A freelance nature and conservation photographer since 1998, Peter Cairns sees the most important aspect of his output being its striking ability to influence hearts and minds.

IF YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED THE latest Hahnemühle ad campaign you’ll no doubt have been captivated by the gorgeous photography that defines it, and the strong environmentally-focused messages that accompany each of the six images that have been utilised. It reflects the company’s deep-seated and sincere green outlook, and reinforces the message that the laudable intention is to be climate neutral by 2030.

That has to be something that’s music to the ears of one of the featured photographers, nature and conservation specialist Peter Cairns, who has been passionately fighting his  corner   for   the rewilding   of   Scotland   for  a

number of years now. Appropriately enough, the shot of Peter’s that has been used in the campaign features a gloriously atmospheric view of a surviving section of the great Caledonian Pine Forest that once covered vast tracts of the Scottish countryside, but on closer inspection it can be seen as an awesomely beautiful scene which carries a sting in its tail.

‘It’s a highly evocative area,” agrees Peter, who is based in the rugged surrounds of the Cairngorms National Park, “where centuries ago there roamed the likes of wild bears and wolves, but today it’s been reduced to around just 3% of the land it once covered. That’s actually fairly typical of what’s happened in other areas as well, with the natural peat bogs, for example, which do such a crucial job in storing carbon, having likewise suffered terribly from over-exploitation.”

It’s not all gloom and doom, however, and that’s due, in part at least, to the activities of those, such as Peter, who have spent a large chunk of their careers trying to draw attention to what’s going on. Their job is to win hearts and minds over to their environmental cause by producing imagery that has the potential to stop people in their tracks.

‘While there has been terrible damage, things have certainly turned around over the past few years,” says Peter, “and there is much more of a will now to protect and develop the things we still have. A lot of that is down to changing attitudes, and the power that consumers have to influence the decisions big businesses can make. And photography has been a very powerful tool in terms of the way it’s made people look more closely at the environment around them. Being a visual medium, it has the ability to transcend all kinds of language and cultural barriers, and it’s this aspect that has been of most interest to me in recent years.”

Making a Difference

Like most photographers, when he started out Peter’s prime concern was to shoot the most visually arresting images that he could, which were then sent off to the likes of picture libraries to provide his income. Looking back, he can identify one particular key conversation he had that, following due consideration, totally turned around his outlook.

“It was back in the early 90s,” he recalls, “and I was in Africa shooting  pictures of the incredible wildlife there, the likes of lions and leopards. I was showing some of these to a conservation photographer I met and he asked me what I was going to do with them. And I told him that I would market them in my usual way, and he just said, well what are you actually going to do with them? In other words, how was I going to put them to use to make them of some benefit to the creatures in the pictures?

“I have to say that, at the time, I was a little prickly about it, but when I thought some more, I realised he was right, and that I should be thinking more about how to put my pictures to better use. These days I don’t really consider myself to be a photographer at all. Rather I’m more interested in the conservation message that photographs are capable of spreading, and all the geeky, technical stuff just leaves me feeling a bit cold.”

Looking at the list of achievements that Peter has to his name, his passion for conserving the nature around him is obvious and, more than that, he’s been heavily involved in working with others to encourage the re-wilding of areas that have suffered from misguided overdevelopment over the years.

He was a founding director of the Wild Media Foundation, a group of like minded conservation photographers and visual professionals who have worked together to develop, in collaboration with the scientific, conservation and landmanagement communities, intelligent visual media that inspires, informs and educates a wide audience about the value of nature in all our lives.

Projects the group has undertaken to date include initiatives such as Tooth & Claw, which focused on life alongside Britain’s predators, Highland Tiger – a campaign to help safeguard the Scottish wildcat – and 2020Vision, which set out to promote the benefits of a wilder Britain by communicating the link between healthy ecosystems and healthy people.

In 2015 Peter also founded SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, a charity that’s dedicated to the recovery of nature across Scotland, through the process of rewilding. “These days I look at photography as a currency I can use to communicate complex ecological messages,” says Peter. “We’re using the medium of stills and film to put our message out there, and to speak to people in a way scientific written papers simply can’t.”

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