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.