Ethics, Cruelty, Reality and Honesty in Wildlife Photography - Can We Believe Everything We See?
Victoria Hillman (Wildlife Researcher and Photographer)
Wildlife photography is an ever popular genre of photography which is growing rapidly as equipment becomes more affordable and organised trips to exotic locations become more accessible. As a result there are now, more than ever, thousands of images flooding the internet and competition to be recognised is tougher. For the majority of wildlife photographers this drives them to work harder, come up with new ideas and ways of photographing their subjects, but there is a worrying growth in a particular area of "wildlife" photography using cold-blooded animals (reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates) and it is this area that I will be focusing on for this article. I am aware there are so called game farms that allow people to take incredible images of mammals and birds in particular, with some passing them off as being wild, but there are many articles out there already about these and I want to focus my attention on the unethical treatment of cold-blooded animals. When researching for this article, I searched for a definition of wildlife/nature photography and found the following, which is a common definition as agreed by the three largest photographic organisations in the world (The Photographic Society of America, The Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique and The Royal Photographic Society). For this article I have pulled out the most relevant parts from the explanation which was drawn together with reference to entering competitions:
"Wildlife is further defined as one or more extant zoological or biological organisms
free and unrestrained in a natural or adopted habitat. Photographs of zoo or game
farm animals, or any extant zoological or biological species taken under controlled
conditions are not eligible."
True, dedicated wildlife photographers spend many years gaining knowledge on their subjects, learning and perfecting the required photographic and field craft skills that enable them to capture breathtaking images. However, over the last couple of years there has been a dramatic increase in images that show incredible, almost unbelievable moments between unlikely species supposedly captured in the wild and these images are taking the internet by storm, gaining media publicity and even being recognised in photographic competitions. But all is not as it appears, the animals in these photographs are captive with the images being taken in home set-up studios. The subjects of these photos are not the charismatic, cute and fluffy mammals or majestic birds but cold-blooded species (which in my opinion are just as striking as any bird or mammal). Using captive animals for photography is not new, neither is photographing wild animals in controlled situations and in some cases being less than truthful about how an image was taken, but this new craze for want of a better word is leading to the unethical even cruel handling and manipulation of cold-blooded animals, particularly frogs, all for the sake of a photograph. In the public eye these photos are seen as cute and comical, appealing to us due to the anthropomorphic characters and positions these frogs (and other animals) are being placed in with many of the photos being published as a "once in a lifetime moment caught on camera", a frog giving the photographer the finger, frogs dancing on rocks etc, you get the idea. The reality of these images is that they are 100% staged and there is nothing wild about them. The creators of these images have come under a lot of fire and in some senses this is fair, but being called a pseudo-wildlife photographer I think is a little unfair as these are not wildlife photographs, this is pet photography and I will explain why. Many of the images are coming from Indonesia and I believe that these people just need a little education and pointing in the right direction to see what they are doing is wrong, but there is also a handful of photographers that should know better.
Here are few key points you need to know about these photos to enable you to understand why this practise should be stopped:
• Many of the subjects being used in these images are not native species to the countries in which they are supposedly being found, in fact I have seen numerous images where the main subject has been incorrectly identified, something as a scientist that really annoys me!
• The animals used have been purchased from pet shops (they are not wild), often with no questions asked of the purchaser, this makes them pets not wildlife and the photographers taking the photos pet photographers, it is no different to buying a kitten or hamster from a pet shop and photographing it.
• The images are 100% staged, there is nothing wild or natural about the setting or the set-up with many predator-prey species being placed next to or on top of each other. The reflection images are created using a thin pool of water, with terrestrial animals being placed in situations which can lead to drowning.
• The so called amusing poses and behaviours are unnatural, with subjects being chilled so they can be easily positioned. This is both unethical and cruel and can potentially lead to death if the person doesn't know what they are doing. The positions are commonly achieved with the aid of nylon thread to place hands and feet into particular positions. This thread is then removed in post processing giving the impression of dancing frogs and lizards.
