Cage Fighter

Spiros Politis

It’s a cod philosophical question that’s become the frame for hip-hop braggadocio: could you walk a mile in these shoes? Could you view the world through my eyes? It’s claiming the true perspective on pain, something you couldn’t possibly comprehend unless you saw life through the prism of someone else’s soul.

In the real world, of course, that’s impossible. It takes an exceptional kind of artist to show you literally how they see – the shadows as they scare them, the fear as it cuts them, the anger as it burns them and the love as it courses through them, until you could be curled up right inside their mind feeling everything as they do.

Britta Jaschinski is one of those artists. She’s a German photographer based in London and was recently raised on high by the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award – she was Highly Commended by the judging panel, to the bafflement of the awards fans. You’ll find ‘how did this not win?’ littering the online comments box under her heart-wrenching portrait of an ageing lion.

Their bemusement is understandable,but perhaps there’s a reason the judges struggled with her unique talent. Jaschinski isn’t really a wildlife photographer – she’s a fighter who uses her camera as a weapon in a battle to reclaim our essential respect for her beloved animals. Her dedication is such that she ends all her public talks with a plea – ‘please keep wild things in the wild’ – and she’ll spend days waiting in the perfect spot to take a single perfect shot.

This isn’t to say she’s some dour-faced proselytising warrior-monk. When you meet her you find a ball of mirth and energy: drinking, swearing, smoking and laughing – laughing a lot, like a young Lauren Bacall or Martha Gellhorn thinking that to breathe were life itself.

Born in Bremen, her love affair with animals started young. Her parents would find her scooping insects out of her sandpit, worried she might squash one, and she turned vegetarian at 16. Having learned the photographer’s craft in a German advertising studio, she studied the photographer’s art at Bournemouth College of Art and Design. Working towards her degree, she was walking through Regent’s Park when she suddenly smelled the animals of London Zoo, and thus began her life’s adventure.

‘Even as a kid I felt uncomfortable going to zoos but I could never express why,’ she explains. ‘While other kids licked ice creams and laughed at the animals, I just felt an intense pain in mind and body. And when I developed my photos I could see why I felt so deeply depressed about the fate of the animals incarcerated in the name of education and conservation. My Zoobook was the result.’

Published in 1996, Zoo’s influence was profound. It’s hard to find a photographer concerned about animal captivity that doesn’t cite it as an inspiration. ‘I like to hear that I inspire people to take action because I am doing the work to change something,’ she nods carefully. ‘I feel that I am not superior to any other living creature, and I am deeply disturbed by our desire to possess and control. What keeps me ticking is the hope that I am a tiny wheel in a slow movement. Bigger wheels mean faster movement …’

Wild Things followed in 2003 – apologising to the world for human interference and destruction. She doesn’t rant, she doesn’t scream, she just makes her case for nature’s due respect with the simplicity of a child’s story. Indeed, books are a big influence.

‘I guess you could say German literature and Eastern European art by Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Josef Koudelka, László Moholy-Nagy hold a certain darkness and have impacted on my “style”,’ she explains. ‘But also, I’m trying to get across that the integrity and well-being of the universe depends on our fostering deep relationships with all life. If we continue our foolish behaviour, we are destroying ourselves because what we give is what we ultimately receive.’

In every project – including her forthcoming Dark– she works with film, never digital. She pushes the medium beyond its limits, experimenting with industrial copying film, working on new developing techniques but never manipulating anything on computer. Which means that the desolation of the concrete-bound polar bear, the misery of the macaques peering through their scarred window and the ethereal cheetah – this is how the world seems to Britta, and she’s letting us see in the hope that we can help remove the pain.

She ends with a joke, a dark chuckle at our arrogance – discussing the apocalypse over coffee. ‘I love the quote by the biologist Edward Wilson,’ she grins. “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.’’