Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature

Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature

The dark side of those wondrous wildlife photographs. 

By Ted Williams
Published: March-April 2010

  
  
Deist, a former law-enforcement officer for the U.S. Forest Service and the son of a Montana game warden, is generally regarded as the best game-farm operator in the nation. When it comes to animal care, honest business practices, and obeying state and federal regulations, he does everything right. 
  
But are game farms right? "If you are interested in photographing a snow leopard in winter conditions, this is the time of year," reads a Triple D ad distributed by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) as an alleged service to its members. Images of Triple D's snow leopards are proliferating like Internet pop-ups. In 2008 one even received first place in the "nature" category of National Geographic's International Photography Contest. Animals like snow leopards are in desperate trouble, but why should people believe this when they see sleek, healthy snow leopards every time they walk into a bookstore or open a "wildlife" calendar. A major threat to eastern forest ecosystems is the irruption of white-tailed deer. But the public shouts down increased hunting of does--the only means of control--partly because it gets saturated with photos of game-farm deer on which there is never a tick, sore, clouded eye, or protruding rib. "I understand that people need to make a living, and it's easier to rent an animal for an afternoon," says National Geographic's photo editor for natural history, Kathy Moran. "They claim these animals are 'wildlife ambassadors.' No. An injured animal used for education--that's a wildlife ambassador. An animal kept solely for profit is an exploited animal. The wild isn't pretty. I'd rather see it real than all gussied up. When I see a poster of a big, beautiful air-blown lion with a mane that looks better than my hair galloping toward me, I feel cheated."  
  
Of course, a photo of a tame animal isn't a lie if it is clearly identified as captive. Deist advocates "full disclosure." But what is full disclosure? The National Wildlife Federation'sRanger Rick magazine deserves much credit for being the first publication in the nation to label captive shots. But is the symbol for captive--a "P" with a circle around it--in Ranger Rick and the federation's two other kids' magazines, Your Big Backyard and Wild Animal Baby, "full disclosure"? Only for the child who notices it, then flips to the table of contents and consults the note. Is full disclosure a caption that says "controlled conditions"? What are controlled conditions? Is full disclosure a photo credit that says "captive"? In a few situations, where format precludes captions, maybe that's as close as possible. But credits often go unread.
  
Even photos taken in the wild can lie if they're "photoshopped." In Audubon's photo contest ("The Big Picture," January-February 2010), the judges had to disqualify a shot in which vegetation had been digitally transplanted. Last November the National Wildlife Refuge Association disqualified a semifinalist from its photo contest for digitally staging an exeunt for undramatic bird extras, adding a moon, and opening the eye of an oystercatcher. "Ethically challenged," is how Evan Hirsche, the association's president, describes the photographer. But such deceptions are standard in the publishing industry.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

In defense of the makers of

In defense of the makers of "Winged Migration", a clip is available on the DVD release showing how the movie was made.

I also have no problem with

I also have no problem with photographers getting pictures from zoos or "farms" as long as the animals are treated well AND they are honest in their disclosure about where the shots were taken. While any picture of a lion might be cool and promote donations and awareness the photographer who has taken the picture in the wild has produced a more honest view of the animal. Many animals in the wild will be thin and scruffy and sometimes full of ticks or other parasites. Their life is hard and we should recognize this, not be fooled into thinking that the sleek fattened lion from the zoo is from the wilds of Africa.

you must not be very observant, Ted

I've seen more wildlife than you on a Saturday afternoon walk with my dog. Of course I don't bother with photos - the current "trophy" of naturalist types these days, along with their bird lists. But this kind of misleading nonsense is to be expected from someone who advocates law breaking and killing of cats. Birds are OK, but the buggers shit on my car. Maybe you're not really a naturalist after all.

Natural nature?

@Jessie, et al: Off the top of my head, nature photos should be natural. Like so many things in the world today, we are the victims of widespread deception. Use the food industry as an example: the " term "all natural" means absolutely nothing, and yet people are still duped by it into thinking they're buying something healthy for them. We want what we want (including having our fantasies fed) and don't want to look behind the curtain to see how it's produced. I suppose the consumer can be held partially accountable for not asking too many questions, but it's very easy for clever people and corporations to mislead. I think the basic human inclination to believe, or want to believe, that we're being told the truth is exploited.

I have been a photographer for 30 years, though not a nature photog per se, and I am shocked by and was ignorant of these practices. I have shot wildlife pictures in zoos (SD Wild Animal Park for example), with long lenses, which I could arguably have passed off as shot in the wild. I would NEVER have done so, and it's a result of integrity and honesty being drilled into me by good editors in the newspaper business. In the early days of Photoshop, there were photographers FIRED for removing small distracting items from a photo, like a coke can. FIRED. You tell the story of the photo ... period. Now of course, with digital and wide distribution (e.g., Getty, Corbis) of photos from all kinds of sources, with little vetting for the integrity of the photos and photogs, it's very easy to claim ignorance. Don't ask, don't tell ... how convenient.

Of course, these photographers selling "nature" photos shot of captive animals and passing them off as shot in the wild know exactly what they are doing. They can get a much greater ROI (return on investment, of time and money) and improve their odds greatly of getting sold or published by doing this. It's cheating, a shortcut, and when people don't know they are being lied to it's appalling. There are genuine nature photographers who do wonderful work, which is debased by this fraud.

Having looked at the "hook and bullet" magazines for years, I had NO idea that the big atypical buck I saw the great shot of was a captive animal, even changing hands for big buck bucks (no, I didn't stutter), and kept on life support so his earning years could be stretched. Disgusting. I also had no idea that Marlin Perkins and his pal Jim would throw a wild cat into a river only to "rescue" it for the camera. My naîve innocence has been shattered ... I loved that show as a kid.

Editors and filmmakers have no excuses: They should know what they are publishing or putting out and whether it was produced honestly. Otherwise, they pass the fraud on, and they do it because it makes their jobs easier and their product "sexier" and therefore, more saleable. In the end it's all about the Benjamins (as it always seems to be, whether it's having 5 yr olds sewing inexpensive soccer balls in indentured servitude, or cougars living in cages for photographers) but it's still fraud.

Wildlife Photography

Cruelty and abuse of the animals is, of course, hideous and should be stopped. But I fail, completely, to comprehend your ethic about honest and dishonest photos. If the subject is a lion, then it's a lion, it can't be anything else, and when I look at the picture, it makes not the slightest difference to me whether it was wild or not (so long as it isn't mistreated). I'm just grateful that the photographer gives me the opportunity to view the magnificent animal. And yes, photos of beautiful animals DO encourage people to donate to conservationist funds. A bunch of printed words don't move me the way a photo of a tiger or a polar bear does. This seems to me rather like the hue and outcry when photographers began to use digital cameras instead of "real" cameras, i.e. film cameras. If a photographer wants to slog thru torrid jungles for months on end or shiver in a frozen wasteland, well, that's up to him (or her), and it makes for an interesting story. But it doesn't have much to do with the actual photos, which stand on their own, having good pose, angle, color, contrast and composition, or not.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.