Because I’m worth it……

Grey Heron fishing for eels, Betws-y-coed
Grey Heron fishing for eels, Betws-y-coed

About three years ago I made a difficult decision. It is not like me to blow my own trumpet and I have usually preferred my photographs to do the talking. But I began to describe myself as “a leading Welsh photographer”. I was working on the photographs for my sixth book – Wales at Waters’ Edge – which had been sponsored by the Countryside Council for Wales. It was therefore the best paid project I had ever worked on. There was a good prospect that I would be able to exhibit the photographs, too. It is difficult to be objective about one’s own work but after about twenty years as a professional, and knowing what other Welsh photographers had achieved, it seemed like a reasonable claim to make.

At the same time I could see that difficult times lay ahead. The funding for the book would only last two years. Sales of my self-published postcards and calendar were still reasonable, but in economic terms Wales lags a couple of years behind the south-east of England, and the recession was just beginning to bite. The number of independent book- and gift-shops was declining and has continued to do so. Most local authorities across Wales have been forced to close tourist information centres. So I began to lose more and more outlets for my products. And my ‘business model’ (if it can be called that) was that my commercial activities subsidised my more personal work – the books and exhibitions that I worked on on a fairly regular basis.

I began publishing postcards in 1987 and it would be many years before the mobile phone was widely available, let alone Facebook and Twitter. I never believed that people would stop sending postcards, and thought they would provide an income for the rest of my working life. How wrong I was. One has to accept that times have changed and that a little rectangle of quality imagery dropping through the letterbox of a friend or relative is no longer the event that it used to be. The punitive increase in the price of postage in 2012 seemed like a particularly long nail in the postcard’s coffin.

There is no doubt that for me 2012 marked a career highpoint. Wales at Waters Edge was published in May and I was asked to speak at the Hay Festival during the summer alongside the book’s author, Jon Gower. Photographs from the book were exhibited for the first time, and were very well received. I ran a successful photography workshop in the autumn. But there was this nagging doubt about what I was going to do next. There was, in fact, a bit of a void.

The exhibition continued to tour in Wales during 2013, and gained more excellent feedback from gallery directors. But a book project fell through, and my recession-hit publisher seemed unwilling to take on any further proposals (from me anyway!). Despite undertaking a lengthy landscape commission during the summer, I felt that public spending cuts would hit further work of this kind quite hard. Sales of the 2014 calendar have been so poor that I can no longer justify publishing it. The future started to look quite bleak. I would be happy to retire on my own terms but not to be forced out of work by circumstances. In any case retirement really isn’t an option for a few years yet! Could I still be ‘a leading Welsh photographer’? It is a question which has haunted me over the last few months.

For many years I considered myself ‘a landscape photographer’ but during work on Wales at Waters Edge I began move away in other directions. Hell, I even photographed people! But I seriously started to shift my focus towards wildlife. It made sense because I had been interested in wildlife for as long as I had owned a camera. I just hadn’t put the two together. There are some brilliant wildlife photographers around and I know I don’t have their mastery of technique or their dedication. But what I do have after half a lifetime of photographing the landscape is a sense of how a bird relates to its surroundings – in a visual sense, that is. And in an ecological sense – well, I don’t have the qualifications but I’ve certainly picked up a great deal of experience over the years. And that should help me as a photographer.

So last summer I approached MOMA Wales (Museum of Modern Art) in Machynlleth with an exhibition proposal. Machynlleth is only a small town in mid-Wales, but it is a lovely venue and they have always been very supportive of my work. An exhibition there would now have to be be dependent on me obtaining external funding, however. So I put in an application to the Arts Council of Wales, and I am absolutely delighted to say that it was successful. It will fund the cost of printing and framing the work and a proportion of my time and expenses in preparing it.

The exhibition is provisionally entitled ‘Birdland’ and will show over July – September 2015. It is an ambitious project and I certainly hope it will be seen more widely than the one venue already agreed. So watch this space. And as for ‘leading Welsh photographer’, I think I can justify that for a little longer.

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A winter visit to the Camargue.

Flamingos, the Camargue
Flamingos, the Camargue

Mid-winter might not seem to be the obvious time of year for the bird photographer to visit the Camargue – well known for its nesting herons, other brightly coloured summer visitors and phenomenal spring and autumn passage migration. But I wanted to have a crack at some of the reedbed specialities which are so difficult to find here in the UK. And small numbers of several species of eagle are known to winter there, although I knew I would be lucky to even see them. As it turned out the bitterns and the bearded tits were just as elusive there as they are in the UK. I may also have seen a distant glimpse of a booted eagle as it flew away in the rain.

As far as the practicalities are concerned I will summarise them first. Travel down to Nimes was by train to minimise my carbon footprint. Some nature photographers must believe their carbon emissions do not count, but that seems an irresponsible attitude in my opinion. It is quite feasible to do the journey in a day by train, even from Aberystwyth, although it seemed sensible to book a  room in Nimes in advance to avoid the risk of spending my first night on a park bench. Train fares are quite reasonable especially if they are booked in advance; London to Nimes was £110 return. I picked up a hire car at Nimes train station on my first morning and spent five of the next six nights at Salin de Badon, a “gite” right in the heart of the Camargue, owned and operated by the Societe National pour la Protection de la Nature.

Previously a hunting lodge, this old stone house is correctly described as “rustique” by its owners, although characterful would be another way of putting it! Accommodation is self-catering, there is no drinking water, and rooms are shared. But on the positive side, it has hot and cold running water and central heating, and access to three nearby hides is included. For me another big positive was getting to meet other French visitors with interests in common, and to practice my French on them! In particular I met two bird photographers there. Having asked if they could help me with French bird names, I was so knocked out by the quality of the images one showed me on his phone that the bird names largely passed me by. I can’t imagine any meeting of minds at the quite characterless hotel by the motorway outside Arles, where I spent my sixth night. You can find Salin de Badon on the internet or contact me for further information.

Great white egrets, the Camargue
Great white egrets, the Camargue

As far as birds were concerned, on my first morning I discovered some large congregations of great white egrets, grey herons and cormorants on agricultural land outside the protected area. The egrets, in particular, were staring intently into a ditch, although what there was to see I have no idea. Another egret gathering nearby contained 73 of these spectacular birds (with about 50 others in nearby fields), I was able to photograph some of these using the car as a hide. I was surprised at the number of this species wintering in the Camargue – as well as this group, individuals birds could be widely seen.

Another species which has increased rapidly in recent years is the common crane. About ten years ago I felt lucky to see a flock of ten wintering birds, but now they have reached an incredible four thousand. Apparently they have discovered a new food source in spilt grain on the agricultural land surrounding the Camargue wetlands – ironic really as so much natural habitat was lost in land reclamation for rice growing. Who says nature is not adaptable? The birds roost in the reserve and commute between it and their feeding areas at sunrise and sunset. During the day, with some good fortune, they can be photographed from local roads from your car.

The flamingo is another conspicuous bird with which I spent some time. It seems an impossibly exotic species to be seen anywhere in Europe, but they are fairly widespread around the western Mediterranean in winter; their only French breeding site is in the Camargue. I managed some images of them on lagoons close to the sea, against a backdrop of the heavy industry at Fos-sur-mer, across the river Rhone. On  a more tranquil afternoon I photographed them and their reflections in still water at the same location. Despite a rather limited range of species, then, and some distinctly changeable weather, it proved a fairly profitable visit, and I’m thinking of going back in May.

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