Snapshots of a Photographer: Johan Siggesson

A book.

Enquiring about people inspiration - specifically how a passion turned into a lifelong endeavour - can occasionally bring up surprising answers.  Often however you come across the same replies; family members who sparked an interest or a gift that gave birth to a collection.

By far the most common reason however is books.

"I remember my grandmother having a book with a green cover.  I don't know who the author was but I remember that it was full of pictures of wild animals."

Those are the recollections of Johan Siggesson, a Swedish born but Malta based wildlife photographer who can list the Scottish Nature Photographer of the Year of 2014 among the many awards to his name, when he thinks back to what kicked off his interest.

"I used to spend hours going through it.  I was fascinated."

There were, of course, other influences.

"When I was at school in Sweden we used to go out into the woods once a week regardless of the weather.  If it was raining we would simply put on our raincoat and wellington boots before going out."

"That instilled in me a love of nature."

"Then there was the television.  I used to be stuck to the screen whenever there was a nature show on."

That, then, is what sparked his initial interest yet it took quite some time for that to develop into something deeper.

“As you grow up your priorities start to change,” he says with half a smile.  “And it is only when that phase passes that you rediscover your earlier passions.”

In his case, it took a trip for this to happen. “In 2012 I was on a safari in Kenya and took a picture that I was really happy with.  I submitted it to an international competition without expecting anything but it did really well, being selected among the finalist from thousands of entries.”

“That’s when I decided to take photography more seriously.  I bought a better camera, more lenses and started focusing on it a bit more.”

That does not mean that photography has become his primary occupation.  “I think that wildlife photography is the most difficult branch of photography off which to make a living,” he muses.  “There are so many photos of wild animals within easy access that it takes a special shot to capture people’s attention.”

This has not be helped by the digitisation of photography.  “If you want to take a good photograph of a lion, it isn’t as difficult as it once was.  Sure, you still have to go to the places where you find lions but with modern cameras you don’t have to worry that much about the technicalities as they are handled more automatically.  There is still a high level of skill involved but probably less than before.”

“You can immediately see the quality and composition of the photograph so if you don’t like it all you have to do is take another shot.”

This means that there is a proliferation of good quality photography, especially online.  “You need to develop your own style and have a number of iconic photographs if you want to stand out from the rest.”

“You need to promote yourself so that people recognise your work.  I think that I have a certain…I wouldn’t call it style but certainly there are some photos that I like to take that capture a different side of the animals.”

A look through his portfolio provides plenty of examples of the kind of photographs he is referring to.  It also serves to highlight the exotic locations that he’s been to.

“My most recent trip was to Madagascar,” he says.  “Actually, we visited the northern tip of Madagascar.  It was good because ninety percent of the animals that live in Madagascar can only be found there so if you want to take a photograph of those animals you have to go there.”

“Madagascar is also good because there aren’t any poisonous snakes or dangerous animals there so you don’t have to be ultra-careful where you’re walking, which can be quite difficult when you’re also focusing on trying to get a photograph of some animal.”

This latter point brought about the need to know a place before visiting it.  "You have to do your research so that you're better prepared.  You read about the place you're about to visit to learn not only about the animals that you will find but also what you will need in that country to allow you to take your photos. "

"For instance, when I was going to Scotland I had to be prepared for the cold climate with the appropriate clothes like thermal socks and gloves.  Similarly, for Madagascar I needed specific socks that prevent leeches from getting on you."

Those taken in by the exoticism of his travels, however, should hold on before thinking of a career change because a wildlife photographer’s life isn’t at all glamorous.

Indeed, if there is two key attributes that those who want to make it need, then it is persistence and patience.

“There’s a photographer who spent six years waiting to get the perfect shot of a kingfisher,” Siggesson recounts.  He himself had a rather unique experience earlier this year.

“I went to Finland in order to photograph the wildlife there.  Another photographer and myself hired a very small hut and we stayed in there for six days taking photos of the animals that came by.  We couldn’t go out because we could frighten them away.  The only time we left that hut during those six days was to go and buy more supplies.”

“What’s more, there were only a few hours each day where wild animals would come out.  The rest of the day we stayed with our camera prepared just in case but with little hope of seeing anything.”

Of the three animals that they could photograph on that particular trip – bears, wolverines and wolves – it was only wolverines that they ended up seeing.  “Bears are pretty common in the area but we didn’t see anything.  We also didn’t see wolves although those are pretty rare so it is always a bonus if you see those.  Wolverines are in the middle of the trio as far as frequency is concerned and we were pretty pleased to see them.”

“They are very difficult to photograph,” he added.  “Their gait isn’t like that of other quadrupeds; they sort of move sideways whilst also moving forward which is a challenge as it isn’t the movement that you are used to.  It makes it more interesting and we ended getting some good shots so it was worth it to stay inside for those six days!”

Another trip – this time to the northern tip of Scotland - proved just how important persistence is.  "We were photographing puffins for a whole week and, to be honest, I was a bit sick of them."

"However on the day when we were due to leave the weather wasn't good so the plane couldn't take off.  The rest of the group that were with me opted to stay inside but I decided to go out once again."

"And it was on that day that I got my best shots."

Typically, on each trip he ends up taking thousands of photos (he came back from Madagascar with around eight thousand shots) which he then has to go through, identify the ones he likes most and then edit.

Most of this work is done largely in the evening.  “I’m not a full time photographer so I have to work when I get the time.  Usually this means the evening where I spend around three hours working be it editing the photos, submitting to competitions or updating Facebook and the likes.”

The night is also when he goes out to work on his current pet project: photographing Maltese chameleons.  “At night they are easier to spot,” he explains.  “I had a bit of dilemma because occasionally I disturb them – by accidentally making some noise – and wake them up.  This is a frequent issue for wildlife photographers: how far do you go in order to get the photo you want?  It is a question that everyone has to answer for himself.  For me, as long as I’m not harming them or their habitat, I’m fine.  Ultimately if I wake them up, soon after I leave they are asleep once more.”

He scoffs at the notion that there isn’t any wildlife to photograph in Malta.  “There might not be the bigger animals that there are in other countries but there is still more than enough material.”

“For instance, there are more types of snakes in Malta then there are in Sweden.  There are plenty of insects for those who are into macro photography.  There are birds, hedgehogs and weasels.  I definitely can’t agree with anyone who thinks that there isn’t anything worth photographing in Malta.”

Indeed, a number of his ambitions are tied to our island.  “I would love to photograph the ballotra.  So far, I haven’t been able to do so.  I’d also love to win an international competition with a photo I’ve taken in Malta.  That would be special.”

Competitions, it turns out, are vital for wildlife photographers because of the prestige they bring with them as well as the contacts that they facilitate.  Equally important are books and it is rather apt that someone who has a book to thank for sowing the seeds of his passion is eager to publish one himself.

"I don't think that I have enough material at the moment for a book but there are some ideas and I'm talking to some people about taking it further."

"We'll see where these talks go but it is definitely something that I want to do."

For more on Johan Siggesson’s photography, visit his website and follow him on Facebook.  All photos in this article reproduced with his permission.

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