My cursor hovers indecisively over a fantastic wildlife photo. Am I overthinking this? Good grief all that is in play is a lowly like on Facebook! Still I hesitate …
There was a time once when I believed a wildlife photo was supposed to be, and I know this sounds a little naive and idealistic, of a wild animal. I was amazed at every good wildlife shot I saw and anxious to extend my praise. I marvelled at each photographer’s prowess and happily allowed myself to be taken away vicariously to an incredible natural moment. How did they get all those one in a million shots? Was it possible that someday it would happen to me?
But slowly I began to sour on some of those photos when I learned the untold back stories. It felt like my innocence was slipping away forever. Why did some wildlife photographers seem to have trouble with the wild part?
I found out about game farms that rent animal models by the hour. People shot animals in zoos. And even an international competition for Wildlife Photographer of the Year allowed bait as long as it was dead. My goodness these apparently natural photos were getting stuffed full of some rather unnatural stuff. Yet I rarely saw an asterisk anywhere that added, “Taken out of cage to perform” or “baited” or “artistic rendition of scene.” Usually they were presented as natural wildlife scenes. Or was I being too rigid in my thinking? My journey to decide what to make of all this was strongly influenced by wildlife photographers like John Marriott, Tom Mengalson, Melissa Groo and Tin Man.
Without adding up all the potential harm to animals (no small thing), I tried to imagine what it would be like to add the unnatural to my photos. After all, isn’t it all perfectly legal? The idea of getting some fantastic birds of prey shots with a little bait help seemed theoretically tempting. If so many people were doing it, then it must be OK – that’s how it works on the Internet right?
But then I imagined following through with the idea of publicly posting those photos. I could say what I did to get the photo which felt like placing a red flag on it and putting it in a questionable category. Or I could say nothing. But as Tin Man pointed out, one day some wide-eyed kid might ask how I got that shot and wonder why I pretended it was a natural moment. That’s a conversation where passion for wildlife photography goes to die!
And therein lies a fundamental problem. While there are many factors in play, when I see a wildlife shot I want to believe I am seeing a wild animal in a wild moment. When the untold truth gets a lot more complicated than that, I feel deceived. That’s not what I want to do to others.
“… a conversation where passion for wildlife photography goes to die!”
I understand my opinion has its detractors and downsides. Olympic runner Ben Johnson once described not taking steroids as lining up one yard back at the start of the race since everyone else was taking them. Some days that’s how I feel. Every decision has a consequence.
And so my mouse continues to hover over the amazing photo. It’s not a question of beauty. It’s a question of trust. Is the photo what it appears to claim?