Interview: Wildlife Photographer Of The Year 2011 Daniel Beltrá

23rd November 2011

Daniel Beltrá is the winner of the 2011 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award 2011. His striking still life of eight brown Pelicans, rescued from the Gulf of Mexico oil slick, is currently exhibited at the Natural History Museum, London. Well known for his conservation photography, Daniel’s work has featured in some of the biggest publications in the world, including The New York Times, Newsweek and Le Monde and has been exhibited extensively. He was born in Spain and lives in Seattle, USA.

Hello Daniel, you won this year’s Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. How did that feel?

It’s a tremendous honour. It’s such a dream for any photographer, in fact. But I believe what’s more important is what was happening in the Gulf of Mexico. We are all guilty of having a very short-term memory. So the Wildlife Photographer of the Year shining a light on the problem was really great. The BBC gave it extensive coverage, which helped people to really understand the scale of the problem.

How did you come to be in the Gulf of Mexico to capture the winning shot?

I was there for Greenpeace. When the year began in 2010 all I wanted to do was have a holiday after a very busy 2009 working on Prince Charles’ Rainforest Project, but it got very busy very quickly. When the spill happened at the end of April I thought it sounded like an interesting project to shoot. I instantly felt people needed to know more about what had happened. Then I got the call from Greenpeace' picture editor. They didn’t have to say a word when I got the call. I simply said: “The Gulf?” and the answer was, straight away, "Yes". I left for Louisiana that same day.

Did you have the image of the pelicans in mind or was it a chance occurrence as part of your assignment?

It was a combination of things. We were at a facility for cleaning birds. For the first week myself and other photographers were offshore taking photographs of the spill. At some point the oil reached the coast and it was the pelicans’ nesting season. It was especially cruel to learn they had only been taken off the endangered species list the year before. I tried to get permission to spend a day with them and it was actually during my second trip to the gulf that I took this shot. They were held in a wooden box and they spray them with light oil which mixes with the heavy oil. What’s captured in the image is the oil running off their feathers and on to a white sheet. I had no lighting or tripod. The opportunity came every 30-minutes or so, in bursts of 5/10 seconds because they didn’t open the tiny little door more than that. I did crop the image a little because there were some distractions in the frame. But basically, aside from some sharpening and saturation, what you see is what I got.

Much of your conservation photography generates an emotional response, often turning an unflinching eye to subjects that are difficult to look at – do you look for this in a photograph?

I have a background as a photojournalist. Finding beauty or emotion is a way to tell a story. Of course I would like to make more books to help tell those stories. I’m interested in people thinking about what they’re looking at and the implications of the way we live our lives. There are 7 billion of us on this planet and if we want to be here for the long haul we’re going to have to start taking care of it. The oil spill was, of course, awful but beauty can be found in it, as strange as that may sound.

Which of the other entries to the competition struck you as possible winners of the competition?

There were several. Stefano Unterthiner’s image was fantastic. It’s a photo of geese on a frozen lake. It struck me as being so beautifully composed. It’s quite classic in its composition and I think it’s a phenomenal photograph. But it’s hard to single out one image from the bunch. There were so many great ones.

How does it feel to have your image exhibited in the Natural History Museum?

The Natural History Museum is a dream place. Since a kid I’ve had two passions: photography and the natural world. My image of the place is walking around there as a kid with the big dinosaur bones. Being there and receiving such an award was an amazing honour. One of the big achievements in my life, for sure.

To what extent do you think photographs help raise awareness of global conservation issues?

I think photography is a tremendously powerful tool. To raise awareness is quite straightforward, to create change is hard. We remember images much better than text or even moving images. But how do you quantify the results? Are we on the right path? That’s another story. It’s very easy to take yourself too seriously and forget what it is you’re shooting. But really we photographers are just taking pictures – there are much more important things in life.

You made a Bob Book with us, can you tell us a bit more about it?

Stuart Smith is a phenomenal designer who was hired to make a book as part of the Prince’s Rainforest Project Award. He helped me make a prototype book of my photographs from the Gulf. It was one of the first books of my work – and I was extremely impressed with the quality. This was the first time I’d seen a book made print-on-demand. It is a sequence of images, no captions and no other text. The image of the pelicans had to feature at the end as it’s an image that keeps my feet on the ground. It’s a very clear example of what we’re doing to the world. 

Is there a photograph you really wish you’d taken?

That’s a great question. At WildPhotos (held in October, WildPhotos plays host to some of the world’s finest wildlife and environmental photographers – including winners of the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition) there’s a section called ‘I wish I’d Taken That’. Jack Dykinga’s image of a mountain reflected in water is just stunning. I call him the Ansel Adams in colour. He’s a very talented guy. His work reminds me of why I do what I do. And I really wish I’d taken that photography – or any of his photographs for that matter.

Conversely, is there a photography you want to take?

It’s difficult to select one. What I would say is that an image that would help us change, preserve and protect our home is the image I want to take. I would definitely say that I look for images that will help to bring attention to conservation issues. I think pictures are an incredible way to do that.

What’s your advice to aspiring wildlife photographers?

I wouldn’t want to give advice to wildlife photographers because I don’t consider myself a wildlife photographer. I think of myself as a conservation photographer. But what I would say is this: work in your back yard. The best thing you can do is find subjects near home. You can go back regularly and work them and be a tough editor and only show your best work. So that’s my advice: only show your best work! (laughs)

Anything else, what's next?

I’m still working on the rainforest. My problem is finding the time for everything. I don’t have a big studio. I’m a small operation. I want to go back to the Amazon and I want to complete a project on aerial photography in the US. Other than that I will continue to shoot conservation photography – it’s what I know and love.

All photography by Daniel Beltrá