Marsel van Oosten is a celebrated photographer hailing from The Netherlands. Before jumping into Nature Photography, he studied Graphic Design, Art Direction and worked as an Art Director in advertising. His position in the latter contributed to his eye for detail and helped to hone his skills as an artist. After becoming disenchanted with his former profession, he decided to take up photography and in the process, discovered his true artistic calling.
Having an already impressive internet presence as a result of his beautifully composed landscape shots, an extensive awards resume (he has been recognized by the Cannes Film Festival, European Wildlife Awards, International Photography Awards, and many others) and his Squiver nature tour program, Marsel has been celebrated for quite some time now. It was his now legendary photograph of a monkey using an iPhone at the Jigokudani Monkey Park however, that catapulted him further into universal acclaim and helped to cement his place in history.
In this interview Marsel discusses his life, work, and gives a few tips to up and coming photographers.
Prox: Let’s start by hearing a bit about yourself. What’s your story?
Marsel: I’m a professional nature photographer from Amsterdam, The Netherlands. After finishing Art School with a BA in Graphic Design and Art Direction, I started working as an Art Director in advertising. I worked at various international ad agencies, first as an Art Director, and later as a Creative Director. Eventually, I started my own agency with my long time copywriter and a Strategy Director. Being a creative in advertising seems like a walk in the park from the outside, but it’s hard work and mentally draining. You have to be creative on command, work with very tight deadlines, and you have a great responsibility. It was a lot of fun most of the time though, and I learned a lot during my career. But after 15 years in the industry I decided I had enough. I no longer wanted to have to listen to clients telling me what to do and I wanted to get rid of all the creative restraints I always had to work with. That’s when I decided to change careers.
Prox: What is Squiver exactly and what is the aim of the project?
Marsel: My wife Daniella and I run Squiver, which is basically a company specializing in activities related to nature photography. We organize and lead photographic tours and workshops for small international groups of all experience levels to destinations worldwide. We sell images and fine art prints, give lectures, and we are now working on a new book. Our mission statement is to have fun. When we decided to both quit our jobs and start all over again, we promised each other that we would only do things that would make us happy. The moment we don’t like doing something anymore, we stop doing it – life is too short.
Prox: What got you into nature photography and travel? Did you begin there or did you discover it while experimenting with a different type of photography?
Marsel: When I was still in art school, photography was one of the options to choose as a major. Back then, it didn’t appeal to me at all, because it involved spending countless hours in your bathroom messing around with chemicals. It wasn’t until I started working in advertising that I realized that photography was both a very powerful and very interesting medium. Every time I came up with an idea for an ad campaign, I had to look for a photographer whose style would fit the concept. During my career, I worked with countless photographers, each with their own style. Watching them work, speaking with them about photography, selecting the best frames, the post processing – it has taught me much more than I would ever have learned in any school.
As I got more excited about photography, I also started taking photographs myself. In the beginning, I was a photographic omnivore – I shot everything from abstracts to people to cityscapes. After a while I noticed that I liked photographing nature much more than all the other subjects. I have always loved the outdoors and animals, so that didn’t come as a surprise. But I think my focus on nature photography was also fueled by the fact that in advertising the world that I created was always fake. No matter what crazy idea I came up with, the moment the client gave the green light, I could pick a photographer and we would make the visual. Those images were heavily manipulated, without exception. The world I created was one of make believe, and there was no limit to what I could do.
In nature photography, I felt a much bigger creative challenge because I had to deal with so many elements that I had no influence on – the weather, the light, animal behavior, etc. At the same time, spending time in nature with my camera was a way to escape from life in the fast lane – it was almost therapeutic. As my advertising work started getting more stressful, I felt drawn to nature more and more. Meanwhile, my wife and I were traveling all over the world whenever we had the time, and this was another thing that we both really loved. Traveling the world while photographing landscapes and animals for a living sounded like a dream at that time, so from then on, I worked on turning that dream into a reality.
Prox: How does a typical shoot begin for you? How does travel and planning usually look?
Marsel: There is no such thing as a typical shoot, because there are too many different factors that influence the planning and logistics. Planning is an essential part of my preparation for any shoot. I believe that often the best images are made during the planning stage. Picking the time of year, the exact location, pre-visualizing what you are going to shoot and how you are going to shoot it, the gear you think you need – the impact of these decisions on the creative outcome are usually greatly underestimated. I typically spend at least twice as much time on planning than on the actual shoot itself.
Prox: Could you describe your style of photography from a technical and aesthetic standpoint?
Marsel: In my work I try to simplify, to get rid of the extraneous: simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. For some part this is the result of my character – I like things to be organized and balanced. Our house looks just like my photographs – clean, few important pieces of furniture, devoid of any clutter, no plants. My education in Graphic Design and Art Direction, and later my career in advertising, also have left their mark. I often compare myself to an interior decorator – picking the right furniture and putting it in the right places. In my best images, you can see the graphic design and the balance clearly, and I’m different from most other wildlife photographers in that I care less about the actual subject, and more about the location and the conditions. A magazine once described me as a wildlife photographer who thinks like a landscape photographer, and that sounds reasonable.
