The advantage of film is that people can’t see what I’m doing. If you shoot digitally they can flick through and see exactly what you’re doing
For over 25 years Britta Jaschinski has used her camera to expose animal abuse and wildlife crimes. Keith Wilson finds out why she sees her work as a life-long mission captured in black and white…
Britta Jaschinski rarely stays in one place for long. When she’s not on assignment – often overseas, sometimes undercover – she exhibits at Europe’s numerous photo festivals. She’s in constant demand for her hard-hitting wildlife portraits and investigative multimedia shows into animal abuse and wildlife crime. We spoke in the UK, Italy and France, where atFestival Photo Montier she loop-screened her 12-minute audio-visual work, Made in China, to a stunned and tearful audience…
How did Made in China, about the country’s bear bile farms and trade in tiger parts, evolve?
Usually, I do exhibitions and give images to magazines to publicise the subject. But this time around I was invited to a festival, Look 3, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was set up by [US photographer] Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols, and sponsored by National Geographic. The entire town turns into a photography festival. I was invited to show my work, but they wanted it as a multimedia show, so they literally forced me to do it! It was so good, and I was very grateful. In fact, I told them afterwards that if it hadn’t been for that festival, it would never have happened.
Where had they seen your work in the first place?
[Senior editor] Kathy Moran from National Geographic saw these pictures at my talk at Wild Photos [now Wildscreen Festival] in London, in 2012. I had just come back from my first trip to China. I showed 70 pictures, and talked for 20 minutes about the project, and I had two-thirds of the audience in tears. I got a standing ovation. It was amazing. So then Kathy and several others suggested I do something for the Look 3 Festival, but I had to do it as a four-minute multimedia show. That led to invitations from other festivals, and I then went back to China for a couple of things, and added to the show, so it’s now 12 minutes long. Who knows what will happen next?
Is it still a work in progress?
Yes. I’ve only done two trips to China, but I’d like to go back. I’m just not sure if I’ll be allowed to.
For photographers it’s very difficult to get a visa for China. If you’re a professional, it can take months, or they don’t let you in at all.
How long were you out there?
Three weeks the first time, two weeks the second time. So not long. But to be honest, I wouldn’t want to do it for any longer because there’s only a certain amount of images I can produce and then I just want to get out. This was all shot on black-and white-film, so I had 100 rolls of film in my bag. I couldn’t leave them in my hotel room because as a photographer, I had to give the authorities the exact times I was going to be in my hotel. They wrote to me saying they were going to check up on me. If anyone had come into my room and found the films and confiscated them, I would have lost the images, but also possibly got into trouble.
So why shoot on film then?
The advantage of shooting film is that people can’t instantly see what you’re doing. If you shoot digitally they can take your camera, flick through and see exactly what you’re doing. With film that’s not possible. I actually had a little digital camera which I used to
shoot touristy things, so people could flick through that. People did confront me and I just said, ‘I’m a tourist’.
Why do you like black and white?
Because it strips away unnecessary information. Black and white sits really well with me personally. I like colour images as well, but whenever Isee colour images that I like they’re actually monochromatic! I don’t know why that is, but maybe it’s because my brain can’t comprehend too much colour. I can’t even wear colour!
By using film for so long have you developed a disciplined approach to the way you shoot?
I have educated myself to frame an image very carefully. Also, I never crop any pictures. What you see is what I’ve shot. I wouldn’t crop a thing. All the award-winning shots you see are 100 per cent identical to what I get. I believe it’s quite important to get the right shot. Some people I know shoot 2,000 frames to get one picture. For my shot Broken Cats, above [which was a category winner in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2015], I took two frames. When I look through my contact sheets, for every subject I have there are just two or three photos, maximum.
It makes the editing that much quicker too...
It does! I don’t want to have to go through 2,000 photos. I have the contact sheet but I already know what I have. You know, when I took the photo of the cheetah, I knew that I was going to win an award [the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2010] when I took it. And I didn’t even see the photo because I was shooting on film, but it was such a perfect shot.
That said, you switched to digital this year, swapping your Nikon F4 for a D810. What took you so long?
