The ethics of photography in wild areas has received increasing attention in the last 50 years as wild areas have become more accessible, and photography has become easier and more compact. The digital revolution, cell phones and the downsizing of cameras in general have allowed everyone to capture scenes as citizen journalists in their cities and wild areas. The very real problem of destroying what we love has become a political, personal and economic issue that has forced photographers to examine their pursuits and goals.
Photographers and wildlife viewers in general have traditionally been lumped together under the non-consumptive label of outdoor recreation. This is mostly in comparison to consumptive users such as hunters and fishermen, who physically take the resource with them when they leave (if successful). But this arbitrary distinction is inaccurate, as consumptive implies only physical changes to the animals or ecosystem. Changes can occur gradually, right before our eyes but blind to our consciousness, that can negatively affect wildlife populations and natural areas just as seriously as removing an animal from its home.
Wildlife photography should be more of a quiet conversation rather than an active interaction; like most conversations, we should listen way more than we talk. We should be aware of our non-verbals. Animals have heightened senses that we are often unaware of. They can hear, smell and see miles better than we can, depending on the animal. They can sense our presence long before we see them, and long after we leave. So it becomes an ongoing, recursive challenge to fine tune our sensitivities to accurately assess our impact on the land and animals before, during and after our encounters.
An experienced photographer, naturalist or photo editor can tell when an image shows an animal that is visibly distressed, or otherwise doing something unnatural. This can clue the editor or viewer into the possibility that the photographer may have ignorantly or arrogantly created or staged the scene he/she photographed. Just like paparazzi press photographers, nature photographers have all too often crossed the line for a great wildlife shot. Photographers may unknowingly change the animal’s actions or direction. Yet without noticing any violation, they may continue shooting until the animal leaves or they get bored. Gradually these subtle changes can cause individual animals or populations to change habits and/or migrate away.
If the image(s) taken have received praise in publication, they can inspire more photographers to visit the same area or try for the same reactions, pushing the threshold of animals’ tolerance farther each time. As more people try for the same photos, small ethical transgressions by single photographers stairstep up to larger, more frequent transgressions by the masses. The lure of recognition or money tempts even the best of us in the heat of the moment to push those limits. (Read the insightful book by Professor Ronald Howard “Ethics in the Real World” for more on this).
There have been some high-profile photo contests where the winner has had his award and recognition nullified for violating ethical rules, either for staging a shot or representing a captive area or animal as wild. Aside from penalizing the photographer, the penalty to the animal or ecosystem is less visible and harder to document. And the damage to the integrity of the profession takes another giant step back.
Moral violations of these unwritten social guidelines, just like with humans, can have short and long term repercussions. If you were to violate a social norm with someone or a group of people, the individual or group would probably not want to associate with you in the future, even after just one episode. Similarly, violations of biological and ecological interactions have resulted in tighter restrictions in National Parks and other popular areas, abandonment of bird nesting areas, increased law enforcement, threats and/or injury to tourists abroad (in terms of violating cultural norms (think “Ugly American”), and/or other negative effects.
There have also been numerous instances of photographers staging natural events or situations to produce a photograph for sale editorially or as fine art. Staging is an overt act of manipulation that has many shades of impact. It may involve an animal that doesn’t seem to care or show any obvious signs of behavior change. Or it may change an animal’s daily activity temporarily, without any effect on its individual survival or population status.
Regardless of our perception of impact, there is a common thread. In passing off an artificially created scene as natural, without admitting so, the deception is equivalent to an actor interpreting what he thinks an author or playwright meant, rather than letting the playwright talk for himself. There is an element of hope in the whole process — “hope” that the staged action mirrors exactly what would happen in the wild (if the photographer had the time, money or required patience), and “hope” that nobody discovers the forgery.
“The clients didn’t like the look of the lodge’s exterior; it was ugly and wanted to find a new one. My thought was, to avoid bothering another family of beavers, let’s shoot two lodges, one inside and one out, and let viewers assume it was the same location. The clients disagreed. They were concerned about being ethical to the audience; I was more worried about the animals”.
(In my opinion, this is not a mutually exclusive decision. They can photograph both lodges and notify readers with a disclaimer, stating their concern for the welfare of the beavers.)
The dilemmas, frustrations and transgressions that have accompanied photography ever since it’s invention in the mid-1800s have unique consequences in the nature photography profession. It is hard to imagine any other photographic category where the access and act of photographing can lead to the subject’s disappearance, on such a pervasive scale.
It is also supremely ironic how the worldwide popularity of nature photography is contributing to exactly the opposite effect for which it is appreciated — to preserve vanishing wildlife and natural areas.
Consequently, the increasing popularity and impact on the land have set in motion forces to uphold the integrity of the profession, provide a consistency of behavior, and protect areas that inspire us.
In addition to the general codes of ethics in the larger photography associations such as ASMP and PPA, two of the more prominent nature-focused groups in the US — the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) , and the North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA) — have more targeted codes. They emphasize being aware of your actions and the actions of the animals, and minimizing disturbance by watching how and where you walk, talk, act and use your equipment. They can be accessed here: ILCP NANPA
At Alaska Photo Adventures, we adhere to a synthesis of their Codes:
1) Learn about the area and animals you are photographing. Be sensitive and respectful in the field; this will enhance the sustainability of wildlife populations, important natural areas and the nature photography profession
2) The welfare of the subject is more important that a photograph. It is not a zero sum game in which a successful photo can only be gained by violating the natural rights of an animal to live free without fear, distress or hindrance. Use the golden rule to guide your actions.
3) Minimize disturbance to the area you are in as much as possible to preserve the same character that attracted you there in the first place. Tread lightly, pack it in, then pack it out.
4) Integrity extends to post production. Do not manipulate images to deceive or misrepresent natural events. Caption honestly and accurately. Indicate when animals are captive, or ecosystems are man-made or otherwise not wild.
Though the codes are voluntary, they seem to be doing good; the overall consciousness of our impact as photographers seems to be rising and generalizing across all strata “general recreationists, non-photographer animal lovers, children, adults, novice photographers to advanced pros.
On a more personal note, if we want to continue photographing the heartfelt and life-changing moments among inspiring animals, and the breathtaking immensity of light, color and time in the real world of nature, we have to balance our desires with compassion, our self with our community, and our desire to capture the moment with the possible loss of it in the future.
On my desk, I keep a short poem entitled “For the Children” by Gary Snyder, the Zen poet and environmentalist. It’s there mostly to remind me of how to raise my children, and where we are headed. But I find it immensely relevant for photographers, as a motivation behind our quest for images, and perhaps as a compass for life: