Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature
The dark side of those wondrous wildlife photographs.
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.