There’s something about the craft of photography that I really like, and an image exposed on traditional film and printed on silver gelatin paper is still one of the most beautiful things for me to look at. But digital photography has come a long way and the image quality in terms of detail, tonal range and colour saturation is now unbeatable.
So, what do you think of the D810?
I enjoy the D810 to such an extent that it puts a smile on my face every time I process the NEF file, because the options are almost endless. I’m also delighted with the large file size, as most of my print sales are large-scale,
although it is too early to judge if the prints will hold the same magic as my exhibition prints produced from negatives. I’m enjoying the clarity, sharpness, detail in high and lowlights, and colour saturation, especially when I’m using the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ED, which is one of my favourite lenses.
Before the F4, what other Nikons did you use?
The FE2 and F4 were the only Nikons I used before the D810. I had both of these cameras for a very long time. My FE2 I had from when I was 20. All of my early stuff was shot with a Rolleiflex or a Nikon FE2, which is not really a top camera, but I always use really good, expensive lenses. Lenses for me are really important. I always spend a lot of money on Nikon lenses. You can’t cut corners with lenses because it shows.
Camera kit lenses?
People come up to me and say, ‘Look at my new camera, £300 with the lens!’ I say, ‘OK, the lens? Throw it in the bin straight away! You might as well shoot through a piece of cardboard. In fact, you’d get a better effect. Make a pinhole!’
So lenses are your fetish?
Yes, I do like my toys, but it’s very minimalistic, my equipment. It’s been mostly primes: 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. For the stuff I’ve shot secretly, I just use a standard lens, the 35mm. For the bile bears I used a longer lens, the 85mm, because I couldn’t get close enough to them. To be honest, when Iwas there I was devastated, because Ihave a 200mm superzoom lens, which I didn’t take because you can’t carry it if you have everything tucked into a little bag. I could have done so much more with the bears if I could have just got close enough.
Any other gear?
I very rarely use any other equipment for anything. I never use any lights, or flash. Not even a tripod. Well, for my current project I am using a tripod and a light, but that’s another story! [see Victims of Crime, p 99].
How did your interest in animal welfare start?
I’ve always had a lot of empathy with all other creatures, not just animals. I remember my parents would come home and say, ‘Look I’ve found a little hedgehog’, or, ‘Here’s a little bird that dropped out of its nest.’ We always tried to look after half-dead animals, trying to nurse them back to health.
A writer once said I use my camera as a weapon. A weapon to reclaim the essential respect for animals
So your parents felt the same?
Yes, my parents have a lot of empathy for life as well. My Mum remembers me scooping insects and beetles from my sandpit because I was worried that I would accidentally squash them. This is what I do with my kids now. I struggle to make a decision about ending a life. Even when I see people cutting trees down, it hurts me. I feel physical pain – my stomach turns and I feel like it’s not right because everything inside me says, ‘respect life’.
This is a feeling you’ve had for as long as you can remember?
Yes, definitely. I just simply follow my heart and I do what I think I should, but I get picked up from so many different areas: some people think, ‘Oh, are you an artist?’ But looking at some of my pictures they’re not artistic, they’re more photojournalistic. So I don’t know what I am. I think I’m more of a messenger, really. I use the camera as a tool. In fact, a writer once said I use my camera as a weapon. A weapon to reclaim the essential respect for animals. Any area where an animal suffers in the hands of human beings is of interest to me.
Was school your first experience of photography?
Yeah. I was at a general secondary school in Germany where they did a photography project, so I immediately bought my first camera and studied photography as a specialism, and art history. I then went straight into an apprenticeship as a photographer, and came to England in 1990 to study photography. It was a BA, three years. So photography is all I have done all my life. I’ve never done anything else. I have taught photography, too, at colleges and universities in London.
Why did you study in England?
When I was working commercially, doing the apprenticeship in Germany, I realised that I was not going to do that as my career. I thought ‘There’s got to be more to it than this. I’ve got to be able to weave the mission I feel I have; to spread some kind of message about the plight of animals and combine that with my photography.’ That’s why Iwent to study in England. I felt the courses that England offered were much more creative. Germans are very much about the technical side, so I had a very good base when I came to college in the UK, but all Iwas interested in then was the creativity of photography, and I was looking at all
the famous photojournalists, the Magnum photographers. They were my influence in understanding what I wanted to do.
