When I first became interested in wildlife photography, I harboured a deep fascination with Japan. I used to study the work of some of the great Japanese nature photographers – Michio Hoshino, Mitsuaki Iwago, Nobuyuki Kobayashi – and found, in their images, a hidden depth, an elusive something that I could only describe as “soul”. I also noticed many of my early photographic heroes, photographers such as Art Wolfe and Jim Brandenburg, as well as my favourite artist, Monet, had been inspired by immersion in Japanese culture.
Despite my early fascination with the country, it seemed Japan always sat second in my list of top ten countries to visit. Even when I ticked off number one, somewhere other than Japan would leap into top spot and it was only when Fujifilm invited me to present at CP+ (Japan’s premier photographic trade show) that I finally got to visit.
My inaugural stay was short, a whirlwind of meetings, events and karaoke interspersed with a weekend in the mountains, but in that brief time, I fell in love with the country – its landscape and its people, its culture and, of course, its wildlife – which is the reason I returned the following winter.
Part 1: We’re storytellers!
Jidokudani Yaen-Koen (Days 1 – 5)
Jidokudani Yaen-Koen is a reserve for wild Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys. It is hidden deep in a place the name of which – Jigokudani – means Hell’s Valley, amidst steep cliffs and steaming rivers, about 4-hours north-west of Tokyo. At an altitude of 850 metres, winters are harsh, with temperatures falling ten degrees below zero and deep snow covering the ground. The forests around Jidokudani form the principal territories of these soulful primates but the valley floor offers them an irresistible respite from the cold – inviting hot springs.
Photographing at Jidokudani in winter is challenging. Precipitation tests the ruggedness of cameras and lenses while freezing temperatures test the robustness of photographers. Simply removing a glove for a moment can numb fingers and limit your ability to perform simple tasks, such as changing an exposure setting or pressing the shutter. But the rewards are worth it.
Ever since an image of a bathing macaque first appeared in Life magazine in 1970, the popularity of Jidokudani Yaen-Koen has grown and during any visit you’re unlikely to be alone. Google “Japanese macaque Jigokudani”, hit the “Images” link and you will find pages of photographs of sad-faced monkeys. Indeed, someone once asked me, “Do we need any more?” The answer, of course, is yes! Yes, yes, yes!
I agree, the world doesn’t necessarily need any more record shots of snow monkeys but photography isn’t about recording events. As photographers we’re not visual stenographers or minute takers. We’re storytellers. In place of a pen we have a camera but, irrespective of the tool, our aim is the same: to amuse, emote, inform, educate and entertain. We’re storytellers and photography is the medium we have chosen to share our stories with the world. The challenge every photographer faces is finding their story.
Story ideas come from knowing your subject. It’s by asking questions and seeking answers that I hit upon my ideas for images. It’s how I find ways of making interesting photographs out of ordinary subjects, or conjure new ways to photograph common themes. And that knowledge isn’t bound to biology and ecology. Knowing yourself, how you feel about the world and how nature moves you is as important a part of the process as the technical aspects of our craft. I truly believe inside every one of us is a story aching to be told. And no matter what the story is, the only important thing is it’s your story, your voice. Because that’s what makes an image unique and photography a deeply personal and intimate experience.
On my first visit to Jidokudani, the previous year, it was the varying looks on the macaque’s faces that struck me most. Facial expression plays a significant role in communication (think about the rise of the emoji in SMS and email communication), conveying to an observer our emotional state. Now I was back, I had given my story the title “Expressions” and my aim was to capture the diverse emotions of individual animals so as to open a window into their world. It is a way of bringing the subject to life visually, revealing not just its form but also its character and personality, something to connect subject and viewer, turning a potential case study into something far more emotive – a moment of shared intimacy.
That, for me, is the purpose of photography: The bringing together of people and nature so we can connect with our soul and begin to understand our part in the four and a half-billion-year-old story called Earth.
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