The Emotional Pull of Nature Photos

SAN FRANCISCO — Rhonda Rubenstein, creative director at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences and creator of BigPicture, started the nature photo contest eight years ago.

“It’s using the power of photography to help people see what’s going on in our magnificent planet,” she said. “It’s emotional and tugs at your brain in a way facts don’t.”

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Forty-nine winning images are on display in the academy, ranging from the timely, such as a sea lion in Monterey swimming by an N-95 mask or a polar bear in Norway, snuggling down on a small iceberg for the night, to the unexpectedly beautiful, like a hummingbird balancing on another’s beak in Ecuador, and the spores of a mushroom in India.

The grand prize-winning photo, showing a kangaroo with her joey in a burned eucalyptus plantation in Australia, is an example of how photos can move you, Rubenstein says.

“There’s a visceral response when you’re looking at this creature directly in her eyes, and she’s looking directly at you,” she said. “It can inspire us to change.”

Jo-Anne McArthur, “Hope in a Burned Plantation” (2020), Mallacoota, Australia

The photographer of “Hope in a Burned Plantation,” Jo-Anne McArthur, who specializes in animals, says in nearly every photo she aims to have the subject looking into the eyes of the viewer.

“That is a goal of mine,” she said. “We don’t have a common language, and like eye contact between humans, it creates such a connection.”

McArthur was with a group rescuing koalas after last year’s terrible bushfires when she saw the kangaroo. She knew the shot was special before getting it — and she almost didn’t.   

“I had to walk 100 to 200 meters, and it seemed so long,” McArthur said. “I wanted to frame her below her eye level, and I squatted down, and I got that image and then she hopped away.”

Because in past years the Academy had noticed fewer entries from women, Rubenstein says this year they offered a discount for female photographers, which caught McArthur’s attention.

In McArthur’s view, the photo holds out promise for a better future as well as showing devastation.

“It’s bringing a story down to an individual affected by something,” she said. “The plantation is her home, and it’s burned. And she’s not in a natural forest, it’s a man-made plantation, and that’s how dire things are for animals. She’s a survivor, she’s a hero, and the baby shows hope and another generation and life continuing.”

Michelle Valberg, “Boss” (2020), Great Bear Rainforest, Canada
Marek Jackowski, “Treasure on Ice” (2020), Svalbard, Norway
‍Nicolas Reusens, “Ropewalker” (2020), Papallacta, Ecuador
Patrick Webster, “Fight of a Light-time in the Kelp Cathedral” (2020), Carmel Bay State Marine Conservation Area, California 
Sarang Naik, “The Goblet of Fire” (2020), Toplepada, India

BigPicture: Natural World Photography continues at the California Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco) through April 24, 2022.


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