Photographer and conservationist Neil Ever Osborne has been capturing the world’s wildest places and creatures on film for 15 years. He talks to Sophie Breitsameter about his upcoming exhibition, Home: an Elephant’s Tale, his work with legendary National Geographic snappers, and using augmented reality techniques to encourage positive action
Conservation photographer Neil Ever Osborne has a startling confession. “In truth, I grew up among the tidy, manicured soccer fields scattered across the towns and cities of Southern Ontario. That was the only landscape I knew,” he admits.
“My first foray into wild Ontario came quite late,” he says. “One summer at Trent University, where I was studying to be a conservation biologist, I got to know the backwoods and ponds of a beautiful area that Canadians call the Kawartha Lakes.”
Since that first venture into the hinterlands, Osborne – and his photographs – have been making up for lost time. On May the 2nd this year, his exhibition, Home: An Elephant’s Tale, will open at Berenson Fine Art Gallery in Toronto, Ontario. It’s both a celebration of wild places and a wake-up call for all of us. Osborne’s exhibit aims to “demystify the foreign-ness of the natural world, and replace the very idea of ‘the environment’ with a concept more accessible and relatable to each of us: being at home.” Images like a caged orangutan, a hand holding a confiscated elephant tail, and a venerable grizzly bear in its sanctuary depict “a home that is both shared and under threat.”
We asked Osborne to tell us more about his photographs and how he hopes they’ll bring the concept of conservation to life.
How and why do you apply augmented reality to your photographs?
Many of us are trying to make the conversation about conservation more relatable. As a conservation photographer and visual storyteller, my responsibility is to do this in a way that encourages action.
I was introduced to virtual reality after Nikon sent me on assignment to the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas where I field-tested their new 360º camera. The only instructions I had were in Japanese! But despite that complication, I could immediately see how effective VR could be. I was creating immersive footage that could transport people to a penguin colony thousands of miles away.
My fascination with augmented reality is a continuation of this. AR can bring people into my work in the same way that VR does, but instead of using a video player, we use the art hanging on the walls. You really need to be in the gallery to see the full effect.
How have technological advances changed the way that photography is experienced?
I read somewhere that Instagram is the visual heartbeat of the world, but as romantic as that might sound, I’m a little worried about how much content is being produced every day. We are all creators now and this is wonderful for lots of reasons, but it’s key to sort through all the stories in order to find the ones that are really important. Curation is not as easy as taking a photo, but I think that it’s part of the craft of the conservation photographer.
Conservation issues can feel like they’re light years away. How do you ensure your message is clear and urgent?
Just the other week, a dear friend was able to help me define the path that led me here.
When I first started, my work focused on species. I was first drawn to frogs, then to sea turtles, then to salmon, and then to coywolves and so on. My images were predominantly of the animals, which often appeared in the center of the frame. These older images still have appeal, but I question more and more the feelings they elicit.
In later assignments, I began to explore more landscapes and habitats. I also considered capturing the subject species in context: at home. So the images became a blend of what I had done in the past – that up-close and personal aesthetic – with the wild spaces that intrigued me.
My most recent work charts my attempt to send a clearer, urgent message. I’ve been focusing on humanity’s relationship to threatened species and places, often placing people in my images. This is one way to make important environmental issues about an individual animal or place more relatable. I suppose the rationale here is that we need to empathize in order to care, and thus act.
Every chapter of my work has been a stepping stone, leading me to try and find connection and purpose between my camera and the story of people and the planet.
You’ve worked with National Geographic. What were some of your highlights?
I’ve been chasing the dream of working as an assignment photographer for National Geographic since I can remember. When the National Geographic Image Collection began representing my photography last year, this was a big step in the right direction.
My first experience with the National Geographic came from assisting two of their photographic legends. I worked alongside Frans Lanting in his California studio for almost three years. For the first six months all I did was organize the transparency slides in his archive. Despite some initial reservations, I began to embrace this task. Peripherally, it began to occur to me the value of this exercise to my own growth as an artist. Here I was imprinting on my mind the images of a master – the narrative and design impulses of a genius. It wasn’t an apprenticeship in the field but it was an essential crash course of another sort.
A few years later, luck and some previous experience with manatees landed me in Florida for a month-long assignment with Paul Nicklen. Paul taught me a lot of the practical necessities of being on location and, in a similar way to Frans, introduced me to key elements of the industry. I’ll forever be grateful for the entirety of my experience with Paul but the most memorable part of working with him were our conversations. He’s so accomplished but still works hard and remains a nice guy. Even after I accidentally flooded his expensive underwater flashes when I didn’t close the case lid before we submerged underwater!
What work are you most proud of in your upcoming exhibition?
The title piece of the exhibit, which was made in Zambia, Africa. I can’t say too much about this specific image or the story behind it as I want people to come see it in person. Every time I stare at the picture on my computer screen, I’m reminded of the complexity of our world. I hope that the scale of the print we’re displaying will give people chills.
You have previously said that in the modern world the words “environment” and “conservation” have lost their meaning. How can photography restore meaning?
My work investigates the link between people and their planet – a complex and often troubled link. I want to celebrate the wilderness and remind people there are some pristine places left and if we protect them it could stay that way. I’m calling these protected areas home more and more. “Home” is a universal word and concept. We can all relate to it and is some ways it’s helping to shift the way we think and talk about the environment.
Are there any other messages in your work?
The environmental movement tends to lean towards doom and gloom and the negative aspects of the fight. If my work, like many others, can contribute to a shift in tone, then I think the message behind all of our work will have a greater impact.
What are you working on next?
Another trip to Africa again soon! I want to tell the important stories about the people doing truly amazing work in the conservation space there. I’m also restructuring my communication agency Evermaven so we can have more impact in the areas of visual storytelling and education.
Images courtesy of Neil Ever Osborne