Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2011

On the Tracks of a Coyote - Martin Cooper

On the Tracks of a Coyote - Martin Cooper, Urban Wildlife

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition returns to the Natural History Museum for its 47th year. In the company of the winning entries, I moved through the sky, the sea, met animals in their habitat, devoid of colour and saw the creatures through urban eyes. 

Owned jointly by BBC Wildlife Magazine and The Natural history Museum and with over 41,000 entries from 95 countries, the £10,000 prize is much coveted. But not more so than being named the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the year by the esteemed judging panel. 

Eased in gently with our kin, the mammals, the images are faultless in their skill, as well as plunging us into the sea with Polar bears and a glistening blue whale feasting on krill. 

A notable category for me was Wildscapes – a selection of the finest landscapes on earth. The ethereal glow from Stephane Vetter’s winning shot Celestial Arch combined with the Denis Budkov’s shot of the Klyuchevskaya eruption in 2009 make for an unworldly and explosive category. 

Nature in Black and White strips away everything but composition, quality and intensity. The winner of the category is the Irish photographer Peter Delany with Big Foot, a subtly lit shot of an elephant’s foot detailing each wrinkle and hair. 

The animals stare unnervingly back at us in Animal Portraits. The winning image, Sinuousness, by Marc Colombo, contrasts the sharpness of the grass snake with the motion blur of the water caused by a long shutter speed, showing he is not just adept with a camera, but light on his feet. The runner up, Trust, by Klaus Echle is a personal favourite of mine. A female fox gazes expectantly at the viewer with no indication of aggression or fear. 

The Young Photographers are split into three sections, under 10, 11-14 and 15-17. Each one could perhaps only be picked out as a young photographer by the naivety of the image, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. While the adult photographers will wait for days to catch one ant on a leaf, children don’t have the patience. What they do give us is birds sharing an oyster, animals cooling off underneath an irrigation system in the middle-eastern, midday sun and a bee tentatively entering a magnolia flower.  Lessons of detail and enjoyment as good as any we can learn from children. 

The overall winner of the competition is Daniel Beltrá, from Spain, whose shot Still Life in Oil is a portrait of eight pelicans cowering in a corner of a box at the bird rescue facility centre inFort Jackson,Louisianaafter the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Beltrá also won the Photojournalist of the Year award with a portfolio of five other images from the same disaster. The rest of the images are taken from the air and show the magnitude of the oil spill, magnificent in its disaster. Erik Sampers, judge comments of the shots: “With a poignancy made more shocking by their beauty”. 

While the content is a humbling commentary on whom we share this precarious earth with, the atmosphere understates the majesty of the pieces. A sombre mood greets us at the entrance.  Dark walls, generic lighting and the mounting of the images create an almost stark feeling which, despite the implied undertones of the sponsor, only serve to remind the viewer how far removed we are from nature and the environment in which these photos are taken.

To book tickets click here

To browse images click here

Tot visit the BBC Wildlife Section of the website click here

 

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Science and the General Election 2010

The third in the series of debates about Science and the General Election 2010, the panelists were Lord Paul Drayson (Labour), Dr. Adam Afriyie (Conservatives) and Dr. Evan Harris (Liberal Democrats) and was chaired by Susan Watts, editor of BBC Newsnight.

All three of the panelists came at the debate from a different angle. Although they are all vying for our vote, Labour has a recent track record and a corner to defend, The Conservatives are ‘the opposition’ and Liberal Democrats were in the enviable position of being able to make what appeared to be clear and specific policy.

Lord Paul Drayson kicked off the introductions by stressing the importance that Labour feel science plays in the future prosperity of our country. Since coming into power the have doubled the science budget and British citizens have received more Nobel prizes than any other country, outside the USA. Lord Drayson said he would like to see the ‘transformation’ of jobs in science, but also claims Gordon Brown ‘gets’ science and has the ability to look at the big and the small and, together with his predecossor, Blair, they have all presided in a ‘renaissance’ in British Science.

Dr. Adam Afriyie was the next to outline his Party’s position: fixing the economy… After a drawn out few minutes discussing various Labour failings in the economy (including the relevant facts of STFC cutting research grants by £1bn and withdrawal from 26 projects) Afriyie moved onto science by linking it into the new economic mode proposed by the Conservatives. We heard from him a 3 point plan: 1. Education – curriculum and incentives. 2. Stable Funding – ring fencing and a multi-year science budget and 3. Delivering the right conditions for innovation – ensuring strong jobs for science.

