To Jasper Doest , it doesn’t matter if a photo tells a story if it doesn’t inspire action. What an audience feels and chooses to do after viewing his work is as important to him as the work itself.
The recipient of many prestigious awards, Doest focus is on tough environmental issues and he has launched a #challengetochange campaign alongside his photography. When you look at his emotional images, which are as much fine art as photojournalism, it’s impossible not to ponder how one can help both the species and the planet.
We spoke with Doest about what he seeks out in his subjects, how he combats compassion fatigue and what he hopes to accomplish through his photography.
MNN: How did you get started in photography?
Jasper Doest: When I look back at images of my childhood, photography always seemed to play a role in my life. Firstly, my dad liked to do photography, and by the age of 4 I had my own Kodak Instamatic. However, it wasn’t until the age of 20 that I purchased a SLR camera with my first salary, working as a laboratory assistant. I really enjoyed taking photographs, but this first camera soon ended up in the closet. When I decided to continue my studies, I took a job in an electronic warehouse, accidentally ending up in the camera department. I had no knowledge about the cameras whatsoever but decided I needed to acquire some to help people choose the right camera. And from that moment on I was hooked!
My parents raised me with a lot of respect for the natural world. When I started out with my photography I tried many disciplines, but I found the most enjoyment when I was working with the natural world. I therefore decided to take a biology degree to enhance my knowledge about the subjects I was photographing. The study for that degree took me to the Arctic region, where I took an image of two Arctic fox kits that won a major award in the Netherlands.
That’s when I decided I had to follow my heart and become a full-time professional, dedicating my time to documenting the utter beauty and fragility of the world that surrounds us. That was more than 10 years ago, and that’s what I’m still doing now.
What drew you to conservation as a focus in your work?
When I visited the Arctic for the first time, I was stunned by the vast landscape that had been there as far as humans can remember. Yet when I returned, only a couple of years later, I noticed the significant changes in the landscape and its weather patterns.
I remember I sat down on a rock and stared into the distance in the drizzling rain, and I realized science wasn’t for me. It would take me forever to statistically prove something that I could instantly communicate to an audience as a photographer. That’s the power of photography. I would even dare to say that without imagery, we wouldn’t be able to communicate about some of these issues as they are so complicated that we need visual guidance.
How did you first discover that storks were changing their migratory patterns based on landfills?
I started focusing on the natural history of white storks shortly after I started as a professional photographer. The issues I wanted to tackle in the Arctic felt too big for a new kid on the block like I was. I felt too far away from the fire and realized it would take a lot of investments to produce the image material to really make a difference. In the meantime, I saw some of conservation photography heroes, like Paul Nicklen,doing such an amazing job around the poles so I didn’t feel the urge to contribute here. I wanted to work on something that deserved attention closer to home.
I decided to work one season on a bird species that is deeply embedded in many cultures: the white stork. I wasn’t aware of any conservation issues, besides the bird being one of the big reintroduction successes of the past century.
During the summer, my wife, Maaike, and I decided to travel to Spain for the holidays, and it was there that I discovered large numbers of white storks above the local landfills. The gate of the landfill was open, and I decided to walk in and ask if I could take some photographs.
What compelled you to tell this particular story through photography?
What I got to see inside that dump goes beyond words. It was something I had to share with the outside world. Photography seemed the only way to do it. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish and the people at the dump didn’t speak any English which made communication very difficult.
In the end, it turned out I wouldn’t get any permission. I cried so hard while driving back to our camping site. It took me two years to get permission, and when I got back to Spain after a 20-hour car drive, waving with a governmental permission, the door remained closed as all landfills are privately owned properties and therefore my governmental permission turned out to be useless. I don’t recall ever being so frustrated with my work, with myself, with the world.
But still I felt that it was my obligation to tell the story, which in the end I did with the help of many Spanish and Portuguese friends. We were able to portray the symbol of new life, the white stork, as it is foraging by the thousands on the excretions of our human society.
In the end, the story wasn’t really about storks anymore. Through the images I’m holding a mirror to human society by using the white stork as a character.
It’s easy for conservationists to experience compassion fatigue. Did you experience it while working on this story? Do you have strategies for staving that off?
I think that if you believe in the necessity of the story being told, there is a way back. But you have to truly believe, and of course you run into all sorts of doubt. But then again, you never doubt the cause, so you keep on doing whatever you can to make it possible. People who give up have stopped believing. And when you lose your faith, holding on is difficult. So before I jump into any multi-year plan, I need to know if I believe in it’s cause. If I do, I’m all in and no strategies for staving off compassion fatigue are necessary.
