Canadian Geographic Photo Club - Ethical dilemmas facing professional wildlife photographers (part 1)

Ethical dilemmas facing professional wildlife photographers (part 1)


With the conclusion of the first Wildlife Photography of the Year contest and the launch of Canadian Geographic's December 2008 wildlife issue, Canada's fauna is top of mind for us these days. Wildlife photography, such as the winning contest images and the photos in this month's issue of CG, offers a glimpse into the lives of the many species with whom we share this country. In this three part series, the Canadian Geographic Photo Club explores the ethical dilemmas facing Canada's wildlife photographers.

Part One: Photographing wild animals versus captive animals

Making a living by photographing wildlife can pose some difficult ethical questions for photographers. There are no specific rules or guidelines to constrain how they conduct themselves when in the field.

Photographing captive animals is one of the trickiest ethical debates facing photographers. There are many opposing opinions about what is considered true wildlife and whether captive animals qualify. If a photographer chooses to photograph a captive animal, there are no hard rules about when or if the conditions under which the image was taken should be revealed.

John E. Marriott, a photographer based in Canmore, Alberta, has spent most of his career capturing photos of Western Canada's wildlife and is an advocate of photographing non-captive wildlife; he has never taken an image for publication of a captive animal.

"I strive to get animals in their natural setting. I never get to choose the lighting or their behaviour. The animal decides if I get to photograph it," he says.

While he holds these values himself, Marriott says that only now, 13 years into his career, can he live off the income generated by his wildlife photography. He says he understands why some professionals photograph captive wildlife since it is much easier than spending days out in the field.

A fairly common practice in the industry, photographing captive wildlife can produce some stunning images of rare and mysterious creatures. While some, such as Marriott, argue these images do not depict real wildlife and can be deceiving, others, like Rebecca Grambo and Robert McCaw, disagree.

Grambo, an award-winning science writer and natural history photographer along with her husband, photographs captive animals which can otherwise be dangerous or elusive. She does this with her safety and that of the animal in mind, and says she is more concerned with the well being of the creature than making money.

"Our line is always: 'Does this have a negative impact on the animal in some way?'" Grambo says, "We are very careful when it's just us out there. If the animal's behaviour changes, we stop."

Similarly, Robert McCaw, one of Canada's leading wildlife and nature photographers, believes that there is nothing wrong with photographing captive wildlife. Since captive animals are generally used to human interaction, photographing them, says McCaw, means less harm to "real" wildlife, which can be easily startled or frightened by a photographer's presence.

"I see no harm in photographing captive animals. I know how to read the behaviour of animals and whether they're upset or not," says McCaw. "I think there are a lot of problems when people don't understand the behaviour."

This ethical dilemma does not end at choosing to photograph a captive or wild animal. When a photographer decides to photograph captive wildlife, he or she then has the ethical decision whether or not to reveal the circumstances under which the photo was taken

Labelling a wildlife image depicting a captive animal can have a stigma attached to it. So, some photographers would argue that it's bad business to divulge the information right away. Other photographers, like Grambo, make it top priority to clearly indicate which images are of captive wildlife.

"There's a real ethical commitment by those of us who really love the outdoors and animals to accurately portray what we're seeing and be very honest about how our pictures are taken," she says.

By Michela Rosano

Next: Part Two - Baiting wildlife



Mark_W. posted 2013-03-28 9:49am

The true skill of taking pictures of wildlife is not so much your knowledge of your equipment and correct exposure, settings etc but comes more from being able to learn about your subject, it's behavioural idiosyncrasies, locate and approach the subject animal so as not to disturb and capture images of it exhibiting it's natural behaviour in natural environment. A captive animal that is confined to a cage and no doubt habituated to people requires far less skill and while both might make great images, in most cases but the former takes a great deal more commitment, skill and time. For that there must be appreciation and recognition and since a cropped frame might not indicate a confined animal subject, the distinction should be made by the photographer otherwise they are not only deceiving themselves but others.

TetM posted 2013-02-18 1:45am

I think the bottom line is ~ it's important to be honest where a photo was taken, whether it was in the wild or in captivity. My hats off to those who choose to stay out there in the wilderness, waiting for days or months (I guess some wait for years), to catch an animal at the right moment and photograph it.


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