The world's best nature photographers will converge to raise awareness of the need for wildlife preservation.
Amid great-tailed grackles, collared peccaries and blue spiny lizards, 20 of the world's most highly accomplished professional nature photographers will trek across the Hill Country of central Texas to photograph its natural wonders during the first Images for Conservation Fund (ICF) Pro-Tour of Nature Photography in April 2006. ICF conceived the month-long competition, with anticipated prize money totaling $200,000, to ignite the nature photography industry in the service of wildlife conservation.
"What I've seen in my lifetime in being involved in conservation is that we are not winning," says ICF chairman John Martin, a board member of the North American Nature Photography Association and a longtime conservation advocate. The reason, he says, is that conservation often is economically unattractive to private landowners, but nature photography could help change that.
The ICF Pro-Tour will pair 20 already-selected top-notch photographers with landowners who are working to manage wildlife responsibly. Prize money will be split evenly between winning photographers and their respective landowners, so that both benefit.
ICF draws inspiration from the Professional Golfers' Association, says executive director Sam Mason. The PGA promotes its sport to amateurs and professionals of all abilities, thus generating demand for a particular land use: golf courses.
The number of nature photography enthusiasts means that ICF can do the same, says Martin. He cites a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey in which 16 million Americans reported photographing wildlife near their homes and 12 million reported taking trips to other areas for this purpose in 1996.
In the area of nature photography, "what we have basically is a nation of golfers and no golf courses," Mason says. ICF intends to generate demand for lands that are to nature photographers what golf courses are to golfers.
Organizers believe that high-level competition will foster this demand. "As far as we know, this is the world's first and only all-professional nature photography contest," Mason says. As such, he expects the ICF Pro-Tour, like PGA championship events, to help excite recreational amateurs.
Naysayers assert that nature photography is already competitive enough, Mason adds, but ICF disagrees.
"With a competition," Martin says, "you create the media attention that causes the whole industry to grow. We want to grow the nature photography pie so that more people can make a better living. If we do that, we will create conservation."
The Lone Star State
ICF, which is based in Edinburg, Texas, chose the Pro-Tour's first location — 20,000 square miles in the Texas Hill Country, from San Antonio to Austin and points west — for its natural features and the need for wildlife conservation there.
"First of all, it's gorgeous," says Mason. "It's globally known for its wildflowers. That's one of the reasons we're doing it in April."There's a good amount of biological diversity there," he adds, ranging from the Carolina chickadee to the turkey vulture, from the Mediterranean gecko to the white-tailed deer. "But, also, there's a fair amount of human pressure on the wildlife."
Urban development from both San Antonio and Austin increasingly infringes on important habitat, Mason says. "We don't imagine this will stop all development," he adds, "but at least it will give some counterweight."
Florida and northeastern Mexico already have been chosen as future Pro-Tour sites, based on the need to highlight the value of the wildlife in those areas, Mason says.
Choosing the participants
ICF selected the participating photographers based on applications that included examples of their achievements. Applicants received points for publication of their images in magazines, books and calendars; commercial use of their work; museum exhibits; experience leading photography seminars or tours; and wins in previous competitions, such as the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, the Nature's Best International Photography Awards, the Valley Land Fund Wildlife Photo Contest and the Costal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest.
The Nature Conservancy partnered with ICF to launch the Pro-Tour, lending its conservation expertise. "They are helping us to find and select the participating landowners," explains Mason.
"This is a very, very important role," says Martin. Participating photographers are coming from all over the world, he explains. "The number- one question in their minds is ‘Am I going to be competing on a level playing field?'"
Landowner applicants must have a minimum of 500 acres each. The Nature Conservancy will evaluate the landowners, reviewing each ranch's wildlife management plan to determine its success. The final 20 tracts will be selected by ICF to give each photographer comparable opportunities for winning images.
Photographers and landowners will be paired at random. Two weeks before the competition, they will be allowed to meet and strategize. Each landowner will provide lodging for the photographer and one assistant, who may consult but not take photos. Photographers will have from April 1 through April 30, 2006, to take pictures.
A few weeks after the competition closes, each photographer will submit a portfolio of up to 75 images, with no more than 15 in each of five divisions: Birds, Mammals, Reptiles & Amphibians, Insects & Arachnids and Plants & Landscapes.
Participants may have no more than two images of the same species. Each of the three expert judges will assign each image up to ten points, for a maximum of 30 points per image, based on originality of execution, aesthetic appeal and interest value. Portfolios with the most total points will win, with prize money awarded to the top 14 photographer-landowner teams.
Winning portfolios will have to include superb images in every division, which should present a challenge to participants, Martin says. "They're going to have to be great overall photographers," he says. "Versatility and excellence are what's rewarded."
In addition to an award ceremony, ICF plans a commemorative book of images from winning portfolios and a museum exhibit, which has yet to be organized. Photographers retain copyrights to their images, but ICF reserves some rights to use the images to promote ICF and the Pro-Tour.
ICF also intends to help form local amateur and professional nature photography competitions around the country. The group's other long-term goals include establishing a photo-blind leasing industry, which would open more privately held land to photographers and give landowners incentives to protect wildlife and habitat, and working with organizations that teach urban kids about nature photography and conservation.