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, conservationist, writer and ethicist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education. She considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. A contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, Groo is passionate about ethics in nature photography. 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 is also Chair 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.

16 Comments

    i met a photographer who had some marvelous close up shots of wildlife. I asked what kind of telephoto lense she used. She said, “Oh, I have a special way with animals and can get up very close to them.” She was putting herself in extreme danger as well as a danger to the animals. Too many people think they have a “special connection” and forget the animals are wild and can attack without notice. Besides striving to have the least impact on wildlife we need to be safe.

    Everything you have written is so true.
    The big issue around this area of Arizona is the wild horses.Photographers did somewhat help in bringing them into the news but just might also contribute in someone getting hurt. Why someone with a 400mm lens needs to get ten feet to get a shot is beyond me.

    Maybe the author could add setting up on an animal’s den to the list of behaviors photographers should avoid?

    Seriously … You’re writing about the ethics of nature photography, and use a photo from a den site to go with that article? Every single argument anyone might make against any particular behavior we engage could equally be true of shooting at dens.

    Just a small FYI.

    I’m saddened by unethical baiting of Snowy Owls in my area that I no longer enjoy photographing them. The owls have associated humans with food to the point that I can no longer get that “in the wild” photo. I’ve spoken to a few of them about the adverse effect of baiting and I’m told to mind my own business. Insensitive to the owls and common sense too.
    This is a great article on ethical treatment of our dwindling wildlife.

    In my local area, wildlife has been flourishing. In my own backyard I see foxes, deer, turkeys and all types of raptors, which were not here 40 years ago. A great deal of this has been due to the conservation efforts of hunters and fisherman. It is difficult to believe the information generated by a group like WWF who has an agenda. I believe as wildlife photographers we should focus on presenting images of animals to the public that show them in their native environment and that can be done without disturbing them very easily these days. Let’s focus on good photography and leave the rest to the scientific professionals who know the other issues best.

    To some extent the creation of digital photography has contributed to an increase in unethical behavior. When I first started out there were relatively few “big lens” guys/gals in the field. They spent a great deal of time learning their craft, and with a few notable exceptions, cared deeply about their subjects. They spent hundreds of hours studying and observing before they even took a camera into the field; not only because they cared and were curious, but because that was the only way to anticipate and capture key behavior shots without ten and twelve frames a second firing capabilities, and hundreds of shots per “roll of film”.
    Today all that matters is the “shot” so they can post it instantly on the internet, along with directions to an increasingly growing, and increasingly uncontrollable, wildlife “jam”. Others are on their cell phones calling everyone they know. They are nothing but trophy hunters. Worse than the paparazzi in Hollywood.

    I second John M! To bring in hunting and trapping (that is strictly managed by federal and state agencies) and say that this contributes to the wildlife demise is a bunch of nonsense! Hunting has is a proven method of balancing game populations, which positively effects other wildlife too! Revenue from hunting and hunting conservation groups brings tremendous assistance and aid to wildlife and habitat restoration! The most profound impact on wildlife is human development! The effort of this article really needs to concentrate on the ethics of sharing resources to photograph wildlife, like on wildlife refuges. Seems like there’s always one ding-dong who has to ruin the perfect moment for everyone else! And by the way, wild animals commonly learn to adapt to the presence of humans.

    Just as there are ethical and non-ethical photographers, the same is true with hunters. Remember, many species were driven to the edge of extinction by unregulated hunting during the 1800s. Even “state managed” hunts are not always “ethical”. Witness the annual slaughter of bison that takes place each winter as bison migrate into Montana from Yellowstone looking for winter forage. So called “hunters” shoot them in the head at close range, one after the other. It is hard to argue that the type of “hunting” the author speaks of, trophy hunting (to hang a head on the wall, rather than feed a family) and predator contests(whoever kills the most coyotes wins a nice new rifle!) do not effect populations, or are in any way “ethical”.

    Thanks John M and Jojo. The “Half wildlife has vanished in the last 40 years” is a completely baseless statement that has no business in this article.

    OP: Have your authors take their political agendas and fabricated statements to another forum. This is photography!

    Shame on you OP for not editing this.

    Actually, in a widely reported study by the World Wildlife Fund, “The world has lost 52 percent of its biodiversity since 1970…. Scientists studied trends in more than 10,000 populations of 3,038 mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish species and calculated a “Living Planet Index…in temperate regions declined by a worrisome 36 percent from 1970 to 2010, in tropical climates the index dropped 56 percent. Latin American biodiversity took the biggest hit globally, plummeting 83 percent.”
    Just because it isn’t happening outside your window doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

    Agree with Melissa. As workshop leaders we should be teaching about wildlife, talking about wildlife behavior, and encouraging wise practices in the field. Those practices should not endanger or stress the animals in any way. I got a report last week of a workshop leader who crossed onto private property three times during a workshop. That’s not once but three times. Attendees in that workshop shouldn’t have tolerated that behavior much less followed. Yes, the shot was great but it wasn’t worth the ethical lapse.

    I hope the Japanese tourists to Yellowstone read this. They have to get themselves into every possible photograph, because what is the point of a nice photo if they don’t have themselves in each one.

    Not to generalize though, there may be a couple of Japanese tourists who don’t do this.

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