Dr. Evan Harris was the final panelist to deliever his introduction. After a bit of light banter with the crowd he started by informing us of some statistics rebuking Labour’s claim of a 50% increase in the science budget- citing a corresponding growth in GDP which results proportionally in less growth in real terms than Labour is claming, but still more than ever happened under the Conservatives. Not to mention many other items coming under the umbrella of the science budget than previously had done. Harris commented that we are above only Italy in the G7 countries in science budget and compared out stimulus of a VAT cut to that of Germany, France and USA, all of whom have invested in science and technology. He then moved onto their proposals, which centered heavily around education: cutting tuition fees; cutting graduate debt, looking after postgraduates, post doctorates and science teachers; ensuring that science is a feasible career for women to continue to work in and ensuring that universities use our tax money to fill their science places before inventing more media degrees to fill. He then discussed libel law and how they are being used to silence scientists… and then he ran out of time!

The debate quickly moved onto a few questions from Susan Watts of newsnight, including, predictably, one about a hung Parliament in which the panelists were largely in agreement with one another that this would not necessarily be a disaster for science – it is a unusual area for policy in that respect. Watts followed this up with a question aimed specifically at Afriyie, attempting him to specify whether cuts would be made in attempt to ‘shore up’ the economy. All three panelists ha a chance to speak, but it unhelpfully became a series of ‘he said-she said’ – although by this point it was become increasingly clear that, in many ways, Labour and Lib Dems are on the same side of the [ring] fence on this issue.

We saw questions from the floor, including from a first time voter about investments into space programs (at which point it was revealed that Dyson manufactures his vacuum cleaners in Malaysia, unlike the satellite manufacturers who have prospered under Drayson, who have factories in the UK); a question about students loans; a question from Sense about Science asking whether the panelists support proposals being embedded into ministerial code (which was followed by political bickering when Afriyie said he ‘would love to see this’ and was accused being non-commital); a question asking whether panelists would approve of a science advisor in the Treasury (Afriyie claimed that he had been lobbying for a ‘evidence based policy approach instead of policy based evidence’ and that he would like to see new MPs being given ‘science induction lessons’ – to which Harris suggested starting with current MPs and cited the recent Chris Grayling knife crime statistical fail as an example. He then used the opportunity to enter into a soliloquy chastising the recent use of statistics to distort facts and, conversely, the ignorance of statistics that have resulted in the recent dismissal of Professor Nutt on drug policy. Harris received the only spontaneous applause of the night.); following that was a question about women in science, which warranted almost typical answers in all panelists (Drayson suggested picking out women as ‘one to watch’ and ensuring the money follows them and they are presented as role models, Harris gave a thoughtful answer suggesting target them young, breaking stereotypes and finding where the discrepancies between women going into science and women continuing it for years arises and Afriyie suggested career advice and diverged away from women almost immediately going back to his self-promotion on his lobbying, suggesting studies on what policy actually affects peoples’ decisions.) we then heard a question from Martin Taylor of the Royal Society who asked about ‘long term maintenance’ of science, (which promted Afriyie to suck up to Martin Taylor and the other 2 to shoot Afriyie down; bickering ensued. This was halted by Watts who turned back to Taylor to ask him if he had a clear enough answer or if he would like clarificaton! He said he would like it, but I fear did not get it!)

Having spoken to some ladies who worked for Cancer Research UK and having looked at the various comments on twitter, it seems that funding is a specific area that needs some serious work yet wasn’t given the address it deserved, and so desperately needs, by panelists on the night, but, as we were reminded by all three panelists, (and a fair point it is, too) it isn’t for politicians to decide where the funding goes. Perhaps a debate for another day?

By the time their summary came round, I was able to form an opinion based on what I had seen from the candidates.

Lord Paul Drayson for labour had to toe the party line and defend his corner. He has only been in the role for 18 months and, while I’m sure the sentiment is not unanimous, from where I am standing he hasn’t done that bad a job in that short time. It was clear that he would like to be given the chance to continue on the role. As Harris pointed out, there were examples of fudging statistics in the claim that science spending had gone up by 50%. Nothing new there.

Dr. Evan Harris was clear, passionate, made specific suggestions about specific questions and I don’t think I heard once ounce of rhetoric from him. Of course, Lib Dems are in the position to be able to be seen to be making these promises having been in perpetual third place, but science is something they obviously hold in high regard, which is where it should be.

Contrasting with Harris, Dr. Adam Afriyie for Conservatives can barely talk the talk, let alone walk the walk. He carries himself well and is a good orator, generally speaking, but as we all know, science is not an area where being ‘general’ is accepted. He avoided answering questions directly, was non-committal without acknowledging that he was being non-committal (quelle surprise for a politician, I know!) and seemed, in actual fact, out of his depth talking about science issues.

