Friday, March 14, 2008

Ethics in Nature Photography

At the NANPA Summit another breakout sessions I attended was "The Ethics of Subject Welfare: Animals, People, and the Land."
The panelists were Daniel J. Cox, Susan McElhinney (who was absent due to illness), Michael "Nick" Nichols, and Michele Westmorland. The panel was moderated by Joshua Baker.

Several of these panels really made me think, and this was one of them. I am a firm believer that issues usually have both sides. And I think it is good to look at both sides, because if there is a "truth" it is probably somewhere in the middle. At some point, I have to figure out for myself what my position is or will be.

Obviously we don't want to harm the animals or the environment where we are photographing. When we have happened on to a marvelous photo opportunity, how long do we stay? Are we stressing the animal? Are there too many photographers making an animal nervous? In the heat of the magic moment, what are we going to do?

There are many reasons we need photographs of animals. We can use them to help people identify them. We may use them in a book or magazine article which perhaps might help other people appreciate the animal more. Animal photos are frequently used commercially to advertise products or businesses.

There are many reasons that some animals are captive. I've taken photos of captive raptors. One set of my captive animals came from the Desert Museum in Tucson. These animals are used to educate and inspire appreciation for the amazing abilities these birds have. I've also photographed animals in zoos. My personal take on zoo animals is that these animals are representatives for their species. We take our children to zoos so that they can learn to appreciate nature and animals that they would not be able to see in their native environments. And some zoos, like the San Diego zoo serve as safe places to breed endangered species so that eventually we can reintroduce them into the wild. The condor is one of the success stories of this type of captive breeding. I hope that the Atwater Prairie Chicken will be another success story. Several zoos are providing prairie chickens to the refuge in hopes of establishing a more viable population. Animal rescue centers care for animals that have been injured. Sometimes they can be released into the wild, but other times, the rescue center provides a safe and healthy environment for animals that cannot be released because of their injuries. These animals also serve as ambassadors for their species and are usually well treated. Some animals are kept captive so we can study them and learn more about their biology and their behavior.

There are also game farms. And here is where things get really controversial and heated. First you have to figure out how to define game farm. Near as I can tell, a game farm is a place where animals are kept for the sole purpose of photography and exhibition. They may be well treated and well cared for, but they live most of their time in enclosures that are much smaller than their normal territories. They are brought out and placed in "natural" and "scenic" settings for people to photograph them. They are usually immaculately groomed - so you get some pretty amazing and beautiful shots. You can also get much closer and so you can get great facial shots with eye detail. And in some cases, it may make sense to photograph this way. Sometimes it is for the photographer's convenience. Much easier to go to this facility and get your shot that your commercial agency is requesting. But sometimes there are advantages for the species as well. With endangered species, photographing a captive animal places less stress on the ones that are still trying to survive in the wild. Photographing a captive nest reduces the chance that you will interrupt a nesting cycle. Getting too close may either provide a predator an opportunity or could prevent the chicks from fledging.

One of the audience members proposed that there were no "free" animals any more. He included the African nature reserves. But in Africa, these animals are in their native habitat, they are free to go where they will in an area that allows them to roam the same amount of territory as they did before all the humans moved in. Plus most of these parks and and nature preserves have been set up to protect these animals and give them natural territories. My experiences in Africa let me get very close to animals living wild, in their natural environment. They were free to leave when we drove by or they could choose to continue their normal activities. Some species eyed us warily and then chose to run. Others checked us out and continued what they were doing. Huge amounts of land have been set up as natural parks much like what we have in the United States.

So the best definition of captive animals seems to be an animal that is not able to move about of its own will, an animal that is restrained in some way.

We are all free to take our photographs where we wish. We have to figure out where our ethical positions are for what we are choosing to photograph. But as professional photographers we must be honest in our submissions. Each market has guidelines. I know that the magazine Nature Photographer will not accept photos of captive animals. National Wildlife excludes images captive in game farms. And there are photographers like Thomas Mangelsen who stand up and confront photographic situations that they feel are unethical. The BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest prefers photographs taken in wild and free conditions. Nature's Best magazine's prestigious Windland Smith Rice International Awards also has a category for zoo animals. All others must be wild and in their natural habitat. As a photographer, I want to follow the submission guidelines for each market, gallery, or contest submission.

Michele Benoy-Westmoreland made an impression with her perspectives. She has done documentary work in Papua New Guinea with native tribes there. When I got home, I looked her up and found a fascinating story, "Headhunt Revisited" If ever I head in that direction, I would love to go on one of her tours because of her respect for the native cultures. I would like to learn more of what her point of view is as I hope to go back and spend more time in Africa one day. Among the things that she mentioned was trying to give them pride in their history and their culture. So many things are being lost as civilization moves in. She did a lot of preparation work before the filming - talking with the tribal leaders, making proper introductions, and finding ways to give back. She brought a small printer so she could give back pictures. She wanted to create not take. With her tours she finds ways to give back to these people in ways that will be useful to them and also encourage them to remember their culture. This ecotourism helps sustain the village and the demonstrations help keep traditions alive. Another great idea was to bring school supplies and books for the children rather than candy.

Globalization is making the world a much smaller place. We each have to figure out how we can make a difference.

This panel gave me much to think about.

NANPA has guidelines that have been developed over time to help photographers be aware of ethical issues. They have been posted on their website.

NANPA's Principles of Ethical Field Practices

NANPA's Environmental Statement

NANPA's Truth in Captioning

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