The Natural History Museum’s flagship photography competition, now in its 32nd year, showcases 100 of the best images of the natural world selected from close to 50,000 entries. With these staggering statistics in mind, visiting the exhibition could make one wonder what it offers that others don’t. The answer: an array of images that is varied, diverse and memorable—ranging from animals and abstractions to photojournalism and depictions of every imaginable natural entity in between.

The exhibition is broadly broken down into its competition’s categories: “Earth’s Environments,” “Diversity,” “Earth’s Design” and much more. Each section, carefully curated and balanced, carries its own weight and relevance to the natural world. In “Environments,” for example, we are presented with sections of underwater, urban, and rural landscapes that convey the essence of life on Earth—how everything is united and interwoven despite differences of habitat.

It would be easy to wax on about single images, but the old adage about pictures outweighing words is especially true in this case. Still, a few deserve recognition: South African photographer Geo Cleote’s shot of a tussling “tornado” of electric-blue jellyfish is dazzling; Alexandre Hec’s “blast furnace” freezes exploding lava into a gel-like painting, with bright oranges and reds cast against a dark black sky. Finally, this year’s grand winner—”Entwined Lives” by Tim Laman—looks down from the canopy top on a orangutan clinging perilously to a strangler fig root, while a mass of forest stretches out far below. Where Laman was standing while making this shot is left, tantalizingly, to our imaginations.

Aside from the spectacular and spellbinding shots that capture our attention at the outset, there remains a sincere and impassioned side to Wildlife Photographer of the Year: its documentary section. This part is filled with poignant and deeply researched reminders—through both series and single images—of the fragile, frequently abused relationship between humans and animals. For example, it is extremely telling that the joint winners in the documentary section both told the story of species on the brink of extinction.

With fresh, grim news about our environment emerging daily, Wildlife Photographer of the Year continues to grow in relevance and urgency every year. Its compelling images—the result of years of impassioned dedication—inspire curiosity and awe at the breathtaking beauty and upsetting fragility of natural life everywhere. However, we would do well to leave the exhibit with a reminder of how we, the human species, are the ones most responsible for stewarding our precious planet.

—Ben Dickenson-Bampton


Editors’ note: The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition will be showing at the Natural History Museum in London until September 10, 2017. It will also tour to more than 60 cities around the UK and the world.

Ben Dickenson-Bampton is a writer and photographer based in Bournemouth, UK. More of his writing can be found on his personal website.