The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is hosting an exhibition that highlights the wonder of nature through photographs of extraordinary and often rarely seen animal behaviors. Read more about the “Unforgettable Behavior: Wildlife Photographer of the Year” exhibit here.
Marsel van Oosten is one the photographers whose work is featured in the new “Unforgettable Behavior: Wildlife Photographer of the Year” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014 Contest for his image of a young Japanese macaque in a natural hot spring holding a tourist’s phone, “Facebook Update”.
Meet PHOTOGRAPHERMarsel van Oosten
The image featured at the entry to the exhibit was “Facebook Update” captured by Marsel van Oosten. We enjoyed the comedy of the image as well as a commentary of our society’s current relationship with social media. We couldn’t help but feel we look just as silly scrolling.
The photo is among his most famed work, but it is not representative of his simplistic style. Marsel’s images are famed for his mastery of composition, lighting, color and perspective. In his work he tries to simplify, to get rid of the extraneous: simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
In addition to winning the overall titles Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Travel Photographer of the Year, and International Nature Photographer of the Year (2x), his awards include First Prize in the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. First Prize in Nature’s Best International Photography Awards, two First Prizes in the Travel Photographer of the Year, and several awards in the Wildlife
Photographer of the Year.
His images are featured in galleries and museums, are used worldwide in advertising and design, and he is a regular contributor to National Geographic.
When Marsel is not traveling, he lives in South Africa, with producer and videographer Daniella Sibbing. Together they run specialized nature photography tours for all experience levels to exciting destinations
worldwide. If you feel inspired by our conversation with Marsel van Oosten check out his tours and workshops at Squiver.
Marsel was gracious enough to sit down and video chat with myself and my kids to answer some of our questions about his work.
Interview with Marsel van Oosten
Adventure Family (AF):
Marsel van Oosten (MVO):
It is so nice to meet you! So if it’s okay with you, the girls will ask some questions first, and then I could stay on with you for a couple more minutes and ask some other questions. If that’s okay?
Yeah, sure. That’s fine.
AF (8 year old):
What do you like most about wildlife photography?
Well, that’s a very good question. I really like animals. So I think that animals are very nice to look at, and to study, and to watch their behavior, and so I love animals and so photographing animals makes it extra fun, because I really like what I’m photographing very much.
So whether it’s lions, or elephants or monkeys, I think they’re all very interesting. They all have very different behavior. I just love watching them. I love to take beautiful photographs of them. The other thing that I really like is being outside in nature, which is where all the animals live.
So that’s why I like my job very much. Always outside, and always close to animals. What’s the animal you have there in your hands? The fluffy one.
AF (8 year old):
It’s a wolf
Whoa, whoa, wow. He’s snacking too much.
AF (8 year old):
Haha yes a hungry wolf. I have another question. What’s your favorite lens to use?
Oh, wow, that’s a surprising question. If I had to use only one lens, it would be a zoom lens, and it would be a 24 to 70 millimeter lens.
Why is that?
Because it’s wide enough to do landscapes, and it has a little bit of a zoom. And for animals, obviously, you need longer lenses usually. But the kind of photographs that I like most of wildlife is to, to show the animal in its natural environment. So in its natural habitat, and to do that, it’s usually better to have a slightly wider lens.
So do you think that lens gives you more versatility? To catch more opportunities to catch animals in their habitat?
Yeah, because if you have a super long lens, like let’s say 500 or 600 millimeters, then usually you get the animal super close to you, they’re big in the in the frame. You get a close up of an animal. But if you want to show the animal in its environment, in a forest or something, then it’s usually better to have a slightly wider lens. And so if I had to use only one lens, that’s probably what I would, would use.
That makes sense. So we saw the exhibit at The Smithsonian and your snow monkey picture was was one of our favorite pictures that we saw. They (kids) thought it was hilarious. We had some questions about when you took that picture and just kind of like that experience.
AF (7 year old):
Did the phone ever work after?
No, it didn’t know the monkey completely destroyed it. Yeah, because the monkey, he didn’t know it was a phone. So it just thought it was something interesting. So it started playing with it. And because it was sitting in the water, it also held the phone in the water for quite a long time. So phones and water are not very good combination. So the phone died.
AF (7 year old):
Did the tourist ever get the phone back?
Yes, so. So the tourist was not very smart, because she had a phone and she was taking photographs with the monkey. And she tried to get really close to the monkey with her phone. So constantly holding it closer and closer and closer. And then at some stage, the monkey thought this, this woman is giving me something.
So I think the monkey thought it was like a present. So it grabbed the phone from her hands. Then he jumped back into the water. That’s when he started playing with the phone upside down and looking at it and then in the water out of the water. The woman was screaming all the time because she was really terrified that her phone would be destroyed by the monkey, which is obviously what happened.
Then one of the park rangers, he managed to get the phone back for the monkey, he just threw some food to the monkey so that monkey was distracted. So it wanted to grab the food. And then it had to let go of the of the phone. So that’s when the park ranger grabbed the phone and gave it back to the lady. But by then it was already dead.
So was the monkey interacting with the phone before it turned off?
Yeah, it did. Just the moment it grabbed it, it obviously had no idea what it was. So it was just looking at it and it’s an it’s shiny, you know, so they like that. They see their own reflection in the screen. It was a little bit like a mirror, which they also like. It was just holding it and at some stage it even managed to let the flash on the phone go off. TSo that was interesting, but it had no clue what it was doing.
I have a lot of images of this whole sequence. But in all the images like holding the phone underwater or it’s looking like it’s not even like looking at it. But there was just one image where it was really holding it like a human. Looking at like it was going through his Instagram feed.
It really did look like that. And it looked like there was like a glow from the phone. Like it was actually using a phone that was on, it was it was funny.
Yeah, it is. It is very funny. So that’s one of those things that I really like about photographing animals is that you never know what’s going to happen. If you photograph animals, they always do something stupid or interesting or strange, something you never expect. Especially monkeys, because they’re very cheeky. So they’re very naughty, and they always try to do interesting things. So I really like photographing monkeys very much.
AF (5 year old):
What’s your favorite animal?
So that’s a difficult question because I like almost all animals very much. But that’s just as a as a as a wildlife lover. But as a photographer, it’s a little bit different because as a photographer, I always try to make the most beautiful photographs of animals. And there’s there are a few animals that I like very much because I like how I can make beautiful photographs.
So elephants, for instance, I really like elephants, because they’re just, they just look very beautiful, very interesting. Nothing looks like an elephant. You know, there’s, there’s many, there’s many animals that look like a lion. No, Puma looks like a lion, or a Jaguar looks like a lion, like this many, many of the same sort of shapes. But nothing looks like an elephant. So that’s what I like.
I also like that elephants are very large. And the larger the elephant the animal is, the easier this cedar in the photograph. So that means that I can take almost like a landscape photograph where you see a beautiful landscape. And then you see an elephant somewhere in there. And everybody will easily recognize the elephant immediately.
But with a small animal, like a mouse, or a bird, you can never do that. I can never take a photograph of a beautiful landscape with a mouse in it, because no one would see the mouse. Because it would be too small. I also like, leopards very much, because I just love cats. I used to have cats, myself. And I love photographing cats. And I think the leopard is the most beautiful of all the big cats
They are very beautiful, aren’t they? Alright, do you girls do you have any other questions?
No. byeeeeeeee. Thank you!
Thank you. Bye. Thank you for your questions. Bye bye.
So I have a few other questions. Is there was any part of being a wildlife photographer that you didn’t anticipate before you started doing it?
Not really. I mean, before I became a professional wildlife photographer, I’d already done a fair bit of wildlife photography myself as just an amateur photographer. So I more or less knew already, what it would take to do it and a little bit of experience. So that really didn’t change much.
The only thing that I’ve learned over the years is just that I’ve become more and more particular, about what species I’m photographing, and where I want to photograph them. And when I want to photograph. So in the beginning, I was just photographing everything, because I just loved all the animals. And so there was not much of a plan.
Now I have much more of more strong opinion about which species I find more interesting. And also in what kind of conditions I want to photograph, and especially what the habitat should look like, because I’ve learned that that really, for me, makes or breaks the image.
Yeah, it does.
So even though that monkey image with the phone is obviously one of my most well known and popular images, because of just the hilarious aspect of it. But if I’m totally honest with myself, to me, it’s not a very special image as a photographer, because it’s just something that happened, and just something that I happened to be lucky enough to witness.
But there is not something special that I did myself as an artist to create that image. I was just there. And so I tend to prefer the images where I’ve put a lot of thought in it and where I had a much more influence as an artist on the end result, other than just being there.
