Ethics in wildlife photography

As the digital revolution opens up a new world of possibilities, Mark Carwardine considers the rights and wrongs of wildlife photography.

Ethics in wildlife photography article spread

As the digital revolution opens up a new world of possibilities, Mark Carwardine considers the rights and wrongs of wildlife photography.

You might have thought that wildlife photography would be a pleasant, harmless and harmonious activity. And, in many ways, it is. It certainly gives a great deal of pleasure to millions of people.
But it’s also a hotbed of controversy, arousing some very strong and opposing views about how it should be done. Is digital manipulation acceptable? Is it OK to photograph animals in zoos? What about hiring an animal model that has been trained to pose for photographers? Is camera trapping a viable technique? There are no easy answers, but hopefully this article will provide some food for thought.  
Digital manipulation
Photographers have been manipulating their images since the earliest days of their art. The iconic portrait of US President Abraham Lincoln, taken in 1860, is one of the first cases of serious fakery – it’s actually a composite of Lincoln’s head grafted onto someone else’s body.
Even the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams used to work more than a little magic in his traditional darkroom. He was quite open about it and happy for people to compare a straight print of his famous 1941 photo Moonrise, Hernandez with the heavily ‘dodged’ and ‘burned’, high-contrast prints that he exhibited. He wasn’t trying to trick anyone, of course, but the difference between the two was quite extraordinary.
In those days, there was an assumed truth in photography. People genuinely believed that “the camera never lies” and that what they were seeing was an accurate record.
But then, in 1982, National Geographic catapulted photographic manipulation into the headlines. Its designers famously squeezed together two Egyptian pyramids to make the image suitable for the cover.
The ‘squeeze’ caused an uproar but, far from stopping photographic forgeries, it heralded a new era in which manipulating photographs has become almost routine. What’s changed is the advent of digital photography. The technology is so good these days that it’s easier than ever for photographers and art editors to make significant changes to pictures without most people ever knowing. Indeed, it is actively encouraged by the adverts for some digital manipulation software: one memorable slogan tells us to “Spread Lies”.
Does any of this really matter? After all, most of us assume that fashion, advertising and even paparazzi photos are likely to have been doctored in some way. We live in a world where airbrushed celebrities rule.
Well, many of us in the wildlife photography business do care. We believe that there should be a tacit understanding between photographer and viewer that what you see in a picture represents the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Sadly, this isn’t always the case. Some professional photographers will add or remove anything that makes an image more commercial. If they think that a polar bear would look better in a snowstorm, they use computer wizardry to include some falling snow. If two baby gorillas would be better than one, they simply add a second.
What really raises the hackles of most nature photographers is the attempt to pass off heavily manipulated images as genuine. At the very least these photographers could admit that their pictures have been faked by disclosing in the captions that they are digital art and not authentic photographs. But they don’t. The camera itself may never lie but, sadly, some photographers do.
Decency and deception
At this point I ought to stress that creative computer (as opposed to photographic) skills can produce quite beautiful results. And one might also argue that photography is an art, after all, so its aim should be to make pictures as appealing and eye-catching as possible. Nevertheless, lying about images has two serious repercussions.
First, deceitful photographers steal the trust that should be inherent in wildlife images. Once a few cheated photographs have shaken your confidence, you begin to doubt everything you see. In this respect, the culprits do themselves a disservice, too – as far as I’m concerned, all of their images become suspect.
Second, digitally manipulated images raise the bar in wildlife photography to an unnaturally high level. Everyone begins to demand better and better shots based on the artificial ones they’ve seen before. This puts enormous pressure on other photographers to compete, either by slipping into the world of digital manipulation themselves or by pushing their subjects to the limit in a vain attempt to achieve the impossible.
Many experts believe that the answer lies in honest captioning. I agree – but only up to a point. What is the likelihood of mainstream publications telling their readers that a picture isn’t real? It’s certainly something they should be striving for, but they worry that their readers might feel disappointed if they were told that a beautiful image was created largely on the computer rather than in the wild.


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