Based in Stockholm, Björn Persson is a renowned photographer who has spent years traveling the world in search of adventure and remarkable images. He’s also involved with conservation projects, including Smart Savannahs in Kenya, and has helped raise money for African Parks, Star For Life and other organizations.
For wildlife photographer Björn Persson, the message is what matters. “I’m not interested in that pure documentary style of wildlife photography,” he says. “I want to touch people on an emotional level. I want to move people.” We’re talking via Zoom, Björn at home in Stockholm. Behind him, the shelves are filled with African masks, statues and other souvenirs from his years of traveling and photographing the natural world. He describes his photography, as seen in his new book Beauty Will Save the World, as art, distinguishing his approach from photojournalism or natural history.
“A few years ago, I thought to myself that a lot of wildlife photography looks the same,” he says. “There are so many great images and it’s so hard these days, especially with the internet and social media, to penetrate that, so I needed to find my own voice. That’s how I started working artistically with images, retouching them, to take them to another dimension. I want to take my viewers to another state of mind; a dreamy world, almost like you’re in the picture. That’s why I allow myself that creative freedom.”
Post-production is a crucial part of Björn’s process. “When I’m done retouching, it’s a gut feeling,” he explains. “Like painting a painting, the trick is to stop in time. Some photos, I don’t need to do anything. Sometimes I push it a lot further, removing or adding things to make the picture more interesting. I work with filters and warm light. I like light that’s vibrant, mythical, magical. That’s my palette of colors in taking the photo and in post-production.”
Most of all, he aims to capture the souls of the animals he photographs – an elusive quality to put your finger on. “If you can capture the soul of the animal, you will capture the viewer,” Björn suggests. “I have a very spiritual relationship with animals. My great passion and love for animals makes me see when to take the photo. I capture animals in moments of thoughtfulness or reflection, often when they’re quite still. Eye contact is also important.”
Beauty Will Save the World is the second book in a planned trilogy, with the final instalment set for 2022. The theme for all three books is humanity’s relationship with nature. His previous work, The Real Owners of the Planet, highlighted the fact that animals have been on Earth much longer than people. “Rhinos have lived here for 50 million years, and modern man just 200,000 years, so we’re newcomers on this planet,” he explains. “I wanted to talk about the need for respect in view of our place in the world.
“With the second book, I see a connection between everything going on in the world right now, not just climate change but coronavirus, mass consumption, etc. They’re all based in a lost relationship to nature. There is a lot of negativity in the world right now. That’s why I want to show the beauty of the world. Trying to inspire people to act is the purpose with everything I do.”
Björn donated 40 per cent of profits from his first book to Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, in Hoedspruit, South Africa, helping renovate an old veterinary clinic. It’s the same area he did his wildlife ranger training course nearly two decades ago, in nearby Timbavati Game Reserve, learning, among other things, about antipoaching measures. He was also one of the photographers supporting 2020’s Prints For Wildlife print sale, which raised more than $660,000 for African Parks. He estimates that images he’s sold or donated have helped raise 300,000 euros for other organizations, including Perfect World Foundation, Wildhood Foundation and Save Wild Tigers UK.
Recently, he took on the role of chairman with Smart Savannahs, a collaboration with Linköping University using state-of-the-art surveillance technology to protect rhinos in west Tsavo, Kenya. “It’s really exciting. We’re using the most ground-breaking technology: GPS monitors inside rhino horns; intelligent camera supervision that can detect people moving in the park at night; smart apps that the rangers are using to do daily reports and take photos of their encounters. Rhinos have tripled in that area since work started in 2014. The big goal is to take the same techniques to other parks. We’ve already started around Mount Kenya with bongo antelopes.”
Björn has been taking photos since he was seven, but only went professional around five years ago. “I worked in marketing for quite a few years,” he says. “That’s been a very useful skill for communicating my work. A lot of photographers have amazing photos, but aren’t sure how to spread the word and talk about themselves.”
The motivation for his work, in both photography and conservation, has a personal element. “About 15 years ago, I had a personal crisis in my life. I went to South Africa to get away from it all. I’ll never forget one moment where I felt I had a connection with a lion. It was a very emotional moment. My whole life turned around after that meeting. So I have a very close relationship to lions. Seeing and photographing them really fulfils my heart.” Like many photographers who need to travel, the last year or so has been difficult. Björn managed to get out to Africa for work during the pandemic, but several planned exhibitions around the world were delayed. As the world (hopefully) starts to open up again, he plans to continue his mission to “move people” to action.
“In order to heal this planet, we need to start with our hearts,” he says. “We get thousands of ideas every day on how to be more green: eat vegetarian, do your recycling… but they’re all just commands. If you’re going to change something, you have to feel it inside. If people can rediscover the incredible beauty of the planet and reconnect with nature, I think we’ll find that compassion to care and protect it.”
The big question: How can you make a photo stand out?
“When you look at a photograph, you have to feel like you haven’t seen this before. That goes for all art, right? When you see something, a composition, the light, or other different things, you have to make the viewer feel that he or she hasn’t seen that thing before or had that feeling before. You also have to have an emotional connection.
“I see thousands of photos that are technically perfect, which win amazing wildlife prize awards, but a lot of times I just admire them for being technically well done. I see a snake biting a mouse or something like that, but there’s no emotional connection for me. We see so many perfectly created photos, but you have to reach the heart, not just the eyes.”
Björn’s top tips: How to find original perspectives
Björn has taken time to craft his own style, so we asked him for his advice for creative photographers…
01. Photograph what you love
Forget about trends. Stick to what you really love, and your passion will shine through in the image.
02. Dare to zoom out
Closer is not always better. Dare to zoom out and look for interesting surroundings and compositions.
03. Look around you
Even if everyone is pointing their cameras in one direction, turn around and you might discover something even more interesting.
04. Forget the camera
Be in the moment, and look and grasp what’s around you. Many photographers miss what’s right in front of them while they are busy adjusting their settings.
05. Don’t look at other photographers
If you’re only looking at what other photographers do, you’re just going imitate them. Get inspired by art, design and the unexpected. That’s how you become original.
06. Break the rules
Forget what you’ve been taught. Do the complete opposite and you might come out with something really fresh and creative.
07. Listen to your heart
Lions might have been photographed a billion times, but never in the way that you portray them.
08. Get creative
Develop your own style and look in post-production. Dare to go wild.
How to get Björn Persson’s new book
Beauty Will Save the World by Björn Persson (published by Fri Tanke Förlag) is available via www.bjornpersson.nu. It contains 270 pages with 151 color and black-and-white photos of wildlife, from Antarctica to Madagascar. His previous book The Real Owners of the Planet is also available.