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"It makes my heart beat faster": Jasper Doest on breaking the wildlife photography mould

Japanese macaques (also known as snow monkeys) bathe in hot springs at Jigokudani Yaen-koen Wild Snow Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. Taken in March 2007 on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens. © Jasper Doest

Jasper Doest's series of thought-provoking and award-winning portraits of Japanese snow monkeys elevated him to public prominence as a rising star of wildlife photography a decade ago. Far from resting on his laurels and devoting his energies to a subject for which he is now synonymous, the Dutch-based professional photographer is pursuing a more photojournalistic style, inspired by his emotional responses to man's interaction with the environment.

It is, he freely admits, a new approach that requires a lot of talking – usually to himself. "I ask myself: 'What is it that's causing this emotional reaction?' By asking that question I often get answers, and then I know the ingredients I need to bring together for a composition," Jasper says.

A black and white shot shows hundreds of cranes standing close together on a patch of land, with four flying past the camera.
Every year towards the end of August, just after the monsoon rains have ceased, thousands of these demoiselle cranes fly in to the sleepy village of Khichan in Rajasthan, India. They transform it into a noisy, crowded place with their calls, and darken the sky with their forms. Taken on 4 December 2013 on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. © Jasper Doest

While some photographers would think twice about changing an award-winning style, Jasper believes that by stepping out of his perceived comfort zone he is now following a photographic path that is more in tune with his personal interests. "I have a Bachelor of Science in climate change," he says. "That's my background and that's what makes my heart beat faster – but I realised my images were not about that, so I decided to change my path."

Christian Ziegler’s

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But Jasper is quick to point out that his photo stories are not purely documentary in their perspective – he works hard to retain an artistic element in his compositions, too. "The decisions I make are based on the aesthetics as well, so I don't only take the narrative into account. I have to see my own personal identity in the image, which I think is a more artistic style than a photojournalistic style. But I enjoy both, so it's a mixture of the two."

His new photographic path has already been recognised with awards in many of the world's major nature photography contests. His reputation was further enhanced by his inclusion on the jury of the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 competition, run by London's Natural History Museum, and through a nomination in the Nature Stories category of the World Press Photo Contest 2018.

A white stork stands in a landfill site, among old car tyres and plastic packaging waste.
The Spanish populations of the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) suffered a marked decline from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s, due to the alteration of their feeding areas. Recently their populations have recovered, mainly due to new food resources: rubbish dumps on the Iberian Peninsula. Taken on 15 August 2014 on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Jasper Doest

As a serial winner and a past judge, Jasper's perspective on photo competitions is worth listening to. With that in mind, we talked to him about his opinion of awards.

How important are awards for a photographer?

"If it wasn't my profession, I wouldn't compete in them, because why would you want to be better than somebody else if you do it for enjoyment? But competitions like Wildlife Photographer of the Year, World Press Photo and European Wildlife Photographer of the Year are useful for your career, if you are able to harness the marketing and self-promotion opportunities of competition success. If you do nothing after you receive an award, I don't think it makes a difference – attention soon dies out."

With all of your success so far, do you still feel the need to enter awards?

"I do. If I look at my higher goal of giving a voice to subjects that are often misunderstood, or making change on a larger scale, I feel I'm only just beginning. That's the goal, and the awards help me to reach that platform to speak to a larger audience. That's the only reason I enter – to get on that platform."

An aerial shot shows rippled patterns on a sandy beach.
The beach of the uninhabited island of Rottumeroog in the Netherlands, where Jasper spent 50 days, in solitude, for National Geographic Magazine. Taken on 24 November 2013 on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Jasper Doest

What's the story behind your recent change of direction?

"I think it happened when I spent 50 days on Rottumeroog, the only uninhabited island in the Netherlands. It was for the Dutch edition of National Geographic Magazine – it was its 125th anniversary and it wanted something very special. This island is protected by the highest European conservation laws and because nobody lives there, I had a lot of time to myself, with my own thoughts. It definitely helped clear my mind and I realised that my inner voice and visual voice were not running parallel."

A yellow-tinged landscape shows a cloud of spray over a landfill site, where storks are perched on top of rubbish piles.
White storks forage on a landfill in southern Spain, where water is sprayed to dilute the heavy acids released during the decomposition process. White storks have changed their migratory behaviour due to these landfills. Taken on 12 August 2014 on a Canon EOS 100D with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens and a Canon Extender EF 1.4x III. © Jasper Doest

Lately, you've been photographing storks in a way that is far removed from our traditional perception of how these birds live. How has this project influenced your development as a photographer?

