Proper ethics for Photographers shooting wildlife
Are we doing more harm than good?
With the recent earthquake in Nepal (April 2015), I kept wondering about the ethics of money and power in sacred places. Though I was concerned for the Everest climbers that were being effected by the earthquake that devastated Katmandu, I wondered about the ethics of sending numerous helicopters and resources to rescue the climbers, while remote villages were receiving little help in those first few days. The climbers were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to climb Everest. Did that make their lives more valuable than the remote villagers? As one guide said to the news camera, “Money talks in Nepal. It always has.”
And there is the question of Mount Everest itself, now a literal dumping ground of human waste and debris. So much so, that the Nepalese government is now requiring that each expedition member carry out 17 lb’s of waste and debris as part of the permitting process. How could such a sacred place become such a dump? How could the people who pay large sums of money to climb Everest turn the mountain into a waste land? Why didn’t they initiate the clean-up of Everest themselves, before a mandate was imposed?
The question of human nature:
Such were the questions of human nature that I was pondering, when the May-June 2015 Audubon magazine arrived. The issue was featuring the 2015 Photography Awards. One of the articles featured was called, “Too Close for Comfort“, and talked about the ethics of endangering wildlife in the effort to get the perfect shot. Two photography guides that I knew of were featured prominently in the article. The first was James Neiger, who runs the Flight School of Photography in Florida. The other guide mentioned was Arthur Morris, a preeminent bird photographer, and a person whose blog I follow and whose books I have read and purchased. I had heard of James Neiger’s Flight School of Photography from reading Arthur’s blog.
So imagine my dismay, when the article starts off by saying that James Neiger plead guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act and was fined $100,000 dollars and given a supervised release. The court case brought against him was by the United States Government. The article goes on to outline a system of abuses by Neigler, who in an attempt to get his paying clients closer to prized and often endangered birds, often and knowingly violated the boundaries set-up by the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
This brings me back to Everest and the concept of clients paying for the privilege to visit some of the World’s wildest places and the guides who bend the rules and safety concerns to meet their clients needs and expectations. Is it the guides faults for trying to make a living from something they love to do? Is it the clients fault for having high and, maybe, unrealistic expectations? Are we becoming and entitled society, the consequences be damned? Can we self regulate?
When I took a trip down to Fort Myers, Florida to photograph the wild life there, I took a morning to visit Venice Rookery. The Venice Rookery is an odd place, a juxtaposition of out of control human development against a small, but unique wildlife viewing experience. At the Rookery, nesting egrets and Great Blue Herons are within yards of your lens and viewing. There I talked with two local, older gentleman, who were recounting an experience they had had with Arthur Morris and the Rookery. Being locals, the two gentleman knew the Rookery well, but they said that when Morris and his clients came in to photograph one morning, they took over the Rookery with no regard for the other photographers there. There viewpoint was that Morris was arrogant and entitled.
I filed their viewpoint away, but thought little of it until Arthur was again sited in the May-June Audubon issue. Arthur comes across as argumentative and combative and as Florida Audubon Wildlife Biologist, Ann Paul says, when asked if she will continue to work with Morris in the future:
“When Paul was asked if she would work with Morris going forward, she said that he’d been argumentative about following guidelines in the past, and she expressed concern about whether he would listen now: ‘How many times does someone have to misbehave before you don’t give them another chance?'”
Whether it’s Everest or the Rookery:
I guess it comes down to personal responsibility, whether you are a guide or a client or a local photographer. The answer to the morale questions lies with all of us and I am not immune. In the article, a park supervisor questioned photographers’ ethics of employing bird calls to bring birds in closer for photographing, especially during breeding season. Like many other biologist, the supervisor worried that the bird calls are causing birds to “expend valuable energy, while needlessly defending their territories.”
I read this Audubon article on the eve of my first bird photography shoot of the spring season. I am also a huge fan of Alan Murphy and his song bird photography. I follow Alan’s blog and have bought his CD’s and DVD’s. They are excellent. As far as I can tell, Alan is an ethical photographer, who uses bird calls to achieve most, if not all, of his spectacular shots. I have used and practiced his techniques.
I love birding. I love photography. Can I get the shots I want without bird calls? At yard feeders, yes? Warblers, I don’t think so.
So what do I do ethically? I checked with a local bird biologist and he provided me with some ground rules:
- Do not use the same call on the same species in the same space within a three week time period.
- Do not make the call more than three times. If the bird does not come in to your setup, leave the bird alone. Move on.
- Do not try to call in threatened or endangered species. Ever.
It’s a big world. These are ground rules I can live with. The birds and my photography can coexist.
Can all of us, the guides and the clients, find a way to pursue our interest without destroying or disturbing the wildlife we are seeking to capture. I hope most of us will. If you have a guide that is not acting ethically, tell them. If the guide doesn’t listen, then tell others of your concerns. Social media can be a powerful tool.