Marsel van Oosten Wildlife Photography: A Single Minded Idea

An Exclusive Interview with the Nature & Wildlife Photographer

Elephant at Victoria Falls, Photography by Marsel van Oosten

Marsel van Oosten used photography as a way of injecting life into the hectic pace that he was living at. With a full-time career in advertising with two gold lions at the prestigious International Advertising Festival in Cannes against his name, there was little time for him to think of anything else.

A trip to Tanzania, however, changed a lot of things in Marsel’s life. In the close proximity of the wilderness, the roar of lions and the laugh of hyenas felt like music to the ears. Life started charting a new route. Five years after this experience Marsel found the charm of his new love to be too overwhelming to ignore. He gladly switched his advertising career with his new identity, the wildlife photographer.

Marsel’s exploits from behind the camera lenses fetched him Nature Photographer of the Year in the International Photography Awards, 2005, 2006 and 2008, 2011, 2012, Nature Photographer’s Network Awards, 2012, European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 2009 among many other noteworthy achievements. His biggest accomplishment, however, was learning to listen closely the whispers of nature and observing into the depths of an animal’s eyes that have ‘the power to speak a great language.’

How the environment you spent your early childhood in has been an influencing factor in the development of the artist and the human being that you are today?

Both my grandfather and my father were/are very creative. My dad was always making stuff (and he still is), from cartoons to furniture, and he even designed and built his own house. He likes to think out of the box, and that is definitely something that I’ve learned from him, doing things differently. That both my sister and I ended up going to art school is no coincidence.

Desert Choreography, Photography by Marsel van Oosten
Desert Choreography

With such stalwarts as Wim Crouwel, Karel Martens and Gerard Unger, contours of the modern day graphic design and the typographic world have largely been shaped by the ‘Dutch Influence’. You yourself were trained in the craft of graphic design and art direction. In your professional career first as an art director and later on as a photographer to what degree has your background influenced and fashioned your creations?

My love for graphic design and typography has greatly influenced my advertising career. I like clarity and simplicity in design, combined with powerful, graphic shapes. My ads were always based on a single-minded concept, and the design followed the idea – not the other way around. Both my background in graphic design and working as an art director for so many years have influenced my photography tremendously. My photographs are like my ads – based on a single-minded idea, simple design, clear and graphic shapes, and no distracting clutter. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in advertising, it’s that people spend less than a second looking at a picture or an ad in a magazine. That means that you’ll have to grab their attention quickly, and you can do that by being original and to the point.

How easy or difficult was it then to be growing up in this environment and creating your personal identity in the process?

Both in art school and later in advertising, I was surrounded by creative people. That was very inspiring and I have learned a lot from both those periods in my life. Not only from a creative point of view, but it has also shaped me into who I am now – the way that I think about photography but also about life in all its aspects. I’m a freethinker in every sense of the word.

Elephant on the Edge, Photography by Marsel van Oosten
Elephant on the Edge

Growing up in a country with such natural treasure were you always attentive to the details and learnt to appreciate the beauty of a vast expanse? In this context how significant a source of inspiration Casper David Friedrich’s paintings became?

The Netherlands has very little nature – the entire country is cultivated. We’re one of the most densely populated countries in the world, but also one of the smallest. As a result, there’s not much space for wildlife either. For a lot of people on this planet, nature is nothing special because they see it every day, or they can if they want to – it was never like that for me. In the art school, I was first introduced to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In his work he characteristically set a human presence in diminished perspective amid expansive landscapes, reducing the figures to a scale that directs the viewer’s gaze towards their metaphysical dimension. That human figure was me, in awe of the spectacular landscape before me. Friedrich’s paintings have had a big influence on my personal photographic vision. Like Friedrich, I like to use small human or wildlife elements in vast landscapes, although I tend to make them much smaller than he did.

The Golden Mirror, Photography by Marsel van Oosten
The Golden Mirror

A visit to Africa not only gave you an opportunity of ‘intimately knowing’ the wildlife but also proved to be a turning point in your career. Tell us of your joy in experiencing the pristine beauty of Africa for the first time. How much research and preparation is involved in picturing wildlife in its natural habitat?

My first African safari was on my honeymoon. I knew I was going to enjoy it, but I never imagined how it would actually affect me. Even though photography back then was just a hobby for me and I wasn’t particularly good at it, it was immediately clear that I would be returning to Africa many times. That first safari really was the turning point for my photography. I wasn’t pleased with the results I got and I was determined to do a much better job next time. I soon realized that research and preparation are essential for any serious photographer – it’s not just the subject that you want to photograph that’s important, it’s also the weather, sunrise and sunset times, temperatures, the quality of the light, the habitat, etc. In other words: photography usually starts with the ‘what’, but it’s the when, where and how that are just as important, and in my own work even more so.

