Suffolk is a county full of surprises. Accompanied by the natural beauty, astounding history and wonderful people, this corner of England never fails to impress as we learn more about the area and what is on offer for both those who are living or just visiting Suffolk. Without a doubt, one of our personal favourite "Suffolk-surprises" is Spirit of Suffolk. We had the pleasure of sitting down with our good friend Philip Charles to discuss Spirit of Suffolk, his journey in the world of working in conservation, and ethics surrounding wildlife photography. Normally for our blogs, we would post clips from our recorded Zoom interview, but in this case we have decided to write only a short article and instead post the entirety of the conversation from start to finish. We had some wonderful chats and thought-provoking discussion. Please do scroll to the bottom to either watch, or simply listen to the full-length interview. Anyone tuning in will be able to relate, connect and take away valuable lessons from Phil's knowledge and his beautiful philosophies.
Have you ever been on an African safari? Have you always wanted to experience the thrill of tracking wild animals, learning about the stunning landscapes around you and getting the opportunity to participate in the fascinating world of wildlife photography? Owner and operator of Spirit of Suffolk, Philip Charles, offers unforgettable experiences like this right here in Suffolk.
Born and raised in Suffolk, Phil spent a large portion of his childhood growing up around the coast and the English countryside. Right from his earliest of memories, his passion, respect and love for nature and wildlife was always present. After he finished high school, Phil perused an education in animal management in college and complete a university degree in animal conservation science. From there, he was lead to a research conservation program where he had the amazing experience of living for 6 years in Kelmtu, British Columbia, Canada. There he conducted research on bears and provided guided tours for international guests, including wildlife photographers from National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and many other top nature conservation organizations from across the globe. After returning to Suffolk, Phil decided to start developing his current business, Spirit of Suffolk, based on his experiences from Canada. He also currently teaches wildlife conservation at Suffolk New College. But outside of his work as a college lecturer, he dedicates his time to his work as a tour guide and wildlife photographer.
Above: A Suffolk hare captured during sunset
"To describe it as remote would be an understatement," Phil said as he described the location where he was based in Canada during his time there. "The nearest road was 200 miles away." He spent his placement there studying bears. This is where he had the incredible experience of spending time with and photographing all kinds of wildlife, including a white Grizzly bear, known to the local indigenous peoples as a spirit bear. But despite the wildlife paradise and all the variety of beautiful wild animals - from grizzly bears and black bears, to wolves, humpback whales, killer whales, river otters, bald eagles and more - Phil describes that the people were really one of the biggest reasons he goes back as often as he can to visit this remote location in Canada.
Phil fell in love with the First Nations community that he was eventually culturally adopted in to and given a traditional name which roughly translates to, "the one who swims with whales," as Phil apparently had a tendency to go for a swim in the frigid ocean whenever he had the chance. When asked what was the biggest takeaway he had from his experiences living in a remote location in Canada with indigenous people, Phil describes that it was the community. "Living in that small community, I have never experienced anything like it," said Phil. "Everybody knows everybody, everybody is there to look out for each other, everybody's kid is everybody's kid." He describes the sense of community as something that just can't be matched here in England. "It's the kind of place where you could leave your bike on the street and go back four days later and it would still be there." But aside from the new perspective on what it is to be part of such a community, Phil also learned a new kind of respect for the land and the wildlife, including the ethics involved. These lessons translated into his work as a tour guide, and resulted in Phil delving deeply into ethics related to wildlife photography.
Below: Images of an extremely rare Spirit Bear, taken by Phil during his time in Canada
To be able to share wild experiences and document the issues faced by our natural world through wildlife and nature photography is extremely important, Phil believes, especially for those who aren't able to easily access nature. But when discussing wildlife photography, Phil has many important philosophies for both those who are practicing wildlife photography, and those who are simply just enjoying the often stunning photographs taken of wild animals and natural spaces.
