A Troubling Picture

In trying to nab the perfect wildlife picture, photographers may be doing more harm than good

Few of us will ever have the chance to see a penguin, a tiger, or a whale in their natural environment. Yet we all know what these creatures and their wild homes look like thanks to the extraordinary efforts of wildlife photographers, both amateur and professional.

For nearly 150 years – as more and more humans have moved into urban centers and as cameras have become smaller and easier to use –photographers have played a crucial role in maintaining our intimacy with wild nature.

black-and-white photo of a canyon scene, men on horseback to give scalephoto by William Henry JacksonLandscape images captured by photographer William Henry Jackson facilitated the decision to establish the Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
Pictured here: Garden of the Gods near sandstone rock formations identified as Cathedral Spires, Colorado Springs (El Paso County).

Landscape images captured by photographer William Henry Jackson helped spur the decision to establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Some credit Carleton Watkins’s photographs of Yosemite Valley for the establishment of the national park there in 1864. A century later, dramatic pictures of birds marred in oil during the Exxon Valdez oil spill sped around the world, illustrating the severity of the environmental catastrophe more effectively than any scholarly article. Today, tiny digital cameras have become an important tool for scientists, allowing them to document countless species on the verge of extinction, sometimes for the very first time.

Yet there’s a fly in the ointment. At times, the quest for the perfect picture, or what might look like a one-time opportunity, can have a serious environmental price tag. The spectacular image doesn’t reveal what went into making it, and sometimes an innocent looking photo could be causing more harm than good.

Last year researchers warned that tourists visiting the Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary in southern India have become a new threat to the gray slender loris – a small, shy primate that lives in the forest there. Visitors wishing to take photos of the cute furry animal have started paying locals to capture it, sometimes using flashlights, scare tactics, or even cutting down trees if that’s what it takes. In the city of Phuket, a tourist magnet in southwest Thailand, Bengal slow lorises hunted by traders serve as models in front of cameras of foreign holidaymakers.

The impact is not always so evident. A study published in 2011 found that for the West Indian anole lizard, even the noise of a camera shutter has an effect on its behavior, possibly similar to that of predators.

Another 2013 study investigated the impacts of underwater photographers on seahorses in the waters off of Australia. It showed that while flash photography had no significant effect on them, handling the animals did have a significant impact. And a 2001 study carried out at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef found 15 percent of the diver-photographers damaged or broke corals. On average, the professional photographers caused more harm than amateurs.

To be clear, in most cases photography-related ecological damage is caused inadvertently, due to negligence or simply lack of awareness.

“I think that there’s really an important responsibility when going out to photograph anything, but especially when photographing in nature,” says photographer Morgan Heim, who is also a member of the International League of Conservation Photography. “A photograph is never worth harming the animal that you’re trying to get a picture of.”

Gulf-Oiled-Pelicans-June-3-2010photo by International Bird Rescue Research Center, on FlickrHeavily oiled Brown Pelicans captured at Grand Isle, LA, on June 3, 2010. Dramatic pictures of birds marred in oil, as a consequence of oil spills in the oceans illustrate the severity of this environmental catastrophe likely more effectively than any scholarly article.

“Most nature photographers … would never make a deliberate damage to nature,” says photographer Amir Ayalon, a co-founder of the Israeli Nature Photography Association.

Heim says: “The problem might be more common with amateurs, just because their volumes are greater, and they may not be as well educated on how to approach photography in an ethical way. Not that there’s any malice or anything. People get enthusiastic when they’re out there and they’re going to take pictures and they may not realize they’re doing any harm.”

However, both Heim and Ayalon confirm that experienced, professional photographers also cause damage due to excessive confidence. “You hear stories of professionals that they have a lot of questionable methods for how they go about getting their photos,” Heim says.

On the face of it, a solution could be legal regulation. In some countries – for instance, the UK and Ireland – photographing protected bird species, especially in situations that could disturb them, requires a specific permit. In 2011, two photographers were convicted in the UK for disturbing breeding white-tailed eagles, the country’s most protected bird, when they erected a photography hide in close proximity to a nest. The two were collectively fined £ 1100.

Earlier this year, a Florida-based photography instructor was brought to court after he was observed several times approaching nesting snail kites with his boat in order to take photos of the raptors. The photographer has pled guilty to a violation of the Endangered Species Act and now faces up to one year in prison and $100,000 in fines.

While legal sanctions might have a deterrent effect, some photographers say it would be better to try to shape behavior and build ethical norms within the photography industry via professional codes of conduct. For example, the code of ethics of the Israeli Nature Photography Association opens with a clear statement: “We share the world with a vast variety of plants and wildlife, and it is our obligation as photographers and nature appreciators to respect them and care for their safety and wellbeing, and in any case of conflict of interest to prioritize wildlife over our own interest as photographers.”