Wow, that’s interesting. So do you try to plan a shoot exactly? Like you have a picture in your head of what you want to take? And then you go and try to recreate that idea?
Yeah, usually I don’t have like a precise picture in my head. But I have, almost a precise, or quite a bit defined. I’ve already defined the species, I’ve already thought about where I want to photograph it so that I have gone through all the possible habitats locations, and then I pick one that I like most. And then I look at the timing. So what kind of lights do I want, or what kind of weather conditions I’m after? And that make that makes a huge difference in the kind of shots that I want.
And then the last step is whether I want to create a certain look. So sometimes it means that I have to use a particular technique to get that. So for instance, am I going to use just the lights that is there? Or am I create am I going to create my own light, for instance, by bringing flash. So that will have a huge impact. Also the choice of lenses, etc, etc. So I’m kind of a control freak in the in the way that I work.
Usually, when I arrive at a location I pretty much have everything thought through. And I’m very well prepared. I know exactly what, what I want. But obviously, as I mentioned earlier, you can never predict what will happen with wildlife, which is also the thing that makes it so interesting. Because you never know what’s going to happen.
Yeah, it’s like the control and the chaos together.
Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes I compare it to the casino, but that’s actually not a very good comparison. Because in the casino, you know, you almost always lose. But I’m thinking that is probably the same sort of thrill for people who like to do that, that there is always this possibility that you’re going to be lucky.
That’s the same thing that I always feel like every day that I go out there. You know, you never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes I have days, that I’m just waiting and waiting and waiting. I think like, oh, it was a bit of time, then, you know, suddenly something really spectacular happens. That’s the addictive part of what I do that you’re always hoping for moments like that, knowing that they actually happen every now and then.
That’s pretty spectacular!
So I was curious about the role that your photography plays in the conversation around our human relationship with nature. I was curious what your thoughts are on how your photography contributes to that conversation? But also, if it’s something that you take into consideration when you’re choosing your location, what species you’re going to photograph and how you compose those pictures?
As a professional wildlife photographer, over the years, I’ve become extremely aware of what I’m doing. And something that once started as just something that I wanted to do as an artist, so purely looking at the visual result, over the years, I’ve learned that what I’m doing also has an effect on other people.
For instance, on social media, I realize that when I post something on social media and having the amount of followers that I that I have, it means that every single image that I post, many 1000s of people are going to see that image and it’s up to me how I’m gonna use that.
So I can use that for good. For instance, by explaining to people that the species that are seeing in the image is endangered. And I can try to explain what causes this. And I can tell them that they should vote for political parties that have nature conservation, right at the front. That’s all things that I can do.
I’ve also realized that there’s a lot of things I have no control over. And those can also be very negative. And this is the frustrating part of what I do. For instance, when I post an image of a very beautiful wilderness area that is extremely unknown, and few if any people have ever photographed there, and that image then becomes very popular, what it will do is it will, it will make a lot of other people want to go to that particular spot to see it and photograph it.
I have very many examples of that over the years. Iit has made me extremely aware of that, because I’ve seen it happen. I posted something and then suddenly, the year after that whole location suddenly got swarmed with tourists. And sometimes that’s not a big concern. But some areas are very fragile, and they cannot actually handle so many people.
I’ve become more careful with what I share on the internet, and especially with the information that I share about the locations. So I stopped, sharing the precise location of a lot of the landscape images that I shoot, so I just give a general direction. So for my swamp images, for instance, cypress swamps in the US that I photographed in Louisiana and Texas, I usually only say that I shot it at the Atchafalaya Basin, which is a huge, huge area. It’s not precise at all. People only have like a general indication of where I shot it.
Part of my job is running photographic tours. So this is also a sort of a catch 22 For myself, because on the one hand, I’m trying not to ruin certain wilderness areas. On the other hand, I’m actively bringing people with me on tours to photograph these kind of areas. So what we ended up doing a couple of years ago is actually we created a nondisclosure agreements for our guests, which is kind of radical.
We decided, okay, we want to keep these wilderness areas, like really wild. We want to prevent it from getting overcrowded so that all our guests sign this agreement that they would never share the precise location. So no GPS coordinates, etc.
So that’s just an example of how over the years I have become more aware of the both the positive impacts of my work, but also potentially, the negative impacts of my work.
Wow that’s amazing!
What characteristics do you have that make you a good wildlife photographer? And are there any characteristics or traits that you’ve developed through your wildlife photography?