For those actually doing wildlife photography, the biggest piece of advice Phil gives is to try and avoid getting sucked into the competition of it. A quick look online or scroll through any social media platform will present numerous photographs of amazing close-ups of wild animals and vivid landscapes; these can often make those of us with lower-end equipment feel negatively about what they are able to produce as photographers. Phil recommends that the key to overcoming this is to enjoy witnessing your own progress through the art of wildlife photography. But for those folks who simply love photographs of nature and wild animals, Phil advises that as consumers, we should be discerning and think about where the photo was taken and if it was a true capture of undisturbed nature.
As mentioned, that sense of a completive element that is unfortunately often adopted by wildlife photographers can result in poor ethical practices. Many photographs of wild animals are often "faked". Predators are often baited in, man-made settings are created to replicate natural habitats, and even captive animals are often staged in "wild" settings. These are all methods commonly used to bring animals in closer to the camera or within a specific setting. These practices change the animals behaviour, and ultimately takes away from the purpose and art of true wildlife photography and the experience of both taking and viewing such photographs on a holistic level. "It's not a true reflection of what nature is. Nature and the environment is stunning," said Phil. "I don't need to fake it, I don't need to create a staged scene. I would rather put the time in to get it in a completely natural setting." Such practices are done without considering what effect that is having on the animals, and it turns wildlife photography into simply "getting the shot" rather than enjoying the experience of spending time in nature, learning about the environment, and baring witness to wild animals in their natural state. As Phil aptly states, "It's taking the wild out of wildlife."
Above: Example the complete posing process of a mouse during a photography workshop.
Phil proposes that we should treat the wildlife photography market similarly to how we now buy and sell meat products here in the UK. In England, our meat products and eggs by law must include information on the packaging such as what farm it came from, how it was raised and so on, in order for us to know that the animals involved were well looked after. This is not the case for wildlife photography at the moment. There is no ethics committee for wildlife photography here in the UK, and unfortunately many photographs being bought by the public have been taken with unethical practices. Phil believe that as consumers, we have the need and the right to know if the animals featured in wildlife photographs and videos we enjoy are either captive animals or wild animals that have been interfered with.
Below: Truly "wild" photographs, captured by Phil
Another problem that is created through unethical wildlife photography practices is the devaluing of true wildlife photography. "There are photographers that spend months trying to capture incredible photos of wild harvest mice and wood mice," Phil said. "But if you just go to a workshop, you can get better photos in ten minutes, and the public is unaware." Phil goes on to describe how much more valuable it is to have a photograph of an animal that is completely natural, wild and behaving as they would normally. To be able to know that the animal in the photograph you are either "liking" on social media or purchasing a print of was completely untouched and not interfered with, is information that Phil passionately believes should be made readily available.
Below: More photographs of truly wild animals in their natural settings
In order to bring about awareness and conversations regarding these issues, as well as simply offering an enjoyable, completely customizable and unforgettable wildlife experience, Phil offers to take the public out on local Suffolk safari tours. At the moment, Phil has knowledge and access to multiple locations, and will cater the tour to whatever wildlife his guests are most interested in seeing, from owls to red deer. Phil has the options to drive his guests around three principle locations which he knows well: the Shotley Peninsula, the Deben Peninsula, and the Suffolk Heritage Coast. With the options of mixing in some walking portions of the tour, each experience is catered to his guest's specific desires for what they want to get out of their time with Phil. He is now offering four hour, six hour and eight hour tours. We here at Forage & Folklore Tours can personally attest to the brilliance of a Spirit of Suffolk tour, as we have joined Phil as guests. It was an experience we will always cherish and one of the best activities we have participated in whilst here in Suffolk. To find out more, visit the Spirit of Suffolk website which is linked below at the bottom of the article. As mentioned earlier, to listen to the full interview and hear the complete story of Phil's time in Canada, his work in wildlife photography ethics and all the details regarding Spirit of Suffolk, listen to the video here:
We would like to sincerely thank Phil for his time and sharing his knowledge, philosophies and personal stories with us. Phil has been a huge inspiration to us, and Forage & Folklore would not be what it is today without his encouragement and advice. He was our very first guest during out initial trial tours and we are forever grateful to have him here in Suffolk.
All photographs in this article were taken by Spirit of Suffolk, Philip Charles
Spirit of Suffolk Website: https://spiritofsuffolk.com/