Winter Dance, Photography by Marsel van Oosten
Winter Dance

In geographic, cultural and artistic context how unique the experience in Japan has been? Tell us about the importance the surroundings contribute in the emotiveness of a visual story, such as birds at various states of rapture in a mystified morning.

Japan is a fascinating country. At first glance, a city like Tokyo looks like any big western city, but you soon realize it’s entirely different. The Japanese people and their culture are unique, it’s hard to put into words. From an artistic point of view, Japanese art and design are close to my heart because they have such a good eye for detail, and they like simplicity and graphic design as much as I do. I visit Japan every year to photograph their wildlife in the winter. Many of the species I photograph there can be photographed in other places in the world, but nowhere are the settings as magical as in Japan, especially in winter. Watching a flock of Japanese cranes waking up…

In your many journeys do you consider yourself to be an open-minded traveller willing to be surprised by the whimsical beauty called nature? As an artist and human being how have the human interactions at different places, you travel nourished your soul?

As a nature photographer, I have no influence over the subjects that I photograph, nor over the weather. This can be very frustrating, but it’s also what makes it so exciting – you never know what you’re going to get. That said, I do try to control as many variables as possible because it’s the only way to be efficient. As most of our trips are in remote wilderness areas, we don’t meet a lot of people other than the participants on our photo tours. Over the years we have made a lot of friends on our tours, and we are very lucky to have one of the highest returning customer rates in the business – some of our trips are like a family reunion.

Sky Lord, Photography by Marsel van Oosten
Sky Lord

In your journeys across the world, how are you creatively complemented by Daniella Sibbing? How rewarding do you find the photo tours to be as it facilitates the exchange of ideas with participants from varied backgrounds and levels of expertise?

From the very beginning of my photography career, Daniella and I decided to always travel together. It’s more fun, and apart from that, we really complement each other. I do photography, Daniella does video. And Daniella’s organizational skills are unrivalled. On our tours and workshops that really makes a big difference. While I can concentrate on the photographic part of the tour – instructions, briefings, image reviews, etc. – Daniella makes sure that everything else runs smoothly. And it does. We organize our tours the exact same way as we would like other people to organize ours. First timers always join on our trips because of my work, but they keep coming back because of how Daniella and I both run things. We like to make people happy. That’s good for them, but it’s also good for us – travelling with happy people makes our job a lot nicer and easier.

Would you like to share any anecdotal story from your experiences that are still fresh in your memory?

The past few months have been very hectic. We left Amsterdam the end of April to run two tours in Namibia, and after that, we flew to South Africa to run four Tigers & Leopards tours there. That’s three months of virtual non-stop photo tours – exhausting, but great to do. We meet so many nice people on our tours that it’s almost impossible to not fully enjoy our work. The most impressive experience on our last tours was when we witnessed two male tigers fighting over territory. It was incredibly violent, and the growls and roars made the hairs on your arms stand up. At a certain moment they were fighting in a ditch, and one of the tigers had the other pinned down, biting him in the neck. It was clearly trying to choke its opponent to death, and when the tiger didn’t seem to move anymore for a long time, we were all convinced that we had just witnessed something really sad. Much to our surprise, however, it managed to free itself from the jaws and paws of its enemy, and the fighting continued. The tigers were so exhausted that in between fights they would sit opposite each other, their noses almost touching, just breathing heavily and trying to regain energy. It was freezing outside, and the early morning sun was backlighting the steam rising from their overheating bodies – an amazing sight. Eventually, one of the tigers gave up and walked away, losing its territory. I’ve never witnessed such a brutal fight between two animals before in my life.

Portrait of Marsel van Oosten

Marsel prefers…

Marsel says of his favourite holiday destination, ‘I travel all year long, so for my holiday I prefer someplace where I can simply relax, enjoy good weather and good food.’ Asked about his favourite music he quips, ‘This always comes as a shock to people – I like to listen to death metal, with Fleshgod Apocalypse being one of my favourite bands at the moment.’ Marsel likes watching a good TV series more than movies – Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Suits. He is now busy reading Free Will by Sam Harris. He cannot resist Asian cuisine, Kingklip, M&M’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Nutella when it comes to food or dessert.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Marsel van Oosten