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Jasper Doest The flamingo became my muse

When Dutch photographer Jasper Doest’s cousin casually mentioned she was looking after a flamingo, he never imagined how much it would change his life. For the past three years he has been visiting Odette, his cousin, and Bob, her flamingo, on the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

The photos are joyfully silly but they make a serious point, about our relationship with the natural world and the decisions we face if we really want to protect it.

Since 2016, we’ve partnered with the World Press Photo awards to tell the stories behind the best photojournalism around, in the photographers' own words. See the whole series here.

This story is all about introducing the public to Bob, a Caribbean flamingo from Curaçao. His life took a dramatic turn when he flew into a hotel window – leaving him with a serious concussion – and he was cared for by my cousin, Odette.

She runs a wildlife rehabilitation center, and so normally she would release animals back into the wild. But because Bob was very tame, she was worried he would end up in trouble again. So she decided to keep him, making him an ambassador of her conservation charity which educates children about the importance of protecting the island’s wildlife.

I think it was three years ago that Odette and I were talking about her practice on the island and how she wanted some photographs to hang on the wall. So I said, why don't I come to Curaçao and photograph local wildlife?

That was the plan. Then a month before, she texted me a picture of the flamingo. She said, “I just found this flamingo and he might still be in rehab while you're here.” The day after my arrival, the flamingo walked into my bedroom. That was it.

I started to follow him, because it was such a visual thing, seeing this pink bird walking through a human household.

I started to post things online and it got bigger and bigger. He became famous on Instagram. We visited a radio show where they asked does the flamingo have a name? She just came up with Bob. I think it's a perfect fit. He’s a Bob.

The flamingo became my muse and I just kept photographing him, because it was helping my cousin raise funds for her charity. I can see myself following him for a very long time.

None of these images are staged. The way I see it, if you start staging situations, you can only take pictures that go as far as your own imagination. If you don’t stage them, if you’re just following your subject, then sometimes things happen that go way beyond your own imagination. Those are the images that you're looking for.

That's all I have to do. Be there. Then some crazy stuff happens, like the picture where Bob is sitting on Odette's lap in the car and he's looking out the window. I just let my curiosity lead the way and try to capture that wow factor.

Since Bob is super tame, I can work very close to him, bringing out his personality. That's very different from a pelican. Odette has a pelican too and I've worked with the pelican. But, it’s not as mellow, not as relaxed, not as Caribbean maybe as Bob.

When I looked at the series after my first visit, I actually thought it was too funny. It was too gimmicky. That's why I kept going back to work on the story. Because it's not just about, hey, look, here's a cool flamingo. It's also about conservation – that's the main message. It's about how Odette is able to make a difference by using a flamingo, by bringing him into these classrooms where she really engages with kids.

Odette is an incredible woman. She runs this charity in her free time. She's a single mom and she's doing a PhD. She goes to a Prince concert, she's picked out by Prince. She danced with Prince on stage. That's her life. It's crazy.

I started out as a wildlife photographer, trying to emphasize the beauty and the importance of our natural world. I was struggling a bit because you can show how beautiful animals are, but it’s not making a point, not really. Not one that's convincing people to act in a different way, or to take initiative and step things up.

I've noticed over the years we’ve created this huge gap between ourselves and the natural world. I think the only way to move forward is to explain to people how we’re all connected. That's exactly what Odette's doing, through her education.

She talks about Bob's cousins, Bob's brother and sister, out on the salt flats. That way, the kids are able to connect with the animal on a much deeper level than it just being a flamingo. It becomes an individual. It becomes Bob. I think that's making a difference for the rest of their lives. At least, that's what I hope it does.

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