Finding The Right Track

Now, more than ever, we need an open discussion on the ethics of wildlife photography
British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest
In British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, a mother grizzly bear pauses with a freshly caught salmon before retreating into the forest with her cub.

This is the best time in history to be a wildlife photographer, and this is the worst time in history to be a wild animal. That statement might sound extreme, but consider the facts.

It has never been easier to find a wild subject. Online databases, photography forums, texting and social media yield instant information on the location of a bird or other animal—often with GPS coordinates. Workshops that promise spectacular shots of wildlife in thrilling destinations abound. Thermal-imaging devices locate dens and nests; camera traps, drones and buggies find and track elusive animals.

It also has never been easier to actually photograph a wild subject. Current lens technology, AF systems, and gear lightness and maneuverability make stunning images easily within reach of both amateurs and professionals.

However, it has never been more challenging to be a wild animal. Earth has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years, and every day loses precious habitat to exploding human population and commerce, crowding wildlife into ever-smaller fragments of wildness. Animals from polar bears to sea turtles to monarch butterflies are adversely affected by climate change. One in eight of all bird species is threatened with global extinction. The illegal wildlife trade, now equal to the drug trade in profits, targets even the most endangered animals. Trophy and sport hunting are popular pastimes, even in bucolic upstate New York where I live: Regular predator killing contests offer rewards for the highest body count, targeting foxes, coyotes and bobcats. These are just a few of the sobering realities wild animals face.

As wildlife photographers, we love our subjects. We want them to flourish, to successfully raise their young. Let’s face it, for the most part, we aren’t in this primarily for the money, but because we have a passion for wildlife and nature. When we’re out shooting, it’s exhilarating to find our subject, and easy to get carried away and at times make decisions that override the animal’s best interest. I know—I’ve done it.

The allure of the decisive moment, the desire to enter the animal’s world, these are powerful motivators. In an age where we’re competing to get the next most spectacular shot on Facebook or other online arenas, and where photography competitions are seeking unique, groundbreaking entries, many of us seek to push the envelope. The desired image becomes paramount.

Often, there’s also simply more of us at a given spot, and behaviors that might not matter if engaged in by one person can stress out an animal if it’s repeated by many of us. Access can also become an issue—careless behavior by a few can close off opportunities for us all, especially in national parks.

Red fox, upstate New York
Photographed in upstate New York, a red fox father returns to the den and is greeted excitedly by two of his kits.

It’s clear that these rapidly changing times for both photography and wildlife call for new ethical guidelines. Where do we start? The best place is with ourselves, in our own practice. How can we make ethics a part of our work? It becomes an essential part of the process. Just as we learn how to use the latest Photoshop plug-in or neutral-density filter, we need to build in learning about the natural history of our subject and the least disruptive way to be around it. Is it the kind of animal that might abandon its nest if I get too near? What predators present threats to the young? Sound research on animals is only a click away on the Internet for any of us. We can also build in reflection, taking time to think about what was good practice and what wasn’t, after we spend time with an animal.

We can also help to create a new culture by engaging other people in productive dialogues about ethics in wildlife photography. Healthy debates are increasingly taking place about the techniques used to photograph wildlife. I believe we’re seeing a shift in values and perceptions about what is and isn’t ethical, one that has the welfare of the subject at its core. Photographer friends of mine are wrestling with their own practices and weighing their desire to get the shot with the possible cost to the animal. Publishers and contests are questioning the means that lie behind some captures.

This rising consciousness is looking at how we intersect with wild animals, and not only the immediate effect of our actions, but also the effects long term. For instance, people are starting to realize that offering food to predators, from foxes to wolves to bears, for the sake of a photo can put those animals at risk down the line. It can lead them to associate humans with food, which can later bring them into conflict with humans—conflict that never ends well for the wildlife.

Besides starting with ourselves, what are other ways we can support this growing culture of awareness of good practices? If you’re with a camera club or nature organization, encourage and help to create field guidelines for wildlife photography that take into account the well-being of the subject and facilitate regular discussions. These might include how to approach subjects without destroying habitat, getting too close or creating alarm, which ways of luring animals are acceptable and to what degree (e.g., call playback), when to avoid animals with young and when to keep the location of certain animals private.

Workshop leaders, by their actions in the field, can both model and directly teach others how to be good stewards of wildlife. Beginners who attend these workshops need guidance on common-sense practices in the field. What about contest organizers and magazine publishers that often unwittingly set the standards so many people look to? They wear a mantle that carries great responsibility. The choices they make help determine the choices photographers make. It’s that simple.

Finally, for viewers and all end users, don’t support images that show wildlife that looks obviously harassed, tamed or overly manipulated, simply for the sake of a photo, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of photographers.

We need strong role models in the photographic community, from photography forum leaders to editors to professional photographers, organizations that promote, support and reward ethical behavior, and regulatory support that includes nondisruptive viewing facilities like blinds and other creative ways to engage photographers. This is really about establishing a new culture across many platforms. It calls for a community.

Ultimately, it’s up to each of us when we’re out in the field. If we work within the bounds of patience, respect and an understanding of the challenges wild animals face, we’ll be on the right track.

To see more of Melissa Groo’s photography and learn about workshop opportunities, visit melissagroo.com.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.
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