No, I don’t think it’s something that you develop. I think, the most important characteristics, you should already have those. That’s not something that you learn. And that would be you really have to love animals and nature. That’s clearly super important.
The other thing is, you have to be extremely patient. I have to really be patient and determined, because with wildlife photography, the luck factor is so high that I have almost zero control over my subjects. So if you look at like a fashion photographer, easy, super easy. They just tell the models what to do, you know a little bit to the left a little bit to the right. You adjust the light in the studio until it’s perfect. And then you just snap snap, snap, snap, snap, and you get the perfect image.
Whereas for me, I’m usually like waiting and waiting and waiting for The animal to appear. And then when it appears, it’s usually looking in the wrong direction, or it appears too late, you know, the good lights already gone. So it’s never perfect. And that means that if you want to get it perfect, you either have to be extremely lucky. Or we have to keep trying over and over and over and over again.
That’s what most successful wildlife photographers do. They never give up. They keep on trying and trying and trying to get it right.
The last thing I wanted to ask you was, what do you see as the tangible changes that individuals can make to become better advocates for the planet?
Well, I think what would really help is that if people, like photographers, whether they’re professional or amateurs would actually spend a bit more time investigating the subject that they’re photographing, and try to find out what the actual conservation status is of the animal. And whether they can make a difference, because most people posting images on the internet they’re just begging for likes, and for comments. And that’s really not going to make a whole lot of difference.
Whereas if everybody would start posting images of wildlife, and then also adding a little bit of context, like explaining. So I posted this beautiful photograph of a lion. But what you probably don’t know is that lions are getting closer and closer to being endangered. And then explaining why that is, and what the causes are, and how we can all be helped to change that. Because most people don’t know.
I recently published a book called Mother as a tribute to Mother Earth. And so one of the things in there, what I have done is, even though the book is full of beautiful photographs of animals. In the back, there’s all these little thumbnails of every photograph that’s in the book. And they have captions of like eight lines or something.
Every caption I try to explain a little bit about the animals sometimes just about the behavior. But as soon as there is a problem or a threat for that particular animal, I address it. So I explain what the threats are. And hopefully, obviously, what I’m hoping is that when people read it, that they that they learn that there’s way more animals that are threatened with extinction than people think, because most people don’t get much further than polar bear or tiger, and maybe Rhino.
Here, pandas are big, because we have a breeding program at our zoo. So the panda is everybody’s idea of an endangered species here in DC.
Yeah. It’s a very good example. But it’s different in a sense that it has very different reasons, like most of the other animals are endangered just because they’re constantly hunted, or extreme loss of habitat, etc. poaching, the illegal wildlife trade, stuff like that.
It is important that people know, and that they realize that it’s not just pretty pictures, you know, that’s there’s a lot going on on our planet and most of it is not good. So as beautiful as the images are that I make are, because I love to create beautiful pictures, there is a more serious story, always in the in the back.
I think if everybody would pay more attention to those to those stories, people would be educated more people would be more aware of all these threats. And then people might actually change the way that they vote. And in the end, that’s the most important part. Because if you keep voting for parties that don’t give a damn about nature, then you know, nothing is going to change.
Yeah, that’s true.
Now, because we can all send a couple of bucks to some conservation organization. But that’s not going to really make a whole lot of difference. It will do a little bit, but it’s not going to solve the problems.
Yeah. Yeah it’s bigger than that. Well I really appreciate your time today.
Well you are most welcome. Thank you for having me.
It was really nice meeting you.
I hope the kids enjoyed it. Keep teaching them about nature and about animals so that when they grow up they actually enjoy hiking and watching animals because I think there are a lot of kids that grow up now just only with iPads and phones and have no clue about nature anymore.
Yeah, we are trying to expose them as much as possible because I know that was a huge part of what got me interested in conservation was just exposure as a child and having positive memories in nature.
Yes exactly that’s how you do it, start young.
Thank you again
Thank you very much Colleen
Thank you Marsel van Oosten for being so generous in sharing your passion, expertise and time with us. We hope to experience your passion one day in person on one of your tours.
See the “Unforgettable Behavior: wildlife Photographer of the Year” Exhibit yourself
See the wonder, beauty and impact of the “Unforgettable Behavior: Wildlife Photographer of the Year” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The museum is located at 1000 Madison Drive NW Washington, D.C. 20560. Admission is FREE. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 AM to 5:30 PM, except Dec. 25.
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