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The Ethics of Wildlife Photography | The Wildlife Society News
2012 Winter — December 14, 2012
Sticky Questions for the Digital Age

Donald M. Jones captured this shot of fellow photographer and an approaching caribou in Central Alaska. Their 600-millimeter lenses enable photographers to keep a respectful distance from subjects. Unperturbed by the cameras, this caribou chose to stroll quite close. Courtesy of Donald M. Jones

In 2010, a wildlife photographer in Madrid, Spain, was stripped of the prestigious Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year award when the contest committee ruled that he had likely hired a captive wolf to represent a wild animal in his winning image (Booth 2010). Months earlier, in Florida, a wildlife photographer submitted heavily altered digital images to a National Wildlife Refuge Association photo contest and was summarily disqualified after admitting to creative use of his digital darkroom (NWRA 2009). In Uttarakhand, India, a wildlife photographer captured images of a tiny lapwing chick hiding motionless in the mud as an ant crawled across its open eye. Likely fearful of the photographer’s presence, the chick stayed still rather than blink to remove the ant, which the photographer later feared may have potentially caused eye damage or energetic costs to the chick (Patra 2010).

The use of captive animal “models” hired to represent wild ones, the digital manipulation of images, and the disruption of natural animal behavior while in pursuit of images are at the center of a debate about whether such incidents are breaches in wildlife photography ethics. But views about what constitutes “ethics” vary widely. At the 2010 WildPhotos nature photography symposium in London, an ethics panel asked an audience of 400 wildlife photographers about their professional practices (WildPhotos 2010). While only 5 percent of the audience said they would hire an animal model, 70 percent said they would photograph captive animals in zoos, and most—90 percent—would disclose in a caption that the animal was captive. As for digital manipulation, 80 percent said they would digitally remove small distractions from an image while 5 percent admit they would add components to it, but less than one third of both groups would declare the image altered in a caption.

These and similar questions of ethics have prompted both the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) and the International Federation of Wildlife Photography (IFWP) to publish ethical guidelines. The NANPA guidelines promote self-education and appropriate personal conduct to protect not only the animal subject and its habitat, but the photographer as well. These practices help ensure that wildlife photographers do not disturb any behaviors or habitat critical to wildlife survival and propagation, do not violate any laws or management agency trust, and do not actively or passively condone such acts by their own behaviors.

The IFWP guidelines are more conceptual, focusing on wildlife photography as an aesthetic, educational, and altruistic endeavor, in which it is incumbent on the photographer to be knowledgeable and willing to place the welfare of the subject above all else. Neither organization recommends a ban on digital manipulation, though NANPA does encourage
photographers to exercise “truth in captioning” by distinguishing between wild and captive animals and disclosing “photo illustration” through digital manipulation, double exposure, or other means.

A Growing Concern
Nature photography is the most rapidly growing outdoor activity in the United States (Aiken 2009, Cordell 2008), and the ethics of its impacts on wildlife behavior are being increasingly addressed by land and wildlife managers. It is so popular that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strongly encourages the National Wildlife Refuge System to provide photography amenities like platforms and blinds for visitors (USFWS 2006). Because most people taking pictures of wildlife are amateurs looking for a memento of their trip, it is the amateur that shapes the way land and wildlife managers oversee nature photography opportunities. But how do managers and photographers learn to walk the ethical line?

It’s a question that Donald M. Jones—a professional photographer of wild birds and big game for 24 years—grapples with to this day, having experienced every facet of ethical dilemma. When asked what the biggest ethical questions are in wildlife photography, he identifies two main categories: regulatory semantics and behavioral etiquette.

Like NANPA and IFWP, Jones considers the use of animal models or digital editing to be matters of semantics—not inherently unethical in terms of harassing wildlife, but against most rules of standard photographic conduct and disclosure. If the goal of the image is to represent nature as it actually occurs, then such practices might be considered a breach of contract or highly unethical. To limit potential breaches, publications and photo contests now regularly request raw image files with submissions, and most prominent wildlife photographers agree that images should be unaltered and accompanied by descriptions of whether the subject is wild or captive (Carwardine 2010, Williams 2010).

Endangering wildlife by disrupting its natural behavior during a photo shoot violates behavioral etiquette, but what qualifies as ‘endangerment’ may be murky. “Some people say that if an animal looks at you, if you’re changing their behavior in any way, you’re harassing them,” says Jones. “So, if you squeak at an owl to get it to turn its head, which would it be? Ethical or unethical?”

That’s not an easy question to answer. Research suggests that the impacts of human recreation on wildlife—including photography—depend on the type, degree, and duration of disturbance and the animal’s ability to tolerate it. Disturbances can be single or repetitive, predictable or random, concentrated or dispersed. They can occur in critical or general habitat, and can affect an individual, population, or community. Further, some species are more robust and adaptable than others.

A cartoon by Geoff Cloake, a New Zealand nature photographer, depicts one ambitious shutterbug’s intention to magically transform a horse into a unicorn. In wildlife photography, minor photo manipulation is often overlooked, while major alterations are usually deemed ethical breaches. Credit: Geoff Cloake, www.geoffcloake.co.nz

As for the impact of the disturbance, that depends on whether it is caused by one person or a group, and whether their behavior is passive or intrusive (USGS 2007). Passive disturbance, such as long-term use of an area, can lead to the reduction of habitat availability to disturbance-sensitive species. Intrusive disturbance, such as approaching a nest too closely, can cause nest abandonment and offspring fatality.