In my eyes, Dr. Evan Harris won that debate. I think he engaged with the audience, was specific, passionate and was clearly a scientist first and politician second. The problem is, as we know, that scientists sometimes have problems interacting with the general public, and there might be a chance that Afriyie will charm the masses – which will result in the science budget being cut, of course, unlike with either of the other 2 parties.

However, the election is not just about science, and is not to be fought between just the three main parties (as I must keep reminding myself, we are in a democracy!) so the quest continues!

9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People

The glittery disco balls in the foyer of Hammersmith Apollo reflected the excitement I’d been feeling all week for 9 Lessons and Carols and the long-awaited rise from the ashes of the brain. It’s not often I get to treat my Dad, Dr. Saronimo, and after seeing Robin Ince’s School for the Gifted a few months ago I knew it’d be right up his street. Plus I thought by seeing him in real life, it might get me one step closer to marrying befriending Dr Ben Goldacre.

One of the first things said on stage was the announcement that Rage Against the Machine – ‘Killing in the Name Of’ had beaten The X Factory to number 1 – a movement I felt proud to be part of, so I cheekily told my Dad the defining lyric. (I didn’t write it, Dad, that’s what it says in the song. Heh heh). I knew I was amongst friends.

The next three and a half hours saw scientists, journalists, comedians and musicians (professions which are not mutually exclusive, it would appear!) take to the stage.

Robin Ince was our host for the evening. He first entered my stratosphere as a comedian supporting Ricky Gervais a few years ago, but has since carved out his own career in a direction I for one condone! He introduced every act and kept the full-to-the-brim show moving as quickly as possible. In his links he ironically ridiculed the way science has fallen out of favour whilst barraging us with scientific facts, and mocked the creationist/Intelligent Design crusade to have creationism taught in science lessons. He is incredibly smart and passionate, which comes across when he talks and he really set the pace and tone for the evening.

Of the comedians I was most pleasantly surprised by Al Murray. I knew he was a smart guy, but I’ve never been a huge fan of his Pub Landlord character. He proved himself to be a competent wordsmith as he took us on a military-inspired journey proving God’s existence as evidenced by bacon! Chris Addison was his usual excitable-puppy self, traversing subjects and digressing which gave the impression he can think far quicker than he can speak! Shappi Khorsandi explained to us that she wasn’t allowed christmas due to the slightly unsavoury nature of an old man breaking in, creeping up to her room and emptying his sack! Jonny Ball seemed like he was from a different era with his slapstick and one-liners, but pulled it back at the end by bigging  up intellectualism and scientific methods. Nathalie Haynes,  Mark Steel, Richard Herring and the ever popular Dara O’Briain were also on the bill, each bringing to the table their own views on atheism, secularism and the demise of intellectualism and bagging a few laughs to boot!

Libel reform pioneer Simon Singh took the stage and talked briefly about his libel case against the BCA, asking us all to get involved at www.libelreform.org. He then moved on from libel to talk about the Bible (yes, I do know that rhymes, and yes, I also think he did it on purpose), in particular, the alleged ‘codes’ in the bible. He demonstrated to us that this is not magic but mere probability, using an example of Moby Dick predicting the tragic demise of Princess Di!  Dr Ben Goldacre bedazzled us with how coherently he could speed-talk in order to fit an overview of his investigation into treatments, placebos, no-cebos and patients exhibiting the side-effects they are expecting to. Or perhaps I was just bedazzled by his reason for speaking quickly – something to do with a data appendage… The demure Professor Brian Cox came on to talk to us about the LHC at CERN and his favourite things about the universe: the juxtaposition of the simplicity of the sub-atomic particles and the complexity and magnitude of the universe. See here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAVjF_7ensg for a video of the Hubble Deep Field Image.

The atmosphere became electric as Professor Richard Dawkins walked onto the stage and read excerpts from some of his publications. Ironically thought of as the god of atheism, we were told later that a teenager walked into rehearsals with a t-shirt declaring ‘Richard Dawkins is God’ he apparently quipped “Hmm, that means I believe I don’t exist”! It was fantastic to see him doing a reading live, as one of the most lauded and well-known atheists. His derision for alternative medicines and alternative uses for well-defined words such as ‘energy’ in the healing ‘profession’ came across loud and clear and had a slight air of intellectual snobbery – he knew his audience!

