What does an ethical wildlife photographer look like?

 

Everyone reading this has an impact on the planet and its limited resources. Most of western society eats farmed meat, drives polluting cars and owns an unprecedented range of consumer goods. The device you’re using to read this (and the one I’m using to write it), the light on your office desk and the cup of tea sat next to you – they all use energy. Multiply all of this (and lots more) by a global population spiralling towards 9 billion and it’s easy to see why as a species, we have a problem. A big problem.

Against this sobering backdrop most of us nature photographers like to think we’re doing some sort of good or at worst, that we’re inflicting less harm than “all those others.” Is that the case? Really? Can any of us properly claim to be environmental saints? Factor in air travel, the amount of unnecessary gear we feel compelled to own and the inevitable disturbance on the species and habitats we visit and I don’t think so. The fact is that our footprint is just as big as “all those others.”

We’re also a bit obsessive. We get hot under the collar about all sorts of stuff. For as long as I can remember there’s been an on-going debate about ethics in wildlife photography. With the burgeoning worldwide growth in camera-toting tourists, this has inevitably surfaced once again and in some extreme cases, with complete justification. Nobody is condoning practices such as chasing tigers in jeeps or provoking elephants to charge for the sake of a picture but the truth is, we’ve all done something similar; perhaps not so obviously, perhaps not even deliberately but we’ve all caused disturbance and we’ve all damaged fragile habitats. The question is: Does it matter?

In a small community where consideration to wildlife welfare is a passion for most, of course it matters. Each negative action when multiplied by others, has an impact. But we’re selective. We condemn “all those others” for disturbing tigers and yet many reading this will have flown to those same tiger reserves and impacted on those same tigers. I’ve done it myself with bears or wolves. The principle holds true closer to home with barn owls, kingfishers, mountain hares and any number of other subjects.

Tourism, and increasingly photo-tourism, is of course a major source of revenue for rural communities and without it, the Masai Mara would be converted to agriculture tomorrow. Ditto Bandhavgarh in India and many other biodiversity hotspots around the world. I’m a great supporter of nature tourism here in Scotland and of course, profit from it myself.

So what does an ethical wildlife photographer actually look like? I’ve no idea because I’ve never met one. And I’ve certainly never looked at one in the mirror. To be honest, I’m not that bothered. It’s not that I’m dismissive of inappropriate practices; it’s just that I think there are much bigger fish to fry. In my view we need to look beyond our relatively insignificant and inevitable shortcomings to the bigger picture. If we really care about ‘ethics’ then perhaps we should all think about becoming vegetarians, flying much less, buying less camera gear and for those at a certain stage in their lives, even producing fewer children. These are the choices we face, not as photographers but as citizens, and difficult as they are, face them we must. It’s convenient for most of us to obsess over the issues right in front of us, those that seem relevant to our particular interests but beyond the garden fence, a much bigger storm is brewing.

Despite the gathering clouds on the horizon, we do all have the power to make a positive difference with our images. Wasting time and energy whinging about the ill doings of “all those others” however, won’t put the world right. I don’t agree with the practices of many photographers and equally, they might not agree with mine but endlessly debating the rights and wrongs is interesting at best, divisive and counter-productive at worst.

How does that saying go? People living in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones?

 

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14 Comments

  • Good post, Peter. I do think the wildlife photography community needs to take a step back as a whole! Like you say, there are certainly some situations where lines are crossed and boundaries broken, but what gets to me is needless nit-picking. Whilst I don’t at all condone live baiting, there are some that consider leaving out bird seed and other seeds/nuts to be unethical! Well, that’s a little crazy in my opinion. Should we really be condemning people for enjoying wildlife and nature? Surely that’s what it is all about. If we don’t value it, it’ll be gone before you know it.

    If there’s anyone reading my comment who disagrees with Peter/myself and really wants to make a difference? Well, then don’t eat beef. Beef rearing produces more greenhouse gases than the whole of the transport industry (planes, cars, military, boats etc.) put together! It’s the biggest killer of biodiversity too, ransacking the Amazon for ranches and soya bean plantations.