“The idea is to set out clear rules of do’s and don’ts, what consists a reasonable behavior and what doesn’t. It’s not because nature photographers are criminals, or they would do whatever it takes to get a photo,” Ayalon says. “After all, there are many things that we don’t always think about. It’s important to clarify what could be a harmful behavior, and what one should be cautious about.”

The nature photographer community, he says, is able to generate ethical norms by setting firm rules within its own discussion groups. “For instance, in our forums we forbid posting nesting photos – it doesn’t matter if you’ve been photographing for 30 years and you’re a world champion – because this could encourage other photographers who only see the end product and try to replicate the photo without being aware of the lengthy process behind the shooting.”

People who are unaware of the possible implications and try to photograph birds in a nest with eggs or chicks, he says, don’t understand that if they come close and scare the bird away, exposing the nest even for a few minutes, could harm the chicks or embryonic eggs, either through a heat stroke or by exposing it to predators. Similar ethical codes exist in other countries. For example, the BBC has detailed instructions for filming animals.

photo by Helena Snyder
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
At times, the quest for the winning frame could have a serious environmental
price tag. In Thailand, Bengal slow lorises hunted by traders serve as models
in front of cameras of foreign holidaymakers.

Professional wildlife photographers also frown on staged photo-shoots or photos that have been digitally manipulated – either of which can lead to distorted impressions of reality. One of the most controversial issues is the photographing or filming of animals in captivity as a substitute to their natural habitat, particularly if the animals are kept by for-profit companies for the purpose of such photography. Many competitions and exhibitions dedicated to nature photography carefully define the standards for submitted photos, if only as a result of past cases in which images that were submitted turned out to have been taken using questionable methods.

In 2010 organizers of the British Natural History Museum’s “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” decided to retract the first place prize after the museum discovered the photographer had hired a trained wolf for the photo. The statutes of the British contest, marking its fiftieth anniversary this year, has a chapter detailing the ethical standards participating photographs need to meet, including a prohibition on “images of animal models or any other animals being exploited for profit,” unless it is photojournalism depicting maltreatment.

But it’s possible that – even with the strictest ethics – the wellbeing of photographed creatures is still of secondary importance. In a 2010 academic paperon nature documentaries, Brett Mills, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia, argued that such films deny many wildlife species their right to privacy. In

a follow up commentary Mills published in The Guardian, he explained his intention was to raise an issue that nature photographers and filmmakers might not be taking into account: “Are there types of animal behavior, or places where such behavior takes place, where it might be right for humans to ponder whether or not it is appropriate to film them?” he wrote.

While acknowledging the value of nature photography and photographers’ ethical considerations, Mills claimed this is a dilemma that is often ignored. For example, photographers and filmmakers routinely capture intimate situations such as mating or birthing that most humans would refuse to have filmed.

We have no way of knowing whether animals agree to be filmed or photographed, he wrote. “But, significantly, when we don’t [know] whether consent is forthcoming for humans, the likely ethical response is to decide that filming is inappropriate.” So why should it be different when the subjects are not human?

Mills doesn’t offer a practical solution, but writes: “Perhaps thinking about how we treat animals in documentaries could help us think about our relationship to the whole world around us, which can surely be no bad thing.” At the very least, Mills’ argument demonstrates the increasing awareness, evolving debate, and developing ethical standards around nature photography and its impact on its subjects.

Wildlife photographers Heim and Ayalon agree that the publishers of nature photographs – books, websites, stock photography agencies, magazines, and others – can also contribute to shaping ethical norms. These publishers can make a conscious decision not to sell or publish photos in which there is a reason to believe that their taking involved negative impact on the environment, thus reinforcing their own commitment.

“It’s not necessarily about the picture you take – it’s about what you do with the picture you take,” Heim says. “Instead of just showing it to your friends or family, or keeping it to yourself, you’re actually making a very concerted effort to put that photography to use for some sort of cause, or some sort of broader understanding and outreach of environmental issues.”

Indeed, visual-based advocacy is at the heart of the International League of Conservation Photographers’ work. Established in 2005, the Washington DC-headquartered network says its mission is “to further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography.” The League’s photographers work with organizations, scientists, policymakers and others to produce visual content, primarily still photography, to promote conservation.

Similar motivations guided the founding of the Israeli group two years ago, says Ayalon. “Whenever there is an environmental campaign and we’re approached, we’d go out to the field.” The photographers do this voluntarily, says Ayalon, and the pictures are then used for publicity in the media.

Ultimately, it’s thanks to the tirelessness, resourcefulness, and patience of nature photographers that we know the penguin, the tiger, and the whale – and are aware of their plight. Once we view the images, it’s up to us to make sure that the pictures of such majestic animals do not end up as a photo finish.

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