Gavin Osbourne played us a ballad he wrote about a young couple gazing at the stars in which he proudly manages to rhyme Copernicus and ‘her knickers’. Pan’s person was something quite different – a Character created by Joanne Neary, she performed an interpretive dance to the Cat Stevens song ‘Moonshadow’. Jim Bob collaborated with the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra to perform Angel Strike, which was beautiful and haunting. MFMO were the ‘house band’ for the Godless christmas and the 27 strong group were impeccably behaved in between their own performances and supporting performances, as well as being spot on musically! Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden were the final act to perform, blasting us with ‘Peace and Quiet’ to finish of the night! The musical act that stood out for me was Baba Brinkman who performed a peer reviewed rap to the backing track of I’m A African, musing that by trying to write an exclusive tune, Dead Prez had inadvertantly written the most inclusive lyrics possible!

In the middle we were set upon by Laurie Taylor, who is on the editorial board for The New Humanist . The Rationalist Association are the charity responsible producing the magazine and he explained their plan of action to relieve religion of its illogical and outdated hold over legislation and public services. I might subscribe, if only for the religious ‘Top Trumps’ you can only get with a subscription!

There was such a variety of performers and talks last night, it is a testament to all of them that the only problem was not enough time on each act to really get into it. There were a couple of acts, ones perhaps who didn’t have an academic background, who would have benefited with more time for their act to find their feet with us the audience, but the show was throughly enjoyable from start to finish. Robin Ince did a fantastic job and for all the jokes made about ‘Nerdstock’, I don’t doubt for a second they would be able to find enough acts to fill a weekend. My only question would be where to buy the tickets!

Tunnel 228

The Bloomberg Arts Club usually holds its private showings of exhibitions in varying degrees of grandeur. This was one of the more exciting ones.

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Tunnel 228 doesn’t look like much from the outside – merely a blue door, in fact, and I entered with pending judgement. Having not heard a great deal about this exhibition other than that it was a ‘theatrical event’ hosted by the Old Vic Theatre I was unsure what to expect;  my confusion was not alleviated by the balaclava-clad usher who barked at us to keep on our surgical masks at all times.

The tunnel gave way to a cavernous space filled with damp and minimally lit. Sounds came from the corners and shadowy figures mooched in and out of view. The nooks and crannies of 228 were teeming with detail, such as a collection of toy cars while the open areas were home to the weird and wonderful installations. A gilded sculpture of angels fighting took pride of place and behind that stood a large sphere containing a water-based tornado. Every corner turned revealed another piece to the macabre performance with actors waking across the ceiling and bodies held up by helium balloons floating in the indoor lake. Giant 2-dimensional paper trees and paper moths filled one room while chicks burst out of a coffin off to the side. One of the main events was what looked to be a gun cupboard with two eye holes – one at eye level and one waist high – for which people were queuing. As with everything else that day I had no idea what to expect when I reached the front of the queue so I peered in and watched a couple inside naked and kissing. Worried about being caught watching for too long, I moved on.

Hours could be spent in 228 exploring the art – the aforementioned is a small proportion of the show and does not remotely do the atmosphere justice. I’d recommend you book a place and if you can’t book because it is full up (which it is) then you should just turn up and beg them to let you in. An agreement between all the collaborators and the generosity of British Rail in allowing them to use the wonderful, historical space mean that the exhibition, if you are able to get a place, is free.

The welcome reception at The Waterloo Brasserie was very welcoming and I took the opportunity to embrace the complimentary food and the free bar. While I was digging into a miniature burger my guest asked “Who’s that guy that played Kaiser Sozë in The Usual suspects?”
“What, Kevin Spacey?” I asked confused as to how this was related in any way to our conversation.
“Yeah, he’s right behind you” I turned round and chuckled to myself at the likeness this chap displayed to Kevin Spacey. A little too much, actually, it turned out to be him! (Which is actually not surprising considering he is the artistic director of The Old Vic).

After seeing him talking to Jamie Theakston at the end of the bar, we decided to take our opportunity for a chat while there was a spare seat at his table. He was warm, funny and friendly and talked about the show with passion and humility, joking with us about the topical nature of the surgical masks and ‘swine flu’ and crediting the many collaborators for their vision in putting on the show. He then gave a short speech to everyone thanking the collaborators, British Rail, Bloomberg, Punchdrunk and the many other individuals and organisations who had realised the concept in the space of 6 weeks and enabled them to show the performance for free.

All in all, a fantastic evening and I would thoroughly recommend this exhibition as an excellent source of entertainment.

Stop the War Coalition Demo 10-Jan-09

I went along as a casual observer. Having had the point of view of Israel in the media seeping into my stratosphere since I can remember, I felt it was about time I saw the situation from the ‘other angle’:  Palestine.

