Georges Dif, who has died in Paris at the age of 69, was a passionate naturalist, ornithologist, experienced photographer and writer. His fascination with nature led him to various parts of the world, including Japan, India, the Seychelles, Galapagos and the Falklands, to name a few, but it was for Shetland that Georges had a real penchant.
His first visit was in 1969, in the company of his wife, Nelly. For over 45 years Georges came to Shetland almost every year.
Out of his love for the islands grew a remarkable book: Shetland, terre de vent (Land of the Wind). Published in 1989, it featured splendid photos, a brief history of Shetland, short poems and an extensive list of regular and rare birds encountered on the islands.
It sold well, but disaster struck when all remaining stocks of the work were destroyed in a warehouse fire. Georges was preparing a new edition of the book before his death on 20 December last, following a long illness. Those who have seen the draft rate it even more highly than his first. In spare, poetic prose he wrote what amounted to a love letter to Shetland. It is good to know that it is being translated into English.
As a photographer, Georges had no interest in idealised portraits, ‘chocolate box cover’ pictures or romantic sunsets. He wanted always to show what people, wildlife and wild places were really like; so his shots of Noss and Foula, two of his favourite islands, were often taken on wet and misty days. He would wait hours, sometimes weeks, to get the light exactly right for what he wished to portray in a landscape. Always the pictures conveyed atmosphere and his love of the place.
In his book Les Oiseaux de mer de l’Europe (Seabirds of Europe), illustrated with his own photographs, Georges set a standard for other photographic identification guides to follow. As with the landscapes and seascapes, he took endless pains (and sometimes suffered a great deal of discomfort) to get his pictures. Birds like puffins and gannets were relatively easy; storm petrels less so.
Many articles on Shetland and his other travels have been published in various French magazines such as GEO magazine, Terre Sauvage and Photo. Georges was a purist and took pride in the fact that he long resisted the lure of digital photography. His reasons for preferring film were purely technical: for example, he maintained that the white plumage of his beloved seabirds tended to “flare out” in digital images.
Georges did not talk much about his day job as a commercial draftsman; it was clear that he much preferred the activities that a regular salary enabled him to enjoy in his spare time. After he retired from the office he worked harder than ever on his photography, his writing and his second career as a wildlife guide. In recent years he organised guided tours with the travel company “Terres Oubliées” for French photographers, which enabled him to spend some time with his Shetland friends each summer.
In conversation he had a wry wit and a ready smile. He loved the understated Shetland sense of humour and relished jokes with a local flavour. He was a good judge of character and excellent company.
Georges was a political animal, too. He was intensely proud when Nelly was elected as a Green councillor for their home town of Cesson la Foret, just south of Paris. As a committed ecologist and socialist, he hated racism and sexism. He could be scathing (and extremely funny) about the follies of the major political parties in France. In a letter written just a few weeks before he died he was explaining, and excoriating, the foreign and domestic policy failures that had led to the massacres in Paris. He loved France, and was incorrigibly French in his personal charm and manners, but he was no nationalist and saw clearly his country’s faults.
Georges’ visit to Shetland in June 2015 was to be his last. A little bit of sand that Georges had carried home from the islands followed him to his last resting place, taking with him a piece of the Shetland he loved so dearly. He will be greatly missed by all of us who knew him. He is survived by his wife Nelly and their two sons Guillaume and Robin, to whom sincere condolences are extended on behalf of all his Shetland friends and acquaintances.
Liliane Tiffaneau, Louise Irvine & Jonathan Wills