Interview with Johan Siggesson 

A wildlife photographer from Sweden residing on the small Mediterranean island of Malta. From an early age I was passionate about animals and the natural world. Before Animal Planet, Nat Geo Wild and the likes, I was always glued in front of the weekly nature program on Swedish state television. No matter if it was lions in Africa, wolves in Yellowstone or Polar bears in Svalbard, I practically grew up with Sir David Attenborough’s voice at the back of my head.

From the moment I bought my first digital camera I was hooked. The creativity that is unleashed with instant feedback on the screen, variable ISO and more or less unlimited image capacity is something that really appeals to me. This, combined with a passion for animals, is a recipe for a wildlife photographer.

When I am not out photographing or stuck in front of my Mac processing images, I enjoy a good meal or watching a game of soccer with friends… And a cold beer. I hope that you like viewing my images just as much as I enjoyed taking them!

Interview:

LEMAG: Johan, changing Sweden for Malta, a place with traditions so very different to your motherland, is not something that springs to mind. Has this change of homeplace had any impact on you as a photographer?

Johan SiggessonYou are correct. Traditions and culture are very different. Some better, some worse but I have lived here in Malta for 16, almost 17 years now which is a few years short of half my life. I actually started my photography whilst living in Malta so, since I did very little photography before I came to Malta I cannot say that it has changed my way of making images. On the contrary, I feel that my Scandinavian roots very often can be seen in my images.

 LEMAG: Yours is a very special type of long exposure and as you say since early days you were in love with the animal kingdom. How did you develop the concept of your work, why did you decide to slow the shutter speed and work in a more abstract way?

Johan SiggessonI started out like most other nature- or wildlife photographers by learning about clean backgrounds, a low angle, and rule of thirds etc. Nothing wrong with those guidelines and I still use them myself but after a while I felt that every images looked the same. The only difference was that one image depicted a bird and the other one a deer. I didn’t feel very creative…

LEMAG: How do you get paid to do what you want to do with your photography?

Johan SiggessonWell, since I started taking things seriously I do value my time and my work properly. I feel that very often people devaluate their own work by charging nothing or very little. It puts them and everyone else down. Whether it is for a print, a course, the time spent at an event or whatever it might be, we need to charge accordingly. Yes, I do some free work but for NGO’s etc where I feel that my free work is like a donation to a good cause. We have all heard the discussion of “exposure” instead of payment so I will not go into that but basically I charge properly for my time and my work and in the end I think people learn to respect that.

LEMAG: Is there a photographer you would like to work with? Someone that you would call a master?

Johan SiggessonI believe we all have our sources of inspiration in one way or another and I also think they vary over time as we develop as individuals and as photographers. In my case they don’t necessarily represent the images that I personally create but I love the work of Vincent Munier, Marina Cano or Nick Brandt for example.

LEMAG: Which of your images is the most important for you? Why? Can you tell us the story behind this image?

Johan SiggessonI think we all have one or maybe a few. In my case it is an image of a zebra. I took it on my first safari to Kenya with a rented lens and a newly purchased Nikon D7000. Basically it was the trip and the image that started it all. I had never taken photography seriously before and I definitely didn’t know my way around the exposure triangle before this trip. Our photography guide gave us a crash course before we set out on the Savanna. I took this image after a few days on this trip and the guide seemed quite impressed with it so rather naively I decided to send it in to the most prestigious wildlife photography competition in the world, which is Wildlife Photographer of the Year. It went all the way to the final round. Basically the last 800-1000 images out of 50 000 I got to know afterwards. I was of course very proud and thought for myself that maybe I have found my calling 🙂 The image is not perfect and never won an award or anything like that but it is still an image that is important for me.

LEMAG: My personal best by you is the colour image “Fuzzy Eaters”– I like simplicity of it and at the same time the repetition of shapes and colours. How did you come across those images please?

Johan SiggessonLast year I visited Japan to photograph winter wildlife which traditionally includes the Japanese macaques (aka Snow monkeys), Steller’s sea eagles, Whooper swans and Red-crowned cranes. The image you mentioned is showing the legs and heads of two of these cranes looking for food in the snow. When you go on trips to locations where so many nature photographers have been before it is easy to fall into some kind of ready set path of images you need/want to take. You have seen so many images of these animals and locations during the years and it is sometimes hard to think outside the box. We spent a few days with the cranes and I really tried to force myself to come up with something that is somewhat outside this famous box. The cranes are very graphical with a very distinctive pattern of just red, white and black against white snow so I decided to over-expose the images to get rid of all the patterns, dirt etc in the snow and at the same time get very graphic and clear-cut images. After some initial tries I started using intentional camera movements to enhance the graphic aspects of the image further. I worked quite intensely with this technique and managed to get some satisfying results in the end.

LEMAG: What is your favourite genre of photography?

Johan SiggessonBasically, I only do wildlife photography and that is what I focus on. As previously mentioned, I have moved away from the traditional, more documentary, wildlife photography towards a more abstract and for me personally a more exciting way of showing the wildlife. Don’t take me wrong though, I also do more conventional wildlife photography but in the end my heart beats that little bit extra when I see a beautiful semi-defined blur on my screen 🙂

LEMAG: What is your biggest strength and weakness?

Johan SiggessonI think my biggest weakness in this genre with the type of images I prefer to shoot is that I haven’t done it for a very long time so settings for specific scenarios etc is not automatic yet. A lot of trial and error and in wildlife photography that is always a problem since the moment is often gone in a split second.

With a background in graphic design I always felt that one of my strengths are to recognise the potential of an image in the field and sometimes not until I get back home. I think it is an art in itself to see the possibilities in an image or a scenario.

LEMAG: Looking at the impressive list of your awards and publications one wonders if there was a single most important to yourself or one that made a difference to your standing as a photographer.

Johan SiggessonIt is hard to say. They were all important and inspiring at the time. Photographic competitions in themselves are debatable in my opinion. Should you really compete in art? I love the competitions myself but I definitely understand the sceptics. Honestly, I don’t think any of my awards individually made any significant difference but maybe together as a collection they have helped in some way. On the other hand I rather see that people like my images for what they are rather than for any award they might have received. As I said I love the competitions for various reasons and of course they make you proud and give you a bit of a boost. I think my latest achievement in European Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the one I am most proud of and happy with. Its a big competition where I won the category “Nature’s studio” which is a category which is close to my heart.

LEMAG: What are you up to next?

Johan SiggessonThere are a few things going on at the moment. One of my images was chosen as one of the 50th most popular images in the history of “Travel Photographer of the Year” and will be on display in Dubai and Sharjahnow in November. I also have an exhibition here in Malta with 9 other photographers coming up. In the beginning of next year I am going back to the Kalahari desert for 2 weeks to guide a group of enthusiastic wildlife photographers. Really looking forward to that. 

LEMAG: Johan, thank you very much for your time it has been a pleasure speaking to you.

Kalahari
Fuzzy Eaters
Speedy Talons