The website of the International League of Conservation Photographers has a blog by Melissa Groo titled: From Wild to Captive: A Call for Ethics in Modern Nature Photography. The post is written because of a perceived lack of ethics in relation to capturing images of wild creatures. This problem applies to moving images as well, of course, and even the BBC has not managed to avoid criticism for ethics violations.
This is how the post starts:
“This is a thrilling time to be a nature photographer. The digital age has brought advancements in camera capabilities that only a couple decades ago were beyond our imagination. Shared GPS coordinates, drones, thermal imaging, camera traps, photo metadata, online forums, and other tools inform us on the location of elusive, charismatic wildlife, allowing us to close in on them quickly and in numbers. Photography workshops promise to take us to every corner of the earth for bucket list adventures. Social media gives us platforms to instantly share our adventures with families, friends, and followers.
Though this might well be the greatest time in history to be a nature photographer, it’s possibly the worst time to be a wild animal. Habitat loss, wildlife trade, pollution, and climate change are all profoundly affecting wildlife. Global wildlife populations have fallen by 58% in the last 50 years, according to the 2018 Living Planet assessment released by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund. If the trend continues, that decline could reach two-thirds of all vertebrates by 2020.
Meanwhile, the power of visual imagery appears to be at an all-time high. Photos can seize attention and quickly go “viral,” having impact that the written word often fails to attain in this increasingly fast-paced world. This can be a profound force for positive change and course correction. At the same time, such an environment is fertile for artifice and manipulation (human nature being what it is). In addition, everything is taking place against a backdrop of increasing skepticism for once-trusted news sources, some of whom even falsify stories, doctoring still images and even videos to tell more convenient or self-serving “truths.” The juggernaut of social media has also spawned a culture of mistrust, stoked by intense competition and one-upmanship. In order to be seen, visual boundaries are pushed, whether in the arena of extreme adventuring, lavish lifestyles, or stunningly close encounters with charging wildlife. The race to garner the most likes and the most followers invites shortcuts in ethics and honesty.”
And this is how it ends:
“The truth is that the mantle of responsibility for veracity, integrity, and ethics in nature photography includes not only photographers, but all consumers of photographers’ images. It’s time for organizations, publications, stock agencies, and photo contests to take a stand for ethical photography across all platforms from web sites to social media, condemning images from photo game farms and pseudo-sanctuaries, as well as the baiting of predatory birds and mammals for photography, a practice which habituates and endangers these animals.
Finally, truth in captioning is more critical than ever. We do a disservice to animals when we deny the truth of their lives in an image. The life—even soul—of a captive animal, especially a genetically wild one—is very different from that of a truly wild one. As nature photographers, whether we are interested in conservation, in accuracy, or simply in building a loyal and trusting audience, the honesty and clarity of our captioning serves three parties best: the animal, our viewers, and our own reputation. Labeling images of captive animals as captive ensures we keep a covenant of trust with the end users of our images. Truth in captioning is also critical when creative manipulation in post-processing has altered the reality of a scene.
We all share this planet together. We all share a responsibility to respect and preserve life for future generations. As nature photographers, may we honor and celebrate the natural world, seeking to educate rather than mislead, to shine a light on the truth rather than obscure it, and above all, to dignify and honor the lives of creatures who cannot speak or advocate for themselves, and yet grace us with the gift of their beings.”
There are, inevitably, some lovely pictures.
Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer, speaker, and educator. She’s an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine, and writes a bimonthly column on wildlife photography for Outdoor Photographer magazine. She speaks and writes extensively on issues of ethics and conservation in wildlife photography, and was Chair of the Ethics Committee for the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) from 2014-2018. She remains on the committee as a member, and also serves on the Conservation Committee. In 2018 she received NANPA’s Vision Award. Her work has been published in numerous books and magazines, such as Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, and Natural History. Melissa is represented by National Geographic Image Collection and has a long-term gallery at Audubon Greenwich in Connecticut.