Wildlife Ethics, some might say what does that mean? does it matter? In an age where we can get whatever we want twenty-four hours a day with little effort. In an age where wildlife is under great pressure we have a duty of care to all living animals to put them first and respect them and so the term “ethics” is born.
I first picked up a DSLR in 2008 and taught myself how to use a camera I twinned this up with my lifelong love of nature. We can all do our bit, we can all care about our impact on those animals, birds and other living creatures we come into contact with and the one word that is at the heart of my wildlife photography and should be everyone else’s is “integrity”.
This article for me has been years in the writing because it’s something I have always felt so strongly about and its one of the things I see some many that take photographs of wildlife getting so wrong time and time again. I have written several articles on fieldcraft, something again I feel so strongly about and the two go hand in hand for me. Since turning professional in October 2009 where I have made my sole income from my wildlife photography I have seen so much change.
Ethics and the welfare of the subject where instilled into me by my late mother, who took me to nearby woods and places where wildlife were as a small child. She learnt me about the circle of life, where my food was from. She taught me always to respect wildlife and listen to the woods, listen to nature and it will give up her secrets. Back then being brought up in a single parent situation my mum couldn’t afford a camera so my trusted 8×40 binoculars where always around my neck or in my bag.
I learnt very early on that once I came across a wild animal it was down to me how long that encounter would last. Meaning if I was nosy, didn’t respect the subject and did lots of moving around then that would impact on the subject’s life and they would disappear back into the undergrowth. So I learnt to become part of the landscape, often pretending I was the animal and I tried to think like them and act like them. Using those principles my encounters lasted longer and so my knowledge became better and better. But the most important thing was that the subject I was with was not disturbed or troubled by my presence and this was the most important thing I learnt and is the foundation to my work today.
I still have a book my mum brought for my eighth birthday presence which I have managed to keep with me all over those years. Nature and those encounters taught me many wonderful things and gave me an amazing understanding of wildlife and empathy for it and life. Growing up my mum had cancer twice and on both occasions nature and those places I visit today helped me cope with seeing my mum waste away before me.
My school years weren’t great, my current day dyslexia can vouch for those troubled years, in-between the home visits I became my mum’s carer and growing up was put on hold. Nature, drawings, Dippers, Barn Owls and others animals and places gave me great peace and it was an escape from seeing my mum dying. I was twelve when she first got breast cancer and it returned three years later when I was fifteen and that time it calmed her life after an amazing battle to beat this for a second time. I became an orphan at fifteen and basically brought myself up from then to the present day. I was looked after by my aunties instead of going into the care system until I joined the army at sixteen.
Those lessons about nature, its beauty and that respect still live inside of me today. I treasure those memories and lessons my mum taught me and that duty of care I speak about to all living creatures. Nature has helped me grow and survive and today I pay respect to that with my photography where each image I capture means something to me.. That’s a bit of background to where my beliefs came from, because to understand something or someone you have to understand the back story and what is behind those images or beliefs because everything started somewhere I believe.
What people take photos of is their business where they take photos is their business what I want and have always wanted since turning pro is the photographer to be honest and have integrity to their work where the welfare of the subject is first. Don’t make the animal do something or perform in order for you to get your images. Tell those that view your image and comment and award you those awards that you then go onto using to say your better than the rest the story and skills used to get the shot , the back story. If you can only shoot in zoos or captive that’s great for you and there’s nothing wrong the problem is with the explosion in photography and people not being honest and put the lives of animals and birds at risk for the image .
I see photographs derived from using flash, set ups , food placed out , animals made to do something for reward or food , animals flying through the air to reach food, where the photographer does not tell what’s the story behind the image. Changing an animals behavior in order to get an image isn’t right and not true wildlife photography in my eyes it really isn’t. I call it image making where you employ props and bait to trick the animal. It seems today wherever wildlife is someone, somewhere will put a hide in, a stick or perch/prop in and charge people for the opportunity to see and take the same photograph almost as the person who first discovered the place which is not wildlife photography.
Animals blinded by flash is a pet hate of mine, how dare the photographer do this to an animal and then tells us ” oh they don’t mind ” All living animals have an iris similar to a humans eye and any sudden change in light will affect the animals balance and movement which causes them a level of stress and disturbance. Until an animal can tell us themselves we have to go with caution and not use flash for the welfare of the subject. You can read an interesting article here to all those that use flash within the world of wildlife photography that defend it and make money from this practice.
Photography brings great joy to many people I see this but we are visitors to their world whatever way you look at this. Treat animals with respect whether they are behind bars or free, always put your subject first. Tell the truth behind the image , don’t impact on the animals life take pride in learning about the subject and its habitat, see how it interacts with its own kind, watch how it finds food and so on.
Applying all of this will benefit you as a person and secondly a wildlife photographer. In a time where there is great pressure on the natural world we need to step back , see the bigger picture and never impact on the subjects life. For many people the weapon of choice now is the camera, use this wrongly and you impact on the lives of animals that have no voice, that won’t be able to report your actions, it will be down to you on the ground to work in a way that gives the animal peace rather than stress by your presence.
Each day I see images and conversations on blogs and social media where everyone calming they have the subject’s welfare at heart then go and use flash or disturb the animal or get the animal to perform for food. It seems to suit at times other times not. I have found over the years that those with the most to hide become the most defensive and practice such methods as I describe here and all become friends together in this ever growing market of set ups where animals are made to do something in return for food or reward.
Diving Kingfisher shots where a fishtank is placed beneath a perch and fish placed in and so the Kingfisher dives into the tank. How many of these images do we have to see before someone asks “what’s behind the image?”. Birds flying at the cameras lens because a bird caller of their call is used and often results in a stressed bird who makes itself look bigger flying or running towards the camera to ward off the intruder it thinks is in its patch when its just a photographer with a caller with zero respect for the bird.
The photographer gets the shot and the praise but says nothing of the back story. There is a massive explosion in set ups being sold to the public where you can choose your background and perch. A photographer finding a subject or area that has been good to them and then the next thing they are selling the place and the wildlife to the public in order to make money is another massive market. I have places I take clients but they are all wild and nothing is prepared.
I then have my own projects and places that I wouldn’t dream of taking paying clients because this just duplicates my images and impacts on the welfare of the subject and their habitat.This is wildlife photography today in the UK where in most parts its better to make money than to think of the welfare of the subject and how your actions impact on that animal your getting to do something for reward as in the background a volley of shutter buttons go off from paying clients. But dare to say anything and you come up against the self-styled cartel which all turn out to be those offering such workshops and taking that easy money off the public.
I have visited places where the wildlife does not like my presence; the Farne Islands is where this Arctic Tern was taken is one such place. They nest right by a path you have to walk on to past these Terns. To see such stress was painful as I put my camera above my head and ran along the path. There were people there disturbing these terns on purpose for a dramatic shot using flash to brighten the underneath but never thinking would that impact on the subject. Ive not been back to the Farnes since, but this is just one of the many many places throughout the UK and abroad you can see the shocking behavior of photographers.
A few recent images from India. Each year I go I always pull away when I can from such disturbance on the Tigers, getting my guide to remove ourselves from the medley of pressure and stress from jeeps the Tigers have to endure. Once you find a Tiger you’re very rarely have that moment to yourself before the army of trophy hunters turn up. On several occasions over the years I have refused to stress the Tiger and follow so we stayed back and in the end the Tiger came back to where we were hidden.
I work ethically and my trips are run this way. If you book with me you get this if you want to be part of a circus then go book with others. It’s all about money there now and those that make the money will tell you its fine and the Tigers don’t mind, but behind that is a vested interest in keeping their money coming in and that lifestyle that has given them a platform to speak from. Over the years I’ve had many crossed words about “ethics” with people I respected and thought they respected the Tigers but when the chips where down all I saw was a selfless attitude to do whatever they wanted where the Tiger is just a cash cow for them now and I will never forget that or forgive them.
