[Article first posted on Crees Foundation website]
I’ve been working in the jungle for two months. My job is to photograph and record as much as possible about life here, and my challenge is to remain composed when it stays hidden after six hours in a hide, or swings past me when I’m holding a toothbrush instead of a camera.
Wildlife and nature photography isn't easy at the best of time, but is extremely difficult in the remote tropical forest. But I’ve found that macro photography opens up the the incredible, sometimes fantasy-like world of the jungle in a really special way. Here are 5 things it has taught me so far.
1. Face your fears (but don’t be stupid)
We came across this wandering spider one night when we were on a VES (an amphibian and reptile survey which takes off the main rainforest trail).
It hung from a fine thread of silk, poised to catch flies or insects that might pass by.
I’ve always had an irrational fear of spiders - something that has improved over time, but mainly over the past 8 weeks. And despite the sage advice of my elders (“it’s more afraid of you than you are of it”) I can’t help but think they have sinister intentions and want to eat me in my sleep (note the use of the word “irrational” above).
But after seeing this spider through the macro lens, I started to notice the yellow colours of its hairs, the joints of its legs and its utter stillness; perhaps because it was hunting for insects, perhaps because a large mammal was standing 10cm away with a large piece of glass in its face.
And then all I could think about was holding my breath to be as still as possible, that I wanted to show the beautiful details of this much-feared spider and how close it would let us come.
We left feeling excited to have a closer look at the photos and grateful that we could share some time with this fascinating creature - not the emotions I’d have expected to feel after my first encounter with a wandering spider.
2. Evolution is incredible science-fiction inspiration
Every time the macro lens shows up an interesting characteristic or detail of an animal, one of the field staff at the MLC has an explanation for its existence. The reasons are very rarely unknown, almost never down to chance, and more often than not, look or sound like something from a fantasy world.
Take this glass frog as an example.
As light shines down on it, its transparency helps it blend into leaves when viewed by predators from below. This means the lower half of its internal organs and the outline of its bones and tendons are completely visible. It’s like a character from a futuristic TV series.
Or how about cordyceps?
Cordyceps is a type of fungus. Its spores attack the brain of insects, causing them to climb trees whilst fungus grows on its body until it dies. These spores then fall, and due to the height gained by the insect’s climb, they spread much further than if they were on the ground, increasing the cordyceps’ territory, reach and therefore ability to continue its lifecycle on a wider range of creatures.
Looking at the affected insects reminds me of a movie scene where the hero discovers the victims’ distorted corpses and vows to avenge them.
3. Take in the environment
I like a white box picture as much as the next person. With such controlled lighting and minimal distractions, the subject’s features are often really beautifully exaggerated, letting us see details we otherwise might not have noticed. And with less popular animals (snakes, insects and spiders, for example), this can often serve to highlight their overlooked beauty.
But sometimes by removing the animal from its natural environment we are also taking away this connection from the people looking at the image.
This tiger striped monkey tree frog was much more at home in its puddle on this palm leaf than the project room’s white box. And while the conditions in the rainforest can sometimes make photography difficult (if not also a little stressful), I think the rain streaks in this picture help give us more of an insight to this frog’s natural environment, bringing us closer into its world.
And though I admit I’m seriously guilty of anthropomorphising, I still can’t help make believe that this opossum is looking over its little world, one that we share and should help protect.
4. Things aren’t always what they appear
Whether it’s a seemingly lifeless leaf which is actually home to a community of spiders…
A non-venomous snake which mimics one of the most dangerous reptiles in the Amazon…
Or an insect that looks remarkably like a leaf…
… the jungle is never what it appears, and we’ll never know all its secrets.
5. We share one world but we are guests in this rainforest
I’ve already alluded to this, but the number of ‘missed’ wildlife opportunities I’ve had - either with my camera in hand or packed away in a dry bag - are countless, and will certainly continue.
However, maybe for my own sanity, I’ve learned I need to appreciate the moments I’ve not caught on camera as much as the ones I do. Maybe I won’t be able to zoom in to the outer-space-like eye of a snake or ‘awww’ at the expressions of a frog, but all of us living at the MLC are incredibly lucky to be sharing a habitat with some of the world’s most remarkable species.
We are guests in this rainforest. None of the opportunities we have to encounter its wildlife can be described as missed, as every one of them teaches us something new about its amazing, complex and only partly known world.
But, saying that, if your camera happens to be out of its bag… focus and shoot! You might not get the chance again.