From a technical point of view there are very few secret techniques that I use. It’s all rather straightforward. I don’t even like the technical part of photography very much, it’s just a necessity to understand and master your camera. Great photographs are made inside your head, the camera is merely a tool.
Prox: Who are some of your influences? Are you inspired by individuals outside of photography (musicians, directors, etc)?
Marsel: I get my inspiration from anything, but mostly not from within my own field of work. I actually think that nature photography in general and wildlife photography in particular are extremely poor genres in terms of creativity. We tend to color within the lines and there are a lot of self-imposed restrictions as to what is ethical and what is not. Nature photography is stuck in the twilight zone between news photography on one end and all the really artistic photography genres on the other. Nude, fashion, fine art, and advertising photographers don’t feel the need to stick close to what the actual scene looked like, and as a result, they experiment more and get more inspiring results.
In art school I was introduced to the work of German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). His paintings 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. When I first saw his work back in art school, it made a big impression on me, and it's been a source of inspiration ever since.
But there are so many other great artists around - the internet is filled with talent. I don’t look at much of it, only when I’m going to photograph something specific - I like to know what’s already been done so I can at least try to do it differently.
Prox: You’re an extremely decorated artist. How does it feel to receive so much critical and fan reception? Is it ever surreal?
Marsel: The awards didn’t all happen overnight, it has been a long and gradual process, and they are the result of hard work. I’m obviously very pleased that so many people like my work, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Some of my personal favorites are not popular at all, yet I still think they’re very good. My photography is my personal, creative vision of the natural world, and there is no way you measure the quality of that. I’m just lucky that many people share my visual taste.
Prox: The photo at the Jigokudani Monkey Springs pretty much catapulted you into internet stardom. Even celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Ashton Kutcher have posted the shot. Could you describe what happened? Do you ever stop to think about how perfectly things lined up for you in that moment? What’s the biggest change in your career you’ve noticed since then?
Marsel: Nature photographers have a tendency to over-dramatize their actions for getting the shots. I have never really understood this, as it makes no sense and it should not matter. A picture either works, or it doesn’t. I could come up with an interesting story of how I got the snow monkey with the iPhone shot, but the truth is that I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time. And that there was a Chinese tourist who wanted to take a close-up shot of the monkey with her iPhone, basically offering it to the animal as a gift. I saw it happen, immediately recognized the uniqueness of the scene, and my experience did the rest. Anyone could have taken that shot. It’s a great image, and I think that it’s so popular because of the anthropomorphic qualities and because it seems to contain a message about the technological era that we’re living in. Other than winning an important award and selling a lot of prints, it hasn’t really changed my career at all. Every photographer will, at some stage in his career, get lucky once or twice. This time it was me, next time it will be someone else. Meanwhile, I’m not going to wait for another lucky shot – I will continue to work the same way as I did before.
Prox: What are some of your favorite and most meaningful pictures up to this point?
Marsel: My most favorite images are the ones that are the result of pre-visualization, of my creativity. It’s very difficult to get original images if you stick to known subjects and locations. Yet I really like the challenge that comes with that. I could get into a helicopter and have me dropped in the middle of nowhere, where no one has ever photographed before, and that would result in a lot of original images. But it’s much harder to create original images in locations that are famous and of which already millions of photographs exist. Photographing in places like that really forces you to come up with a creative idea that sets your images apart from the rest. A few years ago I won an important award in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition with an image from Deadvlei, Namibia, called Resurrection. I shot the image at a time when all other landscape photographers said that you would never be able to get anything original from that location, as it had been shot to death. To prove them all wrong was confirmation of something that I already knew a long time ago – it is always possible to create something original, even if it seems that it is no longer possible.
Prox: Where would you say your favorite shooting location is so far and where are some places you’d like to travel to in the future?
Marsel: One of the negative aspects of the internet is that one great picture can turn a previously unspoiled wilderness area into a place full of photographers. Daniella and I once set up the world’s first photography tour to Namibia, and now there are dozens. Three years ago, I saw a very nice photograph on 500px that was shot at the Lofoten, Norway. This year I suddenly saw hundreds. I am now very aware of this effect, especially because I have over 40,000 followers on said website. So I prefer to not disclose any future destinations anymore, in an effort to avoid a sudden influx of photographers.
As for my favorite shooting location – I don’t really have one. They all have their own character. At the moment, I am crossing the Drake Passage on this year’s second tour to Antarctica, surely the wildest and most remote place on earth. I could easily spend an entire season here to photograph the wildlife and the breathtaking scenery. In my work I have a strong preference for powerful, graphic shapes, and the towering icebergs in this region are amongst the most beautiful subjects I have ever photographed.
Prox: Favorite hobbies?
Marsel: I am fortunate to have turned my hobby into my work, and even though many people say that when you do that it no longer feels like your hobby, I still have to pinch myself every now and then that this is actually my job. It’s hard work though, and I have very little time in between trips. The little spare time I have I like to listen to Death Metal, watch television, and listen to philosophical debates.
Prox: Tips for aspiring artists?
Marsel: If you want to stand out, you must stay true to yourself. Don’t copy other photographers and try to do things differently. And by differently I don’t mean revolutionary, just that you have put your own personal creative signature on the images that you create.
Prox: Final thoughts?
Marsel: There is no Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in my mini bar.