This December, Mexican veterinarian turned full-time wildlife photographer Alejandro Prieto was awarded the IUCN Bourse at the Terre Sauvage Nature Image Awards 2017. His work documenting Mexico’s jaguars (Panthera onca) demonstrated technical expertise in showcasing this culturally important Near Threatened species.
Alejandro spoke with IUCN’s Save Our Species about his dedication to life promoting nature and species conservation.
This year, you won first prize in the category Men and Nature with a report on the Jaguar. Why this subject?
Jaguars are mysterious, brave, noble, solitary. They are almost like ghosts. I am really attracted to their personality. This was my first big report on the theme of nature conservation and the species was important for me. Jaguars are iconic for Mexicans but they are Near Threatened and face increasing extinction pressure in Mexico. This cat has been a very emblematic species since our ancestors’ time. You can find Jaguars in many art forms from different ancestral cultures and even modern Mexican cultures.
How does photography help conservation?
Nature is indispensable to us: everything we eat comes from it, ecosystems provide us services, such as wetlands that provide drinking water. I specialized in nature photography because showing the beauty of animals and plants, the complexity of ecosystems, inspires people and helps to change behaviour.
I believe we are connected with people from all over the world and images are a currency we can exchange like phrases in a conversation to generate awareness or interest in a subject using both shocking and beautiful images as necessary.
Photography also works locally, as a member of Alianza Jaguar we print images with conservation messages and post them in small communities with presence of Jaguar, we try to teach people the value of keeping them alive, kids are very important.
Can you elaborate on the technical challenges of your jaguar project and perhaps also a little more in general?
There were real technical challenges from the beginning of this project. The first challenge was to create the camera traps fit for purpose. The specifications I needed meant I could not rely on traps you can buy at any camera shop. Instead, I had to make a lot of my equipment. Working in areas with extreme weather conditions made it even worse – dealing with intense humidity, excessive heat, insects and even minor natural disasters.
Historically I have focused my photography on wildlife subjects. But to make this project possible I had to improve my people photography skills as well as perform a lot of background research before visiting the sites.
What does it take to do this level of photographic storytelling?
It is demanding. First, physically speaking it is tough. These are animals you do not find easily, I had to walk for days to check on some remote cameras. For example, I set a camera trap right on the border of Guatemala and Mexico in the jungles of Calakmul. I set it in this place to capture a Jaguar walking through an abandoned archaeological site – basically a really inaccessible area. On the way, I was bitten by so many mosquitos while enduring ticks, bee stings, leeches and even scorpions. It was also extremely hot and humid weather conditions – which are challenging for the equipment as well as for the photographer.
Secondly, such expeditions require investment of resources including time, equipment, energy and money especially. This takes some effort to source and coordinate.
Third, mentally speaking, sometimes it can be frustrating to talk to people who are killing these animals and remain professional when you are so passionate about wildlife. It is not easy given these animals are not fully protected and so getting information about illegal trade and killings is tricky. Going on these missions also requires time away from family and that is testing.
Then after you go through all of this demanding work and go to check on the camera traps and you don’t have any images 90 per cent of the time – that is really hard. It is difficult to convey how much effort goes into getting each photo you see in the magazine.
So why do you do it?
I want to positively influence people and inspire them. I can do so by investing in my photography so I can reach more people with this message. I feel my duty as a wildlife photographer is to show people the beauty of nature but also to show the big problems we are causing, I really feel this responsibility. That’s why, in part, at least.
I am passionate about so many things including axolotls – a group of salamanders with incredible life histories that are unfortunately increasingly threatened in the wild even though they breed well in captivity (to supply the pet trade). But I am broadly interested in promoting species conservation among Mexicans by showcasing the incredible biodiversity in this region - both terrestrial and marine – approximately 50 per cent of my work is marine photography.
Meanwhile I am working with the IUCN on a project to document biodiversity in protected areas to highlight the intimate connections between well managed protected areas and successful species conservation. More about this in 2018!
If you wish to learn more about IUCN's collaboration with Terre Sauvage and its annual Nature Image Awards please click here.