Ethics and Adversity

First the adversity: I was supposed to be on a ship heading to Antarctica (see my last post) but instead ended up in the emergency room being tested for a possible heart attack.  I didn't have one, as it turns out, but instead a nasty viral lung infection that still kept me in the hospital just long enough to have to miss my 3-week voyage South. Disappointing, to say the least.

As for ethics. In the world of wildlife photography, whatever power an image possesses is directly linked to its authenticity. We love wildlife pictures because they capture a unique moment in time. If we find out that the image has been faked, either digitally or through unethical behavior on the part of the photographer, the picture loses its sense of magic. It could still be a nice picture, but it can no longer move us.

Think of your all-time wildlife images : maybe Jim Brandenburg's white wolf on the ice, or Michael Nichols' Tiger drinking in an Indian pool. Consider how your feeling about those pictures would be altered if you discovered that the animals were trained, or simply added on the computer.  Not the same at all, is it?

But does unethical behavior on the part of some photographers undermine the value of all wildlife photography?  Does seeing all sorts of composites and dishonest pictures on the Web make us suspicious every time we see a picture that surprises or delights us? If so, that is a shame, since it is precisely that  delight that gives photography it's sense of wonder.

It would be one thing if all photographers were honest, but there are inevitably some who hedge the truth, take shortcuts, and think creating deceptive images is nothing more than 'artistic license.'  Every one of these undermines, in my view, the power of legitimate pictures.  How do I know?  Because I  hear "wow" less and less these days, replaced with, "I wonder if that's real?"  Sad.

One step forward on this issue was the Ethics Declaration that came out of the annual WildPhotos conference in London last month. It is a short statement of ethical principles that takes one small step towards creating a consistent standard in a field in which there are no real accepted ethical standards.  I encourage you to have a look - and if you like - sign on.  At the very least, it is advancing the conversation.

Have a look at :

As for the picture above: do you think it's real? A computer creation?  A pet animal?  The truth is that it is of an entirely wild bird in the Falkland Islands, not taking a picture, but actually trying to eat my camera. Does knowing this change your feeling about the picture?  It should.


    Kevin, a very succinct – and very good – exposition of a fundamental issue that all nature photographers now face in the digital age. Photography has always been unique among art forms in that it is not a “creation” medium (like painting, where the artist creates a scene from scratch), but rather a “capture” medium – the magic of photography is that it plucks a moment from the living world and suspends it in time. As photography gets increasingly mixed with computer art, much of that magic – much of what makes photography unique – may be lost. There is a lot of back and forth about the merits of digital manipulation but for some reason this is a point that I think gets lost.

    Thanks Ian. I like your creation/capture dichotomy. And your comment about photography “mixing” with computer art is very interesting – yes, there seems to be a increasingly blurred boundary between the two, although they represent these two quite distinct forms. Meanwhile, the good old “wow” factor is still very much alive in your work – keep it up.

    I questioned myself about whether the photo was real and knowing it is makes me truly appreciate it. If it was manufactured I wouldnt care less. As one who has recently rediscovered my love of photography and the thrill of the “hunt” for a great shot that now drives me, I prefer shots that are more “pure” and less manipulated. Since I am relearning everything on how to produce a great shot I do appreciate the corrective actions I can make in camera or in Photoshop. The less I have to do though the better. I prefer pure with a touch of fix.

    Hey Glenn, Don’t get me wrong: I use Photoshop every day to color correct, adjust contrast and all the things it does so well. The point I was trying to make is just that a viewer’s response to a photo is directly linked to their belief that it represents a real event. Take that away, and the picture loses its power. Thanks for commenting!

    My eye is very tainted today while looking at a picture and wondering if it was photoshop. One of the beauties of still shooting film, I can always back up my work. Great shot by the way.

    Hi Max, Sometimes I miss film for it’s all-or-nothing quality : you either had the picture or you didn’t. On the other hand, digital has saved some pictures for me that I could never have taken in the old days ( I am now often shooting ISO 1000 with the Nikon D3 and getting results as good or better than with my trusty old Velvia.) But it is that “wondering” you describe that worries me : that people are losing the sense of magic that has always been a part of seeing a truly great picture. Thanks for commenting…

    There is nothing as satisfying as nailing an image. I want to look at the back of the LCD and say “WOW!” I don’t want to look at it and say “dang if only” or “maybe once I get back home on the computer”. Certainly we have to allow for modest contrast adjustments and slight cropping, but nature photography must be remain about authenticity rather than manipulation.