The image above is a Bengal Tiger cub following his mum who was disturbed by other jeeps. We where in place first and sitting and watching and witnessed this. On another occasion we were watching a female Bengal Tigress, who we were told is very shy and doesn’t do well seeing jeeps or people. her own mother a few years back was poached and her body has never been seen to this day. We waited for hours alone then a jeep turned up where someone in that jeep was making male Tiger calls. She woke up and moved off and growling all the time.
The list is endless, I have seen photographers in the water outside schedule one protected Water voles placing out a mound of salad leaves to get them to sit on. People walking up to nesting birds on the ground, chasing owls up into the air the list of shocking behavior I’ve seen is never ending and endless. Dead animals placed on the end of a fishing line and the dead animal reeled in as a wild owl watches then comes to take the prey the photographer has tricked so the photographer can get the image. Live bait is also used and the thought of this is just shocking.
So much of the true ethics and welfare of the subject is lost in today’s wildlife photography and this is something I truly feel and see myself. We have a duty of care to all living beings and for me we can all do something to minimize our impact on the countryside. When an animal, birds or any living creature shows clear signs of stress at your presence you have to back off and leave the them alone. Do not carry on adding more stress and more anxiousness to them.
I don’t work with captive animals or sets ups, I’ve never taken this easy route to getting paying clients and securing a regular wage or images making them look wild when they were captive or tame animals. Instead I choose to work “as seen” on the ground using my skills, fieldcraft, passion and ethics. This has brought its own problems over the years in my private life with lack of money and sticking to my beliefs. I lost my home of ten years and my wife because of those beliefs and my stance on set ups, ethics and putting the subject first which created its own stresses. I wouldn’t do set ups or captive for the easy money so we grew apart and the pressures of money, bills and everyday life took its toll. But I stuck to my ethics and didnt want to abuse that trust with wildlife my mum taught me.
I had to start my life all over again two years ago, moving from my home and getting divorced but never did I change my ethics or the way in which I work. Its better to be able to stand up and explain every image you took and its story where the importance of that subject was the first thought in my mind. In an age where we all want something overnight you cant rush or kid nature or people and your images and the back story to how you got the image are the most important things behind the welfare of the subject and come under the banner “ethics”
These are my thoughts in an industry where for alot of wildlife photographers a front cover or an award or how to win one is more important than the welfare of the subject and the mess you left behind once you go home. Ethics, fieldcraft should be the first thing you develop before passing yourself off as a wildlife photographer, something I am and take great pride in and my work. Be true to yourself and your work is something I’d rather die than give up and that’s my thoughts on ethics.
Ask what you can do for nature rather than what nature can do for you and who cares what award you’ve won or who has given you a free coat or tripod, if you do this for a living or just as a hobby you have to have that duty of care and integrity otherwise you have nothing.
Those lessons I learnt from my late mum are how I judge my encounters with nature today, not all will have such a story to tell or lean on but what I would say is everyone can put wildlife first, don’t change a thing that you see, just sit, watch and listen and nature will give up its secrets around you it truly will. The results will be a better encounter, an ethical image but more importantly a relaxed, happy and free to leave subject that has allowed you into their life for however long it lasts.
This has been a very personal account of where my love of wildlife started, at the same time where my own ethics where born out of without me really doing at the time. If anyone wishes to talk further about this then please feel free to call me or email me.
Thank you for reading this article and I hope in some way it helps you understand we can all apply ethics in some sort of way to our own wildlife photography whoever we are and for whatever reasons you take photographs of wildlife and we can all make a difference. Thank you to the nurses from Macmillan Cancer care for making my mums last days as comfortable as you could. I have donated prints to this charity that can be seen on the following link, many thanks.