At the risk of excessively anthropomorphising our non-human planetary co-inhabitants, there is something decidedly appealing about looking into the faces of wildlife and attempting to interpret what their facial expressions reveal about their thoughts, their mood, their emotions. Such a practice forms the backbone of much of the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018 exhibition.
Firstly, the exhibition’s most prestigious award – ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ – was given to Marcel van Oosten for his image ‘The Golden Couple’, featuring a pair of golden snub-nosed monkeys in China’s Qinling Mountains. With thousand-yard stares accompanied by hierarchical poses reminiscent of old Victorian family portraits, the facial expressions of these monkeys - as well as being strikingly beautiful for their vibrant colours - also come across as hauntingly human. In granting Van Oosten the top prize, the judges noted that, with their remarkable, Instagram-ready poses, it is hard to keep in mind that these are wild animals, not trained models.
Additionally, the ‘Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year’, Skye Meaker, was given his award for his intimate portrait of a leopard (named Mathoja) dozing beneath a nyala tree in Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana.
With a literal glint in her eye from the sun piercing through the branches, the image offers us rare look at an animal whose face, like most of her body, has evolved to be hidden, to not give anything away. The pensive expression of a half-awake animal still processing their thoughts post-slumber will perhaps be a feeling not unfamiliar to exhibition attendees.
Several other winners across the final 98 images (chosen from over 45,000 entries) offer the same magnetic attraction towards facial features. The sad but resigned face of a mountain gorilla clutching the limp body of her dead infant is particularly poignant, as photographed by Ricardo Núñez Montero, winner of the ‘Behaviour: Mammals’ category. The mother stares straight at the baby but her eyes appear glazed over, in the manner of someone unable to let go emotionally (or physically).
One image in Alejandro Prieto’s collection of jaguar threats and conservation efforts in the Sierra de Vallejo, Mexico - winner of the ‘Wildlife Photojournalist Award’ - captures the intense stare of a jaguar looking directly upwards into the camera as it scratches a tree. Additionally, Javier Aznar González de Rueda captures in remarkable detail the faces of insects in Napo, Ecuador, as a treehopper guards her feeding family from potential attackers. His collection won the ‘Wildlife Photographer Portfolio Award’.
By no means are the images selected this year all about the facial features of our fellow fauna. But an inadvertent focus on portraiture gives this year’s collection a subtly intimate edge.
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