Stunning Wildlife Photos Boost Conservation Message

Highlights include lounging tigers and a snow monkey with a cellphone.


Marsel van Oosten / teNeues Publishing

Conservation starts with awareness. That's the hope behind nature photographer Marsel van Oosten's newest book. "Mother: A Tribute to Mother Earth" (teNeues Publishers) is filled with his favorite photos of wildlife.

There are five chapters, each devoted to the continents—Africa, North America, Antarctica, Asia, and Europe—where van Oosten has photographed wildlife. Included in the compilation are lounging tigers, hunting raptors, lolling pandas, and even a snow monkey using an iPhone.

Van Oosten took the image (below) at the natural hot springs at Jigokudani in Japan after the macaque had swiped the smartphone out of the hands of a tourist.

A professional nature photographer from the Netherlands, van Oosten spoke to Treehugger via email about his work, his new book, and the conservation message he hopes people will take from his images.

snow monkey with iPhone
Snow monkey plays with a stolen iPhone at hot springs in Japan. Marsel van Oosten / teNeues Publishing

Treehugger: Your background is in advertising and graphic design. How did you develop a passion for nature photography?

Marsel van Oosten: For as long as I can remember I have always loved animals and the outdoors. As a kid, I spent all my time outside, and on weekends my parents would take us for long walks in the forest. Whenever there was a nature documentary on tv, we’d watch it as a family. You’d think it’d be quite obvious for me what my photography genre should be, yet when I got my first camera I loved everything—travel photography, architecture, still life, you name it. It took me a while to realize that there was only one subject that really made me happy: nature.

Modern day life is make believe, and for a very long time, I have been guilty of that when I was working in advertising. Things are never what they seem—whether it’s advertising, politics, or even human interactions. In comparison, nature is always exactly what it should be. It is pure, it is straightforward, it is raw and unpredictable. So my love for nature goes beyond the mountains, the trees, and the wildlife— it is about experiencing life on a much deeper and more significant level.

What are your favorite subjects to photograph?

I do both wildlife and landscape photography because I love both subjects. I like changing my subject matter every now and then—it prevents me from getting into autopilot mode. Shooting wildlife has made me a better landscape photographer, and shooting landscapes has made me a better wildlife photographer.

In general, I am very much drawn to graphic shapes with clear outlines. So when I’m photographing landscapes I, for instance, like deserts and dead trees. When I’m photographing wildlife, I prefer large mammals so I can use relatively short lenses and include a fair bit of the habitat. Elephants and the big cats are among my favorite subjects.

Marsel van Oosten at work
van Oosten at work. Marsel van Oosten / teNeues Publishing

Nature photography requires a lot of patience and sometimes you have to sit through some pretty unpleasant conditions. What are some of the more grueling shoots you remember?

I have photographed lions next to a decomposing giraffe carcass that was full of maggots. The stench was so unbearable, I photographed with tissue up my nose. That reminds me of the times I have photographed the enormous fur seal colonies on the beaches of Namibia. Hundreds of thousands of seals covering every single inch of beach. I was there just after the pups had been born, and many of them got crushed by the large males. The combination of sunlight, high temperatures, rotting carcasses, and tons of seal feces, created an indescribable stench. It was so bad, I had to wash my clothes afterwards to get rid of the smell.

But these are exceptions—usually it’s the weather conditions that make the photography very hard and uncomfortable. Whether you’re frozen to the bone on a small boat north of the Arctic Circle, or you’re hiking in the mountains on Socotra at 48C, it is extremely difficult to stay focused and find inspiration. 

As a photographer, how are you always hit with the importance of conservation and environmentalism?

For my work, I travel all around the world to visit and photograph wild places. Many of them I visit several times, usually the same time of year. Because of that, I can see nature changing—some places are getting warmer and get less snow and ice, others are getting drier, and many are being destroyed by human activity. It’s actually quite depressing to see the decline of species and wild places. Most people never get to see these changes, so for them when they read about the impact of climate change, poaching, industrialization, deforestation, etc., it will feel rather abstract.

This is why you can find a lot of background information on these threats in MOTHER—I want to use the opportunity to not only entertain and inspire people, I also want them to learn about the many threats our planet is facing.

Marsel van Oosten / teNeues Publishing

The images in “Mother” are some of your personal favorites, as well as your most popular photos and award winners. How did you choose your favorites after years of taking photos?

Over the years, I have developed a very clear style that I like. It is easy for me to pick out the images I really like because I know what I’m looking for. Usually after a shoot, there are a few images that stuck in my mind—no more than 5–10 or so. Those are the ones that already made an impression when I saw them in my viewfinder. The really good ones will stay in my head forever, so when I had to make a selection for the book, I just put all those memorable images in a folder and then had to cull 50%. It was a time-consuming process, but in essence not a very difficult process.

raptor hunting
Marsel van Oosten / teNeues Publishing

You say that you hope these images will awe and inspire, but you also say they are a wake-up call. What do you hope people will take away from your photos?

What I really hope is that MOTHER will reconnect people with nature, that they will be amazed by the incredible biodiversity on our planet, and that they realize that all these beautiful animals and spectacular wild places are what we stand to lose if you don’t act now. Successful conservation starts with awareness, and that is one of my objectives.

I have written informative captions for every image in the book, and I am certain that when people read those they will see the images in a completely different light. This is our one and only home, and we are slowly destroying it.