You’re a fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. How has being part of this organization helped or shaped your environmental work?
I was invited to apply for iLCP back in 2008. However, I didn’t feel ready, I was still discovering photography as a communicative tool. Five years later I applied, not knowing how I would be able to contribute to the organization but hoping I could learn how to make an actual difference through my photography.
Soon after being accepted, I flew to Washington for the annual meeting, and I was very pleased to find a passionate group of colleagues who are all on the same mission. Some very interesting discussions have been raised among the fellows, which were very inspiring for me. I think the fellowship has unique qualities to make a difference as a group, and I’m looking forward being part of that movement within the next years.
You manage to craft an extraordinary blend of fine art and conservation in your work. What is your thinking process behind creating an image that can capture emotion, art and a story in one frame?
I love the balancing game between fine art and photojournalistic work. Within this modern world, people seem to be getting used to all those hard-hitting images we get to see on a daily basis. They don’t work as well anymore as they used to in the past. The most dangerous thing on this planet is when people stop caring. And that is something that is happening more and more — people don’t seem to care anymore.
Why’s that, you might ask. Well, there are multiple reasons to find. But one is that they are losing hope. They’ve lost faith in “the system” and as a result only care about themselves as they struggle for survival: their family, their pension, their healthcare. Throw hard-hitting imagery towards an audience that has given up… would that make a difference? I don’t think so.
We have to make people care. We need them to fall in love with the subject we want them to care about, and once we’re in, there is hope to make them care enough in order to make a difference. And I believe the aesthetic quality helps here. It helps people fall in love, and once you love something, you’re willing to fight for it.
So what I do is place myself in a situation that has the conservation content , and I try to search for aesthetic ways to frame my images. I search for things that make my heart beat faster, not only content-wise, but visually. And over the years I find a home in this balancing act.
However, sometimes I fall off and find myself creating visually interesting photographs without any message, or images full of content but not visually pleasing. But that doesn’t really matter, because I know that if I try long enough, I’ll be back on that slack line again. It’s where I feel most comfortable.
Your work photographing Japanese macaques particularly illustrates your ability to capture emotion and art in a storytelling frame — and you made a concerted effort to show them in a way never seen before. What was your approach to photographing these famous monkeys?
That’s a question I have gotten many times, and I find it difficult to answer. I think I’ve just been myself and I’ve tried to get accepted for who I am. It’s the biggest compliment in life when you get accepted [by an animal], and it takes a certain level of behavioral adaptation to make that work.
It means you need to read and understand the social dynamics, which seems to come quite natural to me. As I got to know this group of macaques better, it was easier to understand what I wanted to bring to the surface through my images. It’s how I always work.
I’m not a fast photographer. I need time to submerge myself within a system, trying to find out what it is that makes me feel excited. Once I know, I start searching for aesthetic ways to bring these elements together.
Most people who have visited the monkeys have visited them only for a couple of days. That’s like meeting somebody for the first time. You might feel a connection, but it’s very difficult to bring out these unique distinct qualities that make this individual special.
Therefore you need to spend time, give the individual its personal space to move while you’re there. You build a relationship, and once you’ve gained access, these special images you’ve been looking for start coming to you.
If you ask me, I didn’t do anything special with these monkeys. It didn’t feel like it took a lot of effort. These moments came to me, and I was able to anticipate and accept these unique moments while spending time with these individual monkeys.
Do you have other stories currently taking up your interest, or a topic you’d like to start working on?
There are many things that have my interest. In the past I’ve tried to force myself looking for new subjects. While working with the storks, I was afraid of the black hole that would appear if I would ever finish that story. I spent nights awake thinking about the moment that in the end never occurred. Would I do a story about mute swans? Or perhaps I could work with gelada baboons in Ethiopia. The list was endless.
In the end, an editor reminded me it is not a matter of subject. It could be anything as long as it’s a story that you can’t stop thinking about.
I couldn’t see my next subject as my mind was occupied with the storks, and now that I’ve finished there are other things that have crossed my path. And as I’m doing my research on the topic, I can’t wait to submerge myself again. Effortlessly, because I once again believe in the necessity to tell this story. These things do not come up when sitting behind the desk. It’s love. I fall in love with my subjects.
And once you fall in love, there is no way back.
“Snow Monkeys” appears in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Magazine.