Who are the heroes who have inspired your photography?
Don McCullin is definitely one of my biggest heroes. What he did with his camera and the message he got out definitely made me think, ‘This is possible’. In Bremerhaven, there’s a zoo called Tiergrotten, where I took my photo of the polar bear. This was probably 20 years ago. That was one of my first moments where I realised ‘I can get a message out with this’. So, I thought: ‘This is what I’m going to do: I’ll go to these places and I’ll document this and enter competitions.’ I instantly got a lot of response. Then I had my book offer ( Zoo) from Phaidon. I was still in college and I already had a book deal. So I was very lucky.
You quickly found your niche
Yes, and then there was no turning back. People actually listened to me. To sum it up, I have created a voice for animals with my photography. That’s probably the most important thing.
A lot of animals need that voice. How do you choose your projects?
It’s a combination of what is urgent to say and what I can afford to do. For example, talking about the bile bears was something I’d wanted to do for a decade, but I didn’t know how to do it. And I still want to do a bigger picture of them, because it’s still going on.
It’s definitely about what’s important and how I can make it happen. Tigers are very important to talk about because the reason tigers are slaughtered is because of the high demand, mainly from China, for tiger parts. For me, it is really urgent, because the rhino and the tiger are the two species that right now are most in danger of being wiped out. So, I need to pay attention to this, but it’s very difficult because how do you do it?
As a judge, what do you look for in an award-winning image?
I like to see images that I have not seen before. Something that surprises me, moves me, teaches me.
What has been your greatest moment so far?
That’s really hard to say. Really as a photographer my greatest moment is when I’m with the animals and taking photos of the animals. But I can’t always say that, because most of those moments are not joyful. I had an incredible moment when I took Lone Lion [above], because I was on my own in the Serengeti and I self-drove. I climbed out of the car and laid in the dirt with the lone lion just there, and I got an amazing portrait.
Is it an ambition to explore more?
Yes, but my priority is to do stuff that has got a message to save the animals. For the money I would spend on travelling to other places Icould go back to China and possibly get a bigger story, a bigger picture of the bile bears. Even though it’s so horrible to see this and to do this, I know I can do it. I can’t really think about myself because I do see this as amission.
There was one moment that was a turning point, when I felt that I cannot ever turn away from what I am doing now. A beluga whale was caught in the wild and taken to Coney Island, only to circle monotonously for 23 years in this chlorine-filled concrete tank until it died a few years ago. That beluga whale just looked at me and Itook the photo above, which won an award. It’s such a lucky photo. That’s when
It’s a mission and I think if I stopped doing it I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror
I thought: ‘This beluga whale is going to haunt me if I don’t get the message out.’ I felt so grateful for this whale. When it died, I wasn’t sure if I was more sad that it had died, or that it had lived for another nine years after I saw it, circling around this fucking aquarium. These are the moments where I feel, ‘How can you turn away from this?’
Will you keep doing this until your last breath?
I think so. Sometimes I wonder why I make my life so difficult, but I can’t stop now because I know I can do it and I WANT to do it. It’s a mission and I think if I stopped doing it I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. I know I can make an impact.
The Performance, Chimelong Circus, Gu angzhou, China Nikon F4, Kodak Tri-X-Pan 400 black-and-white film
Bred for Bone, Chengdu, China Nikon F4, Nikon 24mm, Kodak Tri-X-Pan 400 black-andwhite film Monkeys on Bikes, Guili n Zoo,C hina Nikon F4, Nikon 85mm, Kodak Tri-X-Pan 400 black-andwhite film
Belu ga Whale, Coney Island Aquariu m, USA Nikon F4, Kodak Tri-X-Pan 400 black-andwhite film
Nikon F4, Kodak Tri-X-Pan 400 black-andwhite film Lone Lion, Serengeti Nati onal Park, Tanzania