As I entered the tube and started to ride the rails I looked around, wondering who else was going to the demo. I didn’t have to wonder long as I caught the eye of my next-seat-neighbour who then asked me if I was going to the demo. It turned out nearly the whole carriage was! We ranged from early 20s to middle aged with a mixture of moods. Some excited, some nervous, some calm, as if they had done this thousands of times before (they probably had) and we laughed and joked about ‘The Man’ as the nearest tube station was shut “due to over-crowding” and the tube had to carry us all on to the next stop. “They won’t get rid of us that easily” joked one rapscallion. As we passed through the oh-so-over-crowded station onto the next, the fact that it was a lot more busy in rush hour made most of us more indignant to attend.

I walked across a misty Hyde-Park towards Speaker’s Corner – the assembly point. The whole park was laden with Police officers and the luminous vests of Stewards pointing us in the direction of the huge crowd. And the crowd was huge. Being 5ft2″ makes it hard to see exactly how big a crowd is, but my trusty camera elevated by my less than gangly arm showed a magnitude of people that looked so great it faded into the mist after about 50 meters. Word on the street was there was over 100,000 people in the park that day.

Then followed speaker after speaker: Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, Tariq Ali, Annie Lennox were amongst the well known and then several others all of whom brought a different angle to the debate including education (Israel had stopped ships leaving Gaza taking the most promising Palestinian students to safety) to aid (Israel have blocked the route to Gaza to halt any medical and humanitarian aid coming into the territory) to media (Israel have banned any international journalists from entering the area, which results in a very slanted tale of Gaza and its inhabitants) to government (Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger imploring Gordon Brown to commit to aid and refuse preference to Israel in any trade deals).

The short break in between each speaker was littered by the chant of the day “Free, free: Palestine”. The park kept on filling, people called out and the crowd rallied. There were signs everywhere, stickers being passed around, toddlers on the shoulders of their parents and with the final group of speakers came an unexpected silence. A group of five young children who each read out the names of ten of their Palestinian counterparts who had been killed in the recent fighting. I can only assume the silence attributed to the crowd was a result of reflecting upon their own childhood in comparison with the horrors that these children have had to face. I remembered hearing stories about the children of the Gaza strip who had to be escorted to school by their parents who could do little but offer moral support against the gunfire which attempted to dissuade them. Just as the clouds could no longer hold back the snowflakes that had been threatening to fall all morning, it was all I could do to stop the tears from freezing my cheeks as the final child struggled to read out the names of the poor, tiny soldiers.

As we all made our way to the starting point for the march I took a look around and noticed what appeared to be a cross section of society. There were the young, the old, (the really young and the really old!) men, women, children, groups, individuals, pairs, organizations, clubs, brown, white, yummy mummies, chavs… We all led such different lives on any normal days but today our paths had crossed to unite in our distaste for the violence.

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I started near the back and walked quickly so that I could take in as much as possible. I passed the marching band, giving their music to pass the time and to beat out a rhythm for the chanting; the young communists with their megaphone leading the surrounding protesters in a call for immediate justice; the choir who had written their own lyrics to the tunes of hymns voicing their disgust and asking us all to pray. I saw tiny children holding up signs and banners enjoying the hustle and bustle and the noise; groups such as ‘Jews against Israel’ and The National Islamic Association all marching side by side chanting together. We walked from Hyde Park towards High Street Kensington in the freezing cold. I saw and met some interesting people on the way.

A young hippy couples held hands and shouted, letting off steam left over from teenage angst, no doubt. Parents with their kids in tow who didn’t know what to make of the situation but joined in none-the-less making extra noise. A group of mid-teenage Muslim girls who had such passion and fire shouting “Israel: terrorists!” as they pushed their way to the front of the tight crowd and threw their shoes at the Israeli embassy. One couple had traveled all the way from Liverpool.

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As the crowd gathered outside the embassy everyone pushed forwards to express their anger at the Embassy. Shoes were thrown in their hundreds, signs broken and the pieces lobbed up at the armed police surveying from the next building. The tension in the air was mounting as the day grew darker and fireworks made their way over the wall from the crowd. Up past the embassy the dull echo of more speakers started up at the end point of the march. Having not thought to bring extra shoes to throw myself, I pushed on and made my way to the end of the route. All of a sudden, calm descended and many of the Muslims on the march reached into their bags. They pulled out mats. They got on their knees facing east and began to pray. Where one had started more would come and join and soon the streets were clustered with groups of people fulfilling one of their obligations to Allah.

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I felt something there that day: a sense of community – people uniting for a common purpose, flexing their right to protest about the evils in the world. Time will tell whether the violence stops – history will judge who was right and who was wrong. But joining the demonstration stopped me feeling powerless, it changed the despair into anger into defiance, which is more likely to result in action.