Jones has witnessed these variables at play while photographing in Canada: “I watched a mass of people that had at least 40 big lenses trained on a herd of elk. The elk were on an island and the people were on the mainland shore. The cows wanted to come back to the mainland, and started several times, but turned around every time because of the crowd.” As a single incident this may have limited effect on the behavior or fitness of the cow elk, but chronic disturbance could change habitat use patterns or generate energetic deficits, ultimately impacting both the photographer’s experience and the cows’ welfare and productivity.

Even minimal disturbance can have major impacts. One study of 28 California parks and preserves found that the carnivore community composition was altered even in areas where quiet, non-consumptive recreation such as hiking and photography was permitted. The researchers concluded that such affects could result in altered prey communities (Reed and Merenlender 2008).

Public education can reduce such impacts. A study on San Pedro Martir Island showed that briefing large tourist groups on island ecology and restricting their movements around the island resulted in a lower impact on seabird nesting success (a 0.4 percent disturbance rate) than from unregulated individuals or small groups (a 5.6 percent disturbance rate) (Tershy et al. 1997).

Fair Game or Crossing Lines?
Another ethical question involves trespassing. If a photographer wants to shoot on private land, they should seek permission from landowners to gain access. Even on public lands, sensitive ecosystems and wildlife breeding areas may be closed to the general public. If photographers on public lands intend to sell their images or use them commercially, they will likely need to purchase a permit from the public land agency, but may also be able to pay an extra permit fee to shoot in restricted areas, Jones says. There may be conspicuous barriers, signs, or personnel to indicate restricted areas within public lands, but there also may be no indications at all, so do your homework before leaving home.

If you have legally walked the land—or are unable to do so—and have explored all options to capture a wildlife image with no luck, what about giving nature a little nudge by attracting the animals to you? “Baiting is a tough one,” says Jones. “On the one hand, it is cut-anddry that tying down [a live] animal for bait is unethical. But photographing birds near a birdfeeder …” The audience at WildPhotos tackled this question. When asked about baiting, 95 percent said they would photograph birds over birdseed, 70 percent would use roadkill to attract predators, and 20 percent would bait an owl with a live mouse. But many local wildlife management agencies regularly prosecute baiting practitioners. Recently in Montana, a wildlife photographer was jailed and fined for using bait to attract bighorn sheep to a particularly photogenic area (MFWP 2011).

This may seem a clear offense when it involves photographers, but do the same rules apply to wildlife researchers? As a wildlife technician, I’ve used baiting on the job many times—tossing some bird seed to bait a Sherman trap, butchering roadkill to bait a remote camera, or balancing a live mouse on the tip of a stick to bait an owl. I mentioned this to Jones, and he grinned. “I’ve been out with biologists, and have thought that there is no way I could get away with some of the techniques they use for their work,” he says. “I’d be run out of town! Everything changes when you’re talking about photography.”

Ultimate Ethical Dilemma
Are there ethical parameters in wildlife photography that can be managed at a large scale? Bill Borrie, a professor of Park and Recreation Management at the University of Montana, has conducted insightful research on public perceptions of wildlife/wilderness experiences and management policies, which has broadened the perspective on the implications of recreation management.

Borrie believes that public interaction with each other, with technology, and with the media is increasingly influential on how land and wildlife managers carry out their missions (Freimund and Borrie 1998). At times, the public has gotten the impression from the media that nature is free of risk or danger, when it may actually contain furtive or cantankerous animals, thick dust, freezing downpours, ravenous insects, disorienting topography, and overall stochasticity. This perception has caused swells of public participation in various outdoor activities. To complicate matters, forums on nature and wildlife photography abound online, and are wonderful sources of information that attract many amateur wildlife photographers. Problems can arise when photograph locations are posted, resulting in increased recreational pressure in the area. This forces land managers to review or change their policies, typically in the form of additional regulation such as permitting of activities, seasonal restrictions, area closures, and designated use sites (Borrie et al. 2002, Borrie 1999).

While land, wildlife, and public safety are noble causes, there can be an unintended dark side to management, which is an objectification of animals through over-regulation. “Are we turning wilderness into zoos?” Borrie asks. “Both are about preservation, education, and recreation, but zoos are for human convenience. Wilderness has its own agenda. Regulation can go too far, and there starts to become a Disney-fication of animals. If you charge fees like Disney does, if you have signs that say, ‘Take photo here,’ that worries me. Because now it is not a respect or an ethical relationship with wildlife you have, it’s an economic transaction.”

Beyond Ethics, Toward an Ethic
Borrie’s words touch on a larger question. What is the place of wildlife photography in the larger picture of wildlife conservation? Hunting has been the glue that holds together the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, but hunter and angler numbers have declined over the last few decades (Aiken 2010). Photography, meanwhile, is on the rise. Wildlife photographers, if they were to act as an advocacy group for wildlife, would be perfectly poised to reinforce the strained North American Model. But they haven’t. Neither have any other non-consumptive, recreational users of
wildlife (Regan 2010).

As the popularity of non-consumptive wildlife use develops, I see convergence in the ethical considerations of both hunting and photography. Both involve matters such as captive wildlife, baiting, advancing technology, commercial activities, and inexperienced people afield. And participants of both pursuits are spending more per capita on outdoor equipment each year (Aiken 2009, 2010).

Are these symptoms of Borrie’s objectification hypothesis and a fractured environmental ethic? If so, can we shift their momentum? I believe we can, though restoring a healthy ethic will require changing our current wildlife management
paradigm from one supported primarily by consumptive users to a more comprehensive one where management is funded and supported by all wildlife users.

Author Bio: Kristina Boyd, CWB, is a Wildlife Research Associate at the University of Montana and Chair of The Wildlife Society’s Early Professional Development Working Group.

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