Ethics of wildlife photography – revisited

Taking a great wildlife photo isn't just a matter of pointing and shooting. But how far would you go to get that perfect shot? The debate continues to rage...

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In October, BBC Wildlife editor Sophie, Wanda (picture researcher) and I went to WildPhotos, a photography symposium organised by Wildscreen.
 
It was eye-opening, eye-catching and eye-watering in equal measures: to say that I was dazzled by the work and wit of the photographers sharing their wisdom and experiences would be a massive understatement.
 
And it is work: these people take their art (though not often themselves, and certainly not each other) incredibly seriously.
 
Among the visual and intellectual treats, the displaying birds of paradise documented by Tim Laman in New Guinea were arguably most memorable, not least because of the extraordinary lengths to which he and his Papuan and Indonesian fixers went to construct hides in the high canopy of the rainforest.
 
Equally, Charlie Hamilton James fascinated with descriptions of travails with complex flash wiring, Kai Fagerström enchanted with a story-book photo-story of the wild occupants of an abandoned Finnish woodland house (don’t miss the January 2011 issue for his enchanting portfolio), and Bence Máté – overall winner of this year’s Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year – astounded with his determination, ingenuity and talent. Oh, and his photos!
 
But the session that sticks in my mind was chaired by Mark Carwardine, during which – in a paltry 40 minutes – he chaired a micro-debate on ethical questions of wildlife photography.
 
It’s a big can of worms – or several cans, really – and the discussion barely scratched the surface of the subject, despite touching on many of the key issues Mark raised in his feature ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ for BBC Wildlife (May 2010).
 
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You’ll no doubt have strong opinions yourselves: Is baiting with live animals okay – be they bloodworms for birds or mice for owls? Does it harm the subject or devalue the image? Should you photograph captive, trained or habituated animals – and if so, must you always declare that fact? And – the point that most interested me – how much digital manipulation of your photos is acceptable?
 
Let’s get to the BBC Wildlife ground rules straight up front: we expect photographers to be honest. Full stop.
 
We expect to be told if the subject is captive (so that we can be equally honest with our readers), trained or from a game farm (we won’t use them) or habituated (we will use them with appropriate captioning), and whether bait has been used.
 
We also need to know the location and whether the image has been manipulated in any way, even light colour boosting. It’s important to us that our readers can trust what they see.
 
Anyone who’s entered a photography competition will have come across a wide variety of rules relating to manipulation. Some permit pretty much any cropping, colour adjustment or even digitally removing errant blades of grass. Others proscribe virtually any computer adjustment.
 
The first question you might ask is: doesn’t it depend largely on what you’re planning to do with your photos?
 
If a picture of a tiger is intended to illustrate the anatomy and form of the animal – in a children’s textbook, for example, or just to frame at home – does it make any difference where the individual was shot (wild or in a zoo), or whether you removed irrelevant background?
 
And second: photographers have used lens-mounted filters for decades, to influence colour, light graduation and so on. So why shouldn’t similar adjustments be acceptable when made after the image is captured?
 
Finally: given that the human eye sees things differently from the camera – colours, depth of field, breadth of view – is manipulation justified if it makes the final image appear more like what you saw with your naked eyes?
 
And now I’ll step back and watch the fireworks…

ADDENDUM: as a result of the debate and discussions among professionals, an Ethics Declaration for wildlife photographers has been formulated – read it and sign up at the WildPhotos website.

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Paul is Deputy Editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine. Meet him and the rest of the team here.