• There is huge mis-representation regarding the reality of these images, the blame for this cannot be solely placed on the photographers as there are some cases where the media has chosen what to publish to capture people's attention and this is not normally the whole story and to a point this makes it worse for the photographers involved. That said, photographers must take responsibility for their work and not saying anything is just as bad as passing them off as once in a lifetime moments captured in the wild.
As a zoologist, a photographer specialising in macro work and a human being who spends hours, days and months with just a handful of subjects working solely in the field in the animal's habitat, I am horrified on several levels with this practice.
Firstly, the ethics and cruelty of this area of photography. The animals being used are not in control of themselves when they are being positioned, they have been chilled to the point of paralysis with the potential for tissue damage, just so they can be easily manipulated. If paralysing your subject was used with a mammal or bird just to put it in an amusing position there would be outrage so why do people think it's ok to do it with reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates? The situations they are being forced into are beyond unnatural, why would a frog or lizard (predator) allow an invertebrate (prey) to sit on its head or crawl over it? You wouldn't expect to photograph a lion with an antelope sitting on its head, it is equally unnatural to see a grasshopper sitting on the head of a frog or a fly on that of a gecko, or frogs hitching a ride on a crocodile or even a frog rodeo riding a beetle, it isn't real and is potentially dangerously stressful to the subjects. Then there is the positioning of frogs to make it look like they are sheltering from the rain, frogs need to keep their skin moistened why would they shelter from the rain and if you look closely at these particular images the hand and arm positions are awkward with leaves being glued onto twigs of a different species of plant, or positioning frogs using wires or threads and then photoshopping them out claiming the frog was naturally in that position. . Many of the positions seen, for example frog with its mouth wide open and geckos with raised tails, are signs of distress and shock.
Secondly, the honesty of these photographers. Nature photography is hard enough as it is without people lying about photos which in turn leads to people not believing anything they see. I am not against staged photographs and believe they do have a place as long as they are carried out with little or no stress to the animals involved and this means no unnatural situations of two species that would not cross paths in the wild, no crazy positioning that although maybe amusing is completely unnatural and the handler/carer knows exactly what they are doing in terms of the welfare of the animal. To me if you are going to stage a photo you need to ensure the following points are adhered to at all times:
1. The scenes you are creating are biologically possible and could occur naturally in the wild
2. The photographer is completely open and honest about the circumstances of the image
3. There is no stress or mis-treatment of the animals involved
It is not easy to capture stunning images of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates in the often tricky working conditions of their natural habitats, those photographers that work with such subjects produce captivating and completely natural images providing a true representation of the moment and the relationship of the subject, its habitat and the photographer. These photographers dedicate huge swathes of time to their subjects for little monetary gain especially those that are raising awareness and working on conservation programmes, it is hard then to compete with unrealistic photos of dancing frogs and lizards, leap-frogging frogs, beetle riding frogs or piggy backing snails over pools of water where there is little or no thought for the damage being caused to the animals or to the photographic community. The practises these photographers are using are detrimental not only to what is acceptable in terms of the treatment of animals for the sake of a photograph but also to the integrity of dedicated wildlife photographers and wildlife photography as a whole.
This mistreating and posing of animals has become a big area of photography involving a fair amount of money (very little, if any of which goes back into conservation or research) and the more of these photos that are published in the media and recognised in competitions without question the more people think that it is an acceptable practice and are taking it up themselves with little or no knowledge of how to even keep their animals once they've purchased them from the pet shop or online. If you see a photograph that looks unbelievable it probably is and I would urge you to question the circumstances of such images. If the image is completely real and taken in the wild then the photographer should had no issues with you asking questions and if it was me I would be more than happy to answer questions about the circumstances of my images. Moving forward, there needs to be a greater understanding of the unethical practises behind these images, the media needs to be more aware of what they are publishing, organisations running photographic competitions must stop awarding such photos and we need to start pushing for a greater respect of cold-blooded creatures.
Please, ask questions about these images, if you think it's too good to be real ask, if the photographer has nothing to hide then they will happily answer questions and please support those photographers that dedicate their lives to photographing amphibians and reptiles in the wild in their natural habitats and on the animal's terms. Please what ever you do, do not purchase these images or encourage this kind of photography.