    Jon, I couldn’t agree more – though I have to say: pictures on the LCD, or even in RAW, never look as good as they should, judged by the ancient, mystical “Velvia on a Light Table” standard. I may say “Wow” when I get something good, but I know it’s still going to take work on the computer: just a fact of life.


    First of all, I?۪m glad to hear that your illness wasn?۪t more serious, though it certainly sounds as if it was plenty serious enough. I hope you?۪re feeling well.

    Secondly, I understand the essence of what you?۪re saying, and I absolutely agree. The magic of wildlife photography is not just in the inherent beauty of the subject, but also in the knowledge that one is seeing a unique aspect of the natural world that most of us would otherwise never have the opportunity to witness. If what we?۪re seeing was created on a computer, then the beauty may remain, but the sense of wonder is gone. I am not a fan of composite images, nor any sort of blatant fakery, regardless of the photographic genre. Graphic design is a worthwhile art form in and of itself, but it?۪s not photography.

    However – and perhaps this is a bit off topic – I find myself respectfully disagreeing with the assertion in Mr. Plant?۪s comment that photography is a capture medium rather than a creative one. This might generally be true – out of necessity – when it comes to wildlife photography. However, I do not believe this is the case with other types of nature photography. When I look at the more impressionistic works of photographers such as Freeman Patterson, William Neill, or Art Wolfe, I?۪m seeing more than someone simply capturing the world in front of them in a documentary style. I?۪m seeing artists who are interpreting that world in unique ways. Even in images that adhere more closely to a documentary style, there?۪s a significant aspect of creativity involved – we choose whether to use a wide angle or telephoto lens??_ we choose what is, and what is not in focus??_ we determine the exposure – all of these choices and more are ways in which we interpret reality, rather than simply record it. Even the basic composition itself is a creative choice. We choose what to show our audience, and what to conceal. In fact, no matter what we do, the resulting image would still be an interpretation of reality, since the camera is incapable of recording all that the human eye can see. In my opinion, no photograph is ever a true representation of reality. Some are obviously closer to reality than others, but I feel that every image is an artistic interpretation of what our eyes see. I believe that the very best images are those that present nature from a fresh and unique perspective, thereby giving us new insight and appreciation of what we might otherwise take for granted.

    Pauk, thanks for your good wishes, and thoughtful comments. Let me say that I don’t think Ian was suggesting that photography is not a creative endeavor – far from it. (His work, for example, is very fresh and creative at times) Instead, I think he was simply making the point that it was inherently different from other artistic forms in that the process requires capturing an existing scene rather than “creating” one through paint, metal, fabric or even prose. That has always been a key part of photography’s special nature. For the creative photographer, however, the original content (the landscape, animal, flower etc) is really a starting point – obviously we make aesthetic choices from the moment we pick up the camera, the most obvious being composition, distilling the universe of content into a single image. And yes, absolutely, there are creative techniques that can be employed with the camera to make an image more than simply documentary: slower shutter speeds, selective focus etc. I think the question we were trying to address is just whether and where a boundary exists between photography and computer design, and the ethical issues involved. This is a murkier question, one that I tried to address in my Two Roads, Two Art Forms post here back in June.

    Thanks again for your thoughts on this. And yes, I’m feeling 100% better…

    Kevin, I couldn’t have explained my position any better, thanks! Pauk, Kevin is absolutely correct, I wasn’t saying that photography isn’t creative, I was saying it isn’t a “creation” media like painting, where the painter can paint anything they please. A photographer ultimately has to start with the real world around them. I completely agree that photography is a creative endevour, and it is the creativity of the photographer that allows them to “alter the reality” around them through artistic expression. I wasn’t advocating a documentary approach. I was just pointing out how photography is unique from other art forms. Thanks!

    Thank you both for taking the time to respond. The distinction between photography and other art forms is now more clear to me. I have seen images which are abstract to the extent that the subject is virtually unrecognizable – in these cases, I think photography comes very close to being a purely creative endeavor. In essence, the subject merely becomes another tool, like oils on a painter?۪s palette, as the photographer creates an image of tones, lines and forms. However, one could argue that even in these instances, nature remains the starting point. Sadly, I?۪ve occasionally heard others speak of photography as a capture medium as a way of suggesting that it?۪s not an art form. I know neither of you was in any way suggesting this, but I was still curious to hear you elaborate on the issue. Thank you both for your thoughtful comments, and also for the valuable insights you provide here on a regular basis. I?۪ve found them extremely helpful as I struggle to turn myself into a halfway decent photographer. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Main Menu