“We’re really in a critical decade,” says Adam Oswell. “This period we’re in right now, the next 10 years, is really going to determine our future in a very big way.”
Oswell would know. The photojournalist has spent more than two decades bringing attention to the illegal wildlife trade and plight of endangered species across Asia and Africa. “The situation is pretty urgent now,” he says. “The scale of the loss of biodiversity is a concerning issue we all need to pay attention to.”
Oswell’s intimate knowledge of the jungles of Africa can be traced to growing up Sydney’s North Shore in the ’80s. It’s there he first began taking photography classes at Ku-ring-gai High School and practising his craft in the adjacent national park, Ku-ring-gai Chase. Following high school, Oswell studied at the Australian Centre of Photography before spending the next decade travelling through Asia, eventually settling in Thailand.
In the late ’90s, Oswell began a career in photojournalism, travelling to places like Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and China to document the black-market trade in local wildlife. “I was focusing on a lot of the non-government-controlled areas in Burma where there was just massive amounts of unregulated trade and endangered species,” says Oswell. “You’d see ivory, rhino horn, pangolins – all these critically endangered species openly for sale in markets that were going into China and Vietnam. That was pretty shocking.”
Over more than two decades since, Oswell’s work has been published by Time, the Guardian, National Geographic and Bloomberg. He’s also produced a book on the wildlife trade with world-famous conservationist Jane Goodall, and in 2021 he was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year, run by London’s Natural History Museum. In Oswell’s winning image, titled Elephant in the Room, an elephant stands behind aquarium glass, fully submerged in water. As a trainer grips its ear, visitors look on, snapping photos and laughing. The piece encapsulates Oswell’s signature style: equal parts emotion, insight and art.
“You want to grab people’s attention, that’s the aim,” he says. “That really went viral because it’s such a different image and there’s so much emotion behind it. You can clearly see the circumstances of the elephant and it’s a really powerful image of our relationship with nature.”
Behind the accolades and the big-name publications though, is a career full of risk. One recent story took him to remote Laotian caves, where desperately poor farmers seek out bat guano to use for fertiliser – a cheap option that carries the risk of deadly zoonotic diseases. But often it’s not the animals that pose a threat to Oswell’s safety. “If you’re going on patrol with rangers in some areas where there’s a high rate of poaching and you’ve got armed poachers, like some areas of Burma or in Africa, it’s reasonably high-risk,” Oswell says. “There’s a high chance you’re going to run into people with guns that want to kill you. You have to manage that risk.”
In his upcoming Glen Grant Masterclass in Sydney, Oswell will dive into the ongoing importance of conservation and wildlife protection, and the role photojournalism can play. Though he’s seen a massive shift towards democratised, citizen journalism, Oswell believes that there will always be a place for professionals with a story to tell and the skill to tell it.
“Photography as a career won’t die, because even though we have so much technology and so many people have access to taking pictures and putting them up on platforms where people can see them, you can never replace creativity,” Oswell says. “If you maintain that element of producing exclusive, important, creative work, there will always be people that will see that as having value.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with The Glen Grant. The Glen Grant is an events partner for associated events with the Wildlife Photographer of The Year exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum.