Monkeys' eye view: why photographers need trees too.

March 02, 2015 6 min read

From marine biologist to specialist primate photographer via a course in climbing trees, Andrew Walmsley is a wildlife photographer on a mission: to use his work to help people connect emotionally with forests and the species that depend on them.  Scaling everything from 70 metre strangler figs in the tropics to ancient oak trees in wintry woodlands, he has documented the beauty, behaviour and conservation status of scores of species and won awards and international acclaim in the process.  In today's blog, we interview Andrew about why trees are the key to his photography - from the technical to the emotional - on every level.

How did you get into photography?

In early 2005, I was volunteering as the Science Officer for Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre in Wales.  I'd completed my degree in Aquatic Bioscience and was carrying out distance sampling on the Centre's dolphin research boat trips.  This year happened to be the first year they'd started creating photo ID catalogues, so part of my role was also photographing every bottlenose dolphin in the area.  It was at this point that I realised how much I loved the challenge of photographing wildlife - on choppy seas, in squalls of rain and with a lot of things to consider and get right in terms of lighting and composition.  For me, it was the perfect combination of science and creativity, and kept me close to the animals that had so interested me since I was very young.

At what point did you start to make the connection between photography and conservation?

I've always recognised the power of a strong image - I loved nature as a child, and spent hours poring over sticker albums and stunning images of wildlife from around the world.  When I was documenting the dolphins, I realised that I could try to inspire people in the way that I had been inspired myself - I could take my knowledge of photography and use it to give people a connection to wildlife that they otherwise might not be able to have.  

My belief in combining photography and conservation grew even firmer when I became closely involved with researchers at Oxford Brookes University in 2010.  Conversations with experts in the threats facing slow lorises, orangutans and Sulawesi crested black macaques led me to make a six month trip to Indonesia in 2012, where I had my eyes opened to the diversity of life in rainforests and the terrifying scale of the threats facing them. Speaking to people at home on my return, I realised how hidden some of these threats are - deep in academic journals or in doom-laden headlines which switch people off the species concerned before they've even got to know them - and saw how effective simple, powerful images can be in getting people to look at an animal and feel something more visceral than just a passing interest.

When did you start climbing trees, and why?

The answer to that, really, is that I started climbing trees when I was a child.  If my parents ever lost me, they knew they'd find me again up the nearest tree.  I don't know why it took me so long to realise that I could learn to do it properly, but once I did, I didn't waste any time - I wanted to know how to get as close as possible to the habitats that harbour my favourite species.  I knew that doing so would enable me to show people how the world looks from a monkey's, ape's or bird's eye view, and just how fragile that world can often be.  On the technical front, I just knew the light would look different from up in the branches, and that it would give my photos a quality they'd never had before.  In March 2012, I took a Basic Canopy Access Proficiency course at Westonbirt Arboretum, just a couple of weeks before leaving for Indonesia.  When I got there, I was incredibly glad I'd equipped myself with the knowledge to get up high and see landscapes differently.  On one particularly amazing day in South Sulawesi, I climbed a 70 metre strangler fig and spent the night sleeping up it.  In the morning, the canopy spread out below me made me feel connected to trees like never before, and as the sun rose and the forest woke up with a crescendo of bird song and animal noises,the burning conviction that I have to do something to protect them began.  

What's been your best tree-climbing experience to date?

When I first went to Indonesia, one of the species I fell in love with was the Sulawesi crested black macaque, or yaki, as it's locally known.  Returning in 2014 after two years of planning, dreaming and honing my tree-climbing techniques, I was determined to fulfil my long-held ambition of photographing monkeys from a slightly different perspective than usual, by climbing 50 feet up a tree in Tangkoko Nature Reserve, North Sulawesi, to meet them at their own level.

After getting out of bed at 4 am, I trekked through the forest by the light of my head torch to make sure I didn't miss the monkeys before they moved on to forage elsewhere. I set up my gear, ascended a tree and sat there for a few hours, until a lone male came wandering past, foraging around the base of the tree for 20 minutes or so. He stayed on the ground, then climbed a tree far away before disappearing.  Feeling pretty hungry and tired, I decided to call it a day. I descended, coiled my rope, packed up and started heading back, happy that it had worked, and that the morning had been enjoyable and relaxing. That was when the rest of the monkeys arrived.  Pulling my phone from my pocket, I saw five messages from the researchers who follow the monkeys on a daily basis.  'On their way to you now', 'Getting close to you', 'I hope you're ready'  Why didn't I check my phone before leaving the tree? I have never, in all my life, felt so stupid.  

Some rustles in the undergrowth betrayed the monkeys' arrival. First throw: miss. Second: miss. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth: all miss. Again and again I threw the rope, going wide of the target every time. About to give up and watch my opportunity slide away, I managed to swallow my panic and finally made my mark. Click, click, heave, scramble, I hauled myself skywards, careful to stay on the correct line and climb safely, but using the adrenaline to make every move count. I'm not sure I've ever climbed so quickly. The monkeys were all around me by this time, picking through the leaves for morsels of food, still not fazed by their relatives unexpectedly coming to lunch.

The next hour was amazing. I was treated like a part of the furniture, another being going about his day in the canopy. Nobody tampered with my equipment, nobody showed any fear, no aggression. The experience taught me, beyond any doubt, that everyone has to see wildlife in its natural environment. 

What about future plans?  Have you got any exciting projects in the pipeline?

I'm going back to Indonesia, specifically Sumatra, in April this year.  This time, it's to photograph other people learning to climb trees. Tony Darbyshire of Sawpod, along with a team of arborists, is going to train the staff of the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit in climbing trees so that they have an even greater skill set at their disposal when rescuing orangutans from patches of forest threatened by destruction.  By getting to the same level as the team, I'll be able to show the lengths they go to to protect Critically Endangered Sumatran orangutans - the incredible hard work and dedication that goes into locating, darting, capturing and rehabilitating them for release into forests where they can live wild in safety. I'm also looking forward to showing off my Tentsile Connect and using it to protect myself from mosquitoes and position myself for long periods of time as I capture the action around me. 

Finally, what advice do you have for anyone who wants to use photography, tree-climbing or both to effect change for the benefit of the environment?

If you want to climb trees, learn from the professionals - there are lots of great arborists who are also tree-lovers and will teach you how to be safe, adaptable and, above all, climb without damaging the trees in the process. Trees really are the most amazing places to sit - I can't urge you enough to get up there, whether you pitch a tent a few metres up or scale the highest heights. There are ever more tools at your disposal to help you get into the canopy and see things in a different way.

In terms of the photography itself, photograph what you love, what you know and what you care about - don't try and replicate other people's work, or you'll just get a diluted version of their pictures.  If you truly care about something, you'll keep going back; keep wanting to get pictures that show the world how you see it so that they can start to care too.

If you want to find out more about Andrew's work and the projects he supports, check out his Facebook page, Twitter feed and www.andrewwalmsleyphotography.com


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