"Traditionally, nature photography has been about celebrating the stunning beauty of the natural world. This often means that any human element is avoided. For example, we might move slightly to the side to avoid a house in the background. However, since white storks have always dwelled around humans, there was no way to avoid this being part of their natural history. While following their annual migration from Western Europe to the African continent I was horrified to find these birds – which are regarded as a symbol of new life and prosperity – foraging on the detritus of human society on the vast open landfills on the Iberian Peninsula. I realised that I shouldn't leave us out of the equation while telling these stories."

A seagull is seen through a hole in a metal grid, sitting in a nest.
A herring gull nests underneath a metal footbridge. The bird had been nesting on one of the fishing boats in a small Irish harbour, but because the fishermen were afraid the nest would topple overboard, they put it in a fishing container and placed it in the harbour wall, where the bird continued nesting. Taken on 23 May 2014 on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Jasper Doest

You have enjoyed competition success with these pictures, too. Is nature photography generally becoming more documentary in style, and should we expect to see more of this in future competition exhibitions?

"The photojournalistic way of telling stories about wild animals is relatively new to wildlife photography, but I'd say it comes naturally with the sense of awareness that we're getting about the planet. We're finally starting to see the consequences of our behaviour. Nature is beautiful, and something that should be celebrated, but we have been celebrating the natural world [in an idealistic way that distances it from our lives] for years. Meanwhile, many people today don't seem to realise that nature is our home and something that we should take care of.

"The images that we see in the photojournalistic categories of the major competitions display why there is an immediate need for these stories – because we are currently exploiting our planet to a point where there is almost no way back."

A flock of starlings perform their twilight murmurations over large buildings in Rotterdam.
Eurasian starlings fly over the Dutch city of Rotterdam in large murmurations at dusk, to avoid predators. Taken on 24 December 2015 on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Jasper Doest

I no longer look for technical perfection, because I believe it's not perfection that moves the heart.

How has your work changed in terms of your technique and the lenses and gear that you rely on for this?

"I used to be a long-lens shooter, with my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM being my go-to lenses. Since I started to show the bigger picture, I have worked with shorter focal lengths, in order to add context.

"I enjoy working with a fixed Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens because this pushes me to think about the context a little more than I would with a zoom lens, but I would still consider the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens to be my workhorse.

"Also, I no longer look for technical perfection, because I believe it isn't perfection that moves the heart. However, I do believe the aesthetic part is still important while building visual narratives for viewers."

Seven white storks sit in their nests, built on the support beams under a road bridge in Portugal.
White storks nest underneath a highway bridge in Portugal. Taken on 26 March 2014 on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM and 2x extender. © Jasper Doest

What's in your camera bag for a typical day in the field – if there is such a thing?

"There really isn't such a thing. I like a very organic approach – I can only anticipate what the world has to offer me, and I choose my tools based on my expectations. Knowing that the main part of the job is gaining access to a scene, I can often work with a fixed 35mm or 24-70mm lens once I have access, so I always bring something in that range.

"If the scenery is visually loaded, I add a 16-35mm, just in case. If I know it will be difficult to gain access, I add telephoto equipment. And depending on the situation, I add studio flashes. It's only on those occasions where I know capturing context will be difficult that I bring out the large telephoto lenses such as a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM or a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM."

A man holds a young impala, with a hat over its eyes.
A young impala with health problems is rescued and brought to a local vet in South Africa. Taken on 2 April 2016 on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Jasper Doest

Is there anything that you feel Canon could add to its repertoire, to make a positive difference to your photography?

"I'm still hoping for a full-frame mirrorless system. Canon's DSLRs are doing an amazing job for me. However, when working with people I notice a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II or even a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens can be intrusive. People don't respond as much to smaller camera systems, which makes it much easier to become a fly on the wall when working on documentary shots."

With your work changing so much recently, do you still describe yourself as a wildlife photographer?

"No. I've removed the word wildlife from my website, so it's just my name and then 'photography'. I've had this issue since I was a teenager – I don't really like thinking in boxes. You limit yourself when you say 'wildlife photographer'. You can still photograph wildlife and tell stories about wildlife, but by saying, 'I am a wildlife photographer', you go and sit inside the box and you're blinded by the words. You should always try to look outside the box, to see what else is there."

Written by Keith Wilson


Jasper Doest’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Jasper Doest kitbag

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers high-definition footage.

Lens

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

Lens

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