Zoologist, bio-ethicist, governor of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Australia, communications consultant and lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Doug Gimesy is also a committed conservation and wildlife photographer.
In 1981, while studying zoology at Monash University, Doug Gimesy bought his first serious camera, an Olympus OM-1. He’d long nurtured hopes of one day becoming a National Geographic photographer, so when friend and ethnomusicologist Manolete Mora invited him to come along on a research trip as the zoologist, he leapt at the chance.
‘Manolete was going to the Philippines to study the music of the T’Boli tribespeople in the hills of Mindanao and he wanted a zoologist there to classify the animals, because a lot of their music was based on the sounds and the rhythms the animals made. I said, “well look, I’ll come and do that, but I’ll also do the photos for you”.’
Although several of the pictures he took did end up being used by Dr Mora, he quickly realised that the cost of film, processing and travel required to develop a name meant that the dream of becoming a Nat Geo photographer would have to remain an aspiration rather than an immediate career path for a young chap with a freshly-minted BSc in Zoology and Microbiology. Instead, he put aside his camera and went into research and then eventually the healthcare sales and marketing field.
A mother waiting, a baby in change.
For the better part of the next three decades Doug combined his corporate work with academic pursuits, earning a Diploma of Education, Certificate of Health Economics, Graduate Diploma and then Masters of Bioethics and a Master of Environment (Policy, Governance and Communication). It would be November 2012 before he once more picked up a camera with serious intent.
In a curious sort of symmetry, biology again played a role in Doug’s return to photography. ‘One of the first jobs I had 30 years ago as a recent graduate was studying the taxonomy of Antarctic algae. I’d always had a strong interest and passion for the region, so in 2012 when I decided I wanted to go there, I thought, “look, if I’m going there, I’m going to pick up the camera again and do it seriously.” So I put my head down, read everything I could and studied everything I could.’ It was, he said, the ‘next phase of my life’.
Being a committed conservationist and zoologist he explained, ‘I was really drawn to wildlife and conservation photography for two reasons.
‘Firstly, I love the experience of being in the field, but secondly I really hope my work can have a positive influence on the world.
‘I know the latter one sounds very altruistic, however, having studied ethics and worked in social change with organisations like WWF and Environment Victoria, I think we have some real issues facing us – both practical and ethical – and there are three really large ones for me: firstly, the earth can’t sustain our current population if you want to maintain our high standard of living – one of these needs to reduce.
‘The second one, and this bothers me, is that the virtues of kindness and generosity seem to be dismissed by indifference and overridden by greed by many people – and that really can’t be justified and needs to be changed.
‘And, finally it appears to me that many people’s ability to experience or act on empathy – not only in words, not only toward other species but even to other human beings outside their tribe – is diminishing rather than growing, even though we know more about what’s going on in the world today, we know more about the plight of others, and we know more about the impact we have on others, than we did before.’
As important as the conservation dimension is to his photographic work, Doug also added, ‘I love just getting outside, getting away from mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook and all those type of artificial things. So there’s a personal peace there. I like beauty for beauty’s sake too. But,’ he continued, ’99 percent of the time, I like it to link that beauty back to wildlife. I think if people find something beautiful they’re more likely to want to preserve and protect it – even though it mightn’t be specifically related to the “I really care about this specific animal”.
‘Of course, I sometimes like creating art for art’s sake and there’s no higher or secondary intent. However I call myself a ‘conservation and wildlife photographer’, as that’s my driving purpose. Specifically, the conservation side is that I do it so my photos will be useful in conservation projects. The wildlife side is because I think wildlife is beautiful and I like taking photos of nature and wildlife.’
As someone actively engaged in teaching the latest techniques in science communication, Doug has thought long and hard about the way photographs convey information on many levels. ‘Images,’ he said, ‘are trans-lingual, they are trans-cultural. David Attenborough once said wildlife images are one of the most powerful ways we have of engaging people in the natural world. That’s why it’s become my passion. It seems one of the most effective ways to get people engaged.’
Along with his photographic work and continuing teaching duties, Doug also operates what he describes as a science/environmentally focused communication consultancy that he calls The Framing Effect.
Asked to describe what the term means, he explained, ‘The framing effect is a tough one to simply summarise. The world is filled with cluttered and complex issues, so to make sense of it all, we use a series of mental filters or frames to help us simplify these issues by placing greater weight on some considerations and arguments than others.
‘By automatically doing that, we are led to different opinions and perspectives on identical information. So if I had to put it in one sentence, the framing effect is a form of cognitive bias which can be tapped into to help influence people.’
Offering a familiar example, he said ‘global warming I think is an awful frame because it clearly doesn’t drive concern or action for change. Without thinking about it, most people would probably prefer to be warm than cold. It’s only a technical descriptor, it’s not what’s impacting people. If you instead re-named it as “unstable climate”, you’d probably get a different and more impactful way of thinking about it.’
The lone sentinal – lest we forget.
The framing effect is not confined exclusively to the realm of language, it can also apply to images. In one small-scale study, Doug’s consultancy looked at the way different images of penguins in different landscapes shaped viewers’ responses.
‘You show an Antarctic landscape with penguins, you show Antarctica with penguins and rubbish, you show Antarctica with penguins, rubbish and an oil-rig in the background and then ask the question: “Which photo makes you want to preserve and protect Antarctica more?” And you don’t get the results you expect.
‘We would’ve thought the image of the penguins and the rubbish would’ve had the strongest response – but that wasn’t the case. It was the clean Antarctica photo.
‘We’ve got no reason why, but interestingly, if you show an animal with rubbish, clearly the animal is surviving, so possibly there is some strange psychological rationalisation going on – a little like we saw with Joe Hockey’s comment that house prices are not high because a few can clearly afford to buy them.
‘It’s not logically correct, but some people may think that [way], so I think there’s a strong argument not to use photos to influence people that just intuitively feel “correct”, but to try and think through the psychological processes the photograph is tapping into and where possible, do research.’
When we caught up, Doug was in the midst of a six-week sojourn on the Victorian west coast, staying in Apollo Bay. He’d come to the lovely little spot mainly to focus on writing a Melbourne University Masters unit called Communicating Science Effectively (a course he’ll be teaching next year). But, he confessed, he’d spent more time taking photos than writing. Indeed, he was off to see if he could capture koalas in the rain just as soon as we finished talking.
Asked what it was that kept him wanting to take pictures, he paused ‘What is it that makes musicians want to keep playing music”¦ it’s the love of creativity and doing something possibly useful. I love being out in nature focusing on the world around me. It’s meditative… there are mindful moments… I love the process. As I mentioned, I’m living down the coast for six weeks and one of the reasons I came down – other than to write a uni course – was to take a night photo of The Twelve Apostles. I still haven’t got the one I want because the weather’s been awful, but being out there at two o’clock in the morning is still wonderful.’
See more of Doug’s work at www.gimesy.com
Article by Don Norris
Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 65