    • Peter Cairns says:

      Thanks for your contribution Will.

      It’s ironic that we both celebrate and subsidise a business practice that delivers so much environmental damage. Don’t get me going about the Common Agricultural Policy!

  • Fergal says:

    There are many right answers to this- but one man’s answer is another man’s loss of income.This is the legacy situation that affects all policy design. I believe, that as planet citizens, we all have a duty of care in proportion to our ability / circumstances.
    I also believe that as photographers we should extend our knowledge so that our ability becomes greater – the ability to walk away if we are going to upset the balance, the ability to present the accepted in an artistic but harm free way rather than lusting after the rarely seen / unusual at all cost ( and photo competition organisers / judges have a duty to promote the same). Quotas for reserves, permits, etc would all effect the tourist industries built up around wildlife. Camera kit is a billion dollar industry as is the web that gives us access to a customer. We have a legacy situation that we must individually manage according to our conscience – not a complete solution but a starter for change.

  • Derek McGinn says:

    I wrote a lengthy response to your comments Peter then deleted it.
    Suffice it to say that humanity is its own worst enemy.

  • Peter Cairns says:

    I can’t imagine a rational thinker who would disagree with that Derek.

  • Lorna Hayton says:

    I’m a long term vegetarian both on ethical and environmental grounds . I commute to work by train . I think that everyone can make differences by making small eco friendly choices and that we divert ourselves by stressing too much about the minutiae of wildlife photo ethics . We should never hurt or disturb and animal for a photo that’s a basic but I agree we should be looking at the bigger picture

  • Richard Tadman says:

    ” Beef rearing produces more greenhouse gases than the whole of the transport industry (planes, cars, military, boats etc.) put together! It’s the biggest killer of biodiversity too”

    With all due respect Will – I simply don’t believe this. Are you really saying that all planes and cars on our planet are producing fewer greenhouse gases than farming cows for beef?
    If so, do you have an authority to support this.
    I suppose I should also clarify your definition of greenhouse gases to ensure that we are measuring like with like. Is there an issue of confusion with carbon footprints here ?

  • Ed Willis says:

    I am a committed photographer but is the concept of photography not in itself elitist. We aspire to use equipment that is beyond the income of most people on the planet and at the leading edge of technology and to go to places that are not accessible to others to produce an image that says look at what I have seen that you have not seen

  • Lisa Louise says:

    Pete your post comes at a time when I have sat for the past week editing a batch of images from a recent trip thinking almost exactly what you have said but not quite as well written lol…

    What does one trip away with a shared car and calculated minimum distances equal… it doesn’t equal chasing tigers or long flights yet no matter what we do as photographers we will always have an impact on the environment – the very thing I try to teach people to be passionate at looking after. From the fuel used, the carbon footprint on my sandwich to the way we interact with the species its self .

    We all have choices that we can make, I do own equipment and have been to places a lot of people will never consider or be able to but the counter argument is as photographers we have the ability to use the images we create (primarily for our own want) to help educate others even if it is as simple as saying “that is a Red Deer”.

    So faced with that choice of can I truly be ethical, to be so would mean that not one of us would have been able to use the laptops/computers or smartphones or wifi to be able to simply read or reply to this post. However what we can do is be aware of our impact both as a human and as photographer’s and ask questions both of ourselves and if we can learn through the actions of others (positive or negative).

    One of my particular questions has always been how does that species feel or think when I stick my lens in its environment?

  • Carley Owen says:

    Vegetarians let me point out are not ethical. They eat diary products and a such support a diary industry that sees calves removed from there mothers immediately after birth. Cows milked so intensively that all dairy produce contains a large % of puss. The dairy is industry is if anything cruel beyond all comprehension and the same goes for any mass produced meat.

    Raw Vegans are way more ethical.

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