California is in the midst of a wildflower super bloom and, along with vast fields of poppies come unruly hordes of people. The small town of Lake Elsinore was overwhelmed by “Disneyland size crowds” of up to 50,000 tourists last weekend, resulting in traffic jams, accidents and unruly behavior. “#poppynightmare” as one town official put it. This kind of chaos risks placing these locations off limits to everyone, including photographers.
I love being close to animals. Their proximity reaffirms the fact that we are a part of nature, another thread in the tapestry of life, rather than something separate or apart from it. If my youth is any indication, this is an affinity we are all born with, but it gets lost if it’s not exposed to the right stimuli, wild stimuli. The first wild stimulus I’m aware of in my own upbringing was bears. My family was visiting Yosemite when I was three, and in those days the park had an open-air dump where bears would scavenge. Upon seeing the large animals, I set off running towards them, yelling, “Doggie, doggie!” My parents managed to overtake and control me before the bears could be traumatized by an overly enthusiastic toddler, but it was a near thing.
Being close to animals remains an incredibly precious experience for me, and it makes no difference what the species is—butterflies or bighorns, sea turtles or snakes, mice or moose (they’re all doggies to me). In Baja, I laid in the path of an approaching tarantula just to see what it would do, and to get some wide-angle shots, of course. After a few tentative steps on my arm, which was dry, flaky and hairy, the spider decided it did not care for the terrain and retreated to walk around me. Now approaching any creature closely is not something to be taken lightly. There is an element of danger involved any time you are near a wild thing, more for the subject than the photographer, for even if it’s the photographer who is injured, the animal will almost certainly be killed. And that’s one of the reasons NANPA decided to come up with some guidelines to help photographers make wise choices, ethical choices.
My degree is in Wildlife Biology, and I have worked at getting close to critters of all kinds for more than 50 years—50 years! Boy that makes me feel old—but even with that background, I know I would’ve benefitted from projects the Ethics Committee has tackled. In my early days as a nature photographer, the images I was trying to capture often took on a life or death level of importance to me. I’m sure I stressed subjects more than I should’ve and trampled things under my boots that I should’ve been more aware of. Three decades ago, there was rarely another person anywhere around me, so the impact I had was relatively light. Today, where one photographer goes, hordes are likely to follow, and our potential for disturbance and disruption is correspondingly greater. It’s been 20 years since NANPA first came out with a code of ethics for nature photographers, but the game has changed. And not only because there are so many more of us, but because newer research shows some of the old practices have the potential to harm the landscape or the creatures that live there. The original code of ethics is kind of paltry compared to the guidelines listed in the latest Ethical Field Practices, another indication of how much things have changed. Check it out. It’s worth looking over regardless of how experienced you are and how many covers you list on your resume. An ebook on ethical nature photography is also scheduled for release in the near future, and, with any luck, it will be out before the summit next February.
Another issue the Ethics Committee has worked on is the accurate captioning of images. At one time, this was something that pretty much only applied to editorial photography and contest entries. It was important to know if an animal or plant was captive, and if the photo had been manipulated in some way. There was a definite temptation to fudge the truth a bit just to get published or win a prestigious contest, and that temptation is still there. Not too many years ago, the winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest was caught using a captive subject for his winning image. At a time when we could have used both the money and the fame, my wife, Cathy, and I passed up an opportunity to have the cover of Defenders magazine by letting the editors know the wolverine they wanted had been photographed at a game farm. Not only was it the right thing to do, it wouldn’t have looked good for the person who wrote the original Truth in Captioning article for NANPA, as well as sitting in on the Truth in Captioning panel at the 1997 summit, to be caught cheating. Those were the early days of Photoshop, and its limits were still being tested. Today there is literally nothing that cannot be done to an image during processing. Between the incredible possibilities in photo manipulation and a new awareness of the nuances that exist between wild and captive, the Truth in Captioning Document is considerably more detailed than the one we arrived at back in 1997. Again, this something all of us should check out and be aware of.
These issues were not approached with the idea that NANPA is going to be a policeman or play referee, watching over all of our work to slap us down if we cross the line. The completed projects are there to help nature photographers better understand some of the implications of what they’re doing. We did not get into nature photography for the money or fame (if you did, you’re really barking up the wrong tree). We picked up a camera because we love nature, we love wildlife, and any help we can get is welcome, especially if it makes life easier for the wild landscapes and wild things that mean so much to us.
In an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon—most of my philosophy comes from cartoons—Calvin comments, “I wonder why people are never content with what they have.”