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?