservation of biodiversity in China, Europe and worldwide.
Have you seen any good examples of nature conservation across the world?
Yes, very many. Since the 1950s, wildlife has increased by 40% in Europe. A number of species have come back from the very brink of extinction. Wolves, sea eagles, wisent, whooper swans, seals, bears, for example. But at the same time, we have a loss of biodiversity, especially of smaller species, like insects, small birds, fungi and many marine species.
Photo: Staffan Widstrand/www.staffanwidstrand.se
So, what do you think should be done?
I am a strong advocate for “wildness”. On a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is a city parking lot and 10 is a pristine forest, the majority of places in the world are somewhere in between. We should let nature more run its own business. Let the owl live in the church tower and gulls breed on the factory roof. Support city gardening and butterflies, insects and bees will come. Every place can move up a step or two on that Wildness scale. Sometimes when I come from the wilderness into the civilization, it strikes me how ugly what we have created often is.
The contrast between wilderness and civilization must be so huge. How do you feel when you see degradation of nature?
It makes me furious at best, but mostly depressed and upset. We take down a pristine forest to make pellets to warm a house here. What is that? A monumental lack of respect. It fuels my engagement. I am fired up by that anger. That is one reason why I am a wildlife photographer. I am taking pictures and showing them to people so that they hopefully better connect with nature and start protecting it.
Was it your dream to become a wildlife photographer?
It was not a childhood dream, but it somehow happened along the way. I grew up with National Geographic and Audubon magazines in our home. When I was 6 years old, we moved to Tanzania. I was so impressed by the wildlife and I felt immediately at home, in spite of being in a very foreign country. Ever since I was small I have loved diversity – of people, animals, flowers, colors, cultures, languages…
Did you study biology and photography to become a wildlife photographer?
All my friends became biologists, but I did not want to study. I wanted to be out in the nature and not sit behind a desk. My father was a professor and his expectations on me were of course very high. So, he was not very happy when I became a metal worker. I worked four years working with metal before I realized that I don’t want to spend my whole working life in a factory and have five weeks of vacation per year. I thought it would be much cooler to turn it around.
What did you do then?
I became a nature tour leader and travelled the world. I was checking off my top hundred bucket list one by one – mountain gorillas, whale watching, hiking in Himalayas, Amazonian rainforest and so on. But after four years, I felt fed up with leading groups. Meanwhile I was taking more and more pictures.
Did you go to study photography then?
At that time, I wanted to study biology so that I could become a picture editor one day. But a funny thing happened. I went to promote my photos to the four biggest school book publishers in Sweden and a week later one of them called me. I thought they wanted to maybe buy some pictures, but instead they offered me a job as a picture editor. It was an easy choice. Either I study for six years and then maybe become a picture editor or I become a picture editor next Monday…
So, you said Good bye university, and started to work as an editor. How was it?
I learnt the business side of photography, which most photographers don’t know. I got to know many of the big photographers and used their best images. I learned where the professional level was. After five years there, I decided to leave. People were looking at me as if I was crazy because it is kind of a job where most stay their whole working lives. But I wanted to do things on my own. I have been an independent freelancer ever since, and I am so used to running my own projects that I am probably completely unemployable.
What is it like to be a freelance wildlife photographer?
It’s a 24/7 job, sometimes it feels like 13 months a year, but I love it. I prefer to work on long-term projects such as the Wild Wonders of China, and Europe.
Photo: Staffan Widstrand/www.staffanwidstrand.se
How do these projects work? I mean funding, promotion and so on.
At the beginning of the project, you put in a lot of office hours at home. You pitch the story to possible funders and write applications. Then you go to meet people in their offices and go on business travel. You fly to the Netherlands, China and Singapore. When enough of that is finally settled, you come into a fieldwork period, to gather material. You shoot hundreds of thousands of pictures, shoot hundreds of hours of video and afterwards comes the editorial period, where you are more at home, selecting and editing images and creating editorial products. Out of 20 000 images maybe you keep around 2 000 and use maybe 200. Once your main products (books, exhibitions, films…) are published, you move into a very active mass communication period, where you need to promote your work and talk to media.
So, it is a lot about office work and traveling. How does it feel to move around with a small luggage half a year?
It’s been my life for 30 years and I don’t complain at all. I am enjoying every bit of it. I love to stay in a comfortable hotel, a simple bed and breakfast, a shack, or in a tent. I am a very simple person. I just try to be where I am. If I am not happy, I change. I miss my children and wife but I am not homesick. I am not going here wishing I was there. My strategy is when I am gone, I am gone completely. When I am home, I am home completely.
How does your family feel about it?
My family has been used to it. I told my wife (my almost wife, 28 years waiting for her yes), in the beginning. “If you want a guy who is at home most of the time, then I am the wrong guy. I will be gone a third or half of the year, many of the years. If you can settle for that, we can be together.” She accepted. It still does not compensate for the fact that she carries the whole load when I am gone. We have two children and when they were small, I was much more at home. I was maybe gone for a week. Now when I am home, I try to take care of much of the housework.
Aren’t they worried about you? Isn’t it dangerous to be a wildlife photographer?
You risk being without income. (laughing). Everywhere I go, one of the first questions is this one. I always say that it is much less dangerous in the nature than it is in the city. Here there can be murderers, drunk violent idiots, mental cases, robbers or thugs. Riding in a car on a road is the most dangerous thing you can do anywhere. I have been in three car accidents in my life and survived thanks to the safety belt. There are on average 14 000 drunk drivers in Sweden every day on the road. So, it is really less dangerous to be in nature than in the city. With the right respect and knowledge, you can approach almost any animal.
Really any animal?
Well, apart from tigers, lions and polar bears, who might even have you on their menus. I have been close to all kinds of animals and I have never ever felt my life was in danger. You need to know how to behave. If you see the signs, you should never push an animal. Not go too close, do not push the animal into a corner.
What emotions do you feel in proximity to animals?
I feel respect and joy. Wild animals bring happiness to everyone. When you see a squirrel or a hedgehog, it makes almost everyone happy. It has a spirit. It is there for itself, not for you. Animals are free and human beings need to feel that energy because everything around us humans is so controlled. Life could be outstandingly boring, but the wild gives us hope of freedom and liberates our spirits.
You are right, animals enrich us. Thank you for the inspiring interview and good luck.
This interview was published in Sedmá generace.