Nature in 360° degrees
“At first, I loved. Then I observed. Finally, I photographed”
Some years ago, I was visiting an important photography contest in Milan, when my attention was caught by a photo on display showing a Marsican bear crossing a street in a small village inside Abruzzo National Park. It was a beautiful wildlife portrait but also a powerful visual story about the coexistence between humans and wildlife in Italy, my country.
The photographer was Marco Colombo, an Italian naturalist and keen science communicator. Marco is a regular guest on several Italian national TV programs and takes part in many exhibitions about Italian wildlife. He has been a winner at the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition three times and he is also a teacher of Faunistic Communication at Insubria University.
His photographs, papers and educational articles have been published in several magazines, including BBC Wildlife and Focus Wild.
What makes Marco so effective and appreciated by his audience is his extraordinary ability to unfasten the complexity of scientific language, making it extremely exciting and easy to understand for people.
The sincere and friendly relationship that Marco has with his followers is a model of transparent communication cleaned up from vulgarity, extremism and untruth.
His latest work, “Mask’s woodland-the secret life of the badger” is a book that contains 90 stunning photographs with related texts, offering to readers a comprehensive approach to the biology of the species in Italy.
When did you realise you wanted to work in conservation?
I have always loved animals. When I was young, my parents used to take me to the sea and into the woods, and they taught me to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us and to respect nature.
I learned to swimming just because I had a strong desire to see fish and the underwater world. One day my father bought me a mask, fins and armbands and took me to the sea. But I forgot the armbands at home, and this way I learned to swim for the first time!
My passion for photography started when I was just 11. Before the camera, I used to paint in my notebook where I noted observations, dates, hours and places. Then I began using my father’s camera and for me was just a way to bring good memories back home.
It was after university that photography become for me a true job, but starting to take pictures as a child helped me a lot to approach this world more easily.
My photography career has been rather unusual: I only took a basic photography course at high school, and above all, it was many, many years of apprenticeship and practice, making contact with professional experts, asking for information and going together into the field that taught me a lot and helped me to build the necessary experience.
There was not a particular episode that ignited the flame in me, but I have always loved animals and, secondarily, photographing them.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There is no typical day! I don’t have timetables and I don’t have holidays. Holidays can become work and work can become a holiday.
Over the years my approach has changed. Once I was chasing the most perfect single shot, dedicating every weekend to a different target species in a different place. Now I divide my work into projects. I am no longer interested in perfecting a single shot, preferring to collect photos to be included in a book, in which I can tell people a story linked to a specific theme.
What is the hardest part of your job?
The global health crisis has made the way we work worse.
They can close the borders of countries, you can risk getting sick and the trips fall through. In this job, if you can’t move, you can’t work.
The unpredictability factor is what distinguishes photography from other jobs and makes it exciting, but it means there’s no guarantee of achieving what I expected.
Moreover, the pressure is higher: some jobs require you to go out in the field many times to catch a particular target.
I always love being in nature and if I’m not working, I often leave the camera at home.
In photography, we often have to deal with people who are disrespectful or who improvise as photographers, practising the profession without honesty. We are few doing this job, and the image of the photographer has often been associated with a troublemaker.
As a scientific communicator, how do you manage relationships with people?
Extremism and arguments among people are one of the biggest problems on social networks and it is something that negatively influences doing conservation and exacerbates conflicts, especially around big issues like climate change or big carnivores.
We have to contextualize every topic, often there’s no right or wrong and the truth is in the middle. What a scientific communicator has to do is to have an overall view, give the right tools to people to reflect and invite them to be always polite and cautious in judgments. This is extremely important because this way we can break the tensions and prevent negative behaviours.
Another thing is dealing now with the strict rules of social media, where vulgar language is immediately censured, and this forces us to have always an ethically correct approach.
What are your main suggestions for people who would like to switch their careers and break into conservation?
To become a naturalist professionally, it might be necessary to take a degree in natural science or a related to subject. Doing a lot of fieldwork is the second step.
For those who want to become a communicator in science and conservation, the approach could be different. Doing a master’s degree could be a good starting point for people who have different jobs in the conservation field, working for example for parks or publishing houses and want to improve their communications skills.
Otherwise, if you want to become a photographer, what is really important is to have clear in mind that is not the same job as many years ago. Once upon a time, magazines used to contact photographers asking them to go to different places to create a specific photoshoot, but it’s not like this anymore (except for bigger publications like National Geographic). You have to create your own photographic project and then contact magazines to propose it, so obviously the risk is higher. My suggestion is to have a range of contacts as large as possible, in order to find someone interested in your project.
This is the reason why I prefer to do different jobs: it’s safer to diversify my income. I can choose to use my portfolio to spread scientific knowledge and this gives me the unique opportunity to use my photos multiple times, for books, exhibitions, conferences and so on.
What qualities or attitudes do you think a person should have to do this job at its best?
First, you have to be extremely passionate about your job and nature in general because it usually doesn’t generate immediate results and income.
So, you have to learn to be patient. For example, patience is vital when you are moderating a discussion on social media, you are talking to kids or you are in the field waiting for an animal to appear.
Another thing is curiosity. Maybe the questions you have in mind are the same that your audience has and this allows you to solve many doubts in advance and open discussions.
As I like to say, when you are a professional in search of animals, you have to be a great detective. It’s like solving a puzzle: you have to be able to put together different clues such as tracks, sighting and weather conditions and come to conclusions.
How do you expect conservation jobs will change over the years? What are the implications for those who will take up your career in the future?
Being a photographer will be more and more difficult over the years because more and more permissions are being requested from us and bureaucracy is increasing.
Photos will be less effective in communicating nature than videos.
About the naturalist profession, in my opinion collaborations with brands that do not deal directly with nature but want to link their name to it will increase. I refer, for example, to fishing brands that pay to organize exhibitions about shellfish. I think these kinds of synergies will increase considerably in the future.
Author Profile | Barbara Fioravanzo
With an academic background in International Relations and a specialization in Arctic Studies, Barbara currently works as a digital marketing and communication specialist for a non-profit organization in the sustainable tourism field.
Her hope is to be involved in sustainability projects for the polar regions.