Today’s post delves into an area we photographers often find ourselves … dealing with photographic ethics. Photographers have to constantly contend with ethics. Do you need a model release? Do you need a property release? Am I about to shoot on public property, or do I need to obtain permission to be here? As with everything in life, we have rules and regulations that we must adhere to when conducting our business. One of the most “gray areas” we encounter in nature photography is one of photographing wild animals versus photographing captive animals.
One of the first things we need to do is to define “captive.” Does this mean a caged animal? Or does photographing a bird at a feeder equate to capturing a “captive photograph?” We must each define what our ethics are. Each of us must establish our own definition and boundaries. Like about anything else in life, we all see things a bit differently, and this is when photographic ethics can divide us as photographers.
Why Photograph Captive Animals?
Why would someone want to photograph a captive animal? My personal preference is to photograph only wild animals (which I also call a bird at a feeder). But there are some times when photographing captive animals makes sense to me. For example, it makes sense to me to photograph a captive animal if it is “non-native” (i.e. it does not live in the United States). Or when you are photographing an animal in a controlled environment, such as learning how to photograph animals. Another example might be when you want to capture a specific behavioral shot.
If you want to photograph a snow leopard, you certainly cannot shoot one in the United States! In fact, if you travel to where the snow leopard lives, high in the mountains of Pakistan/Afghanistan, you would be extremely lucky to see one (your chances at winning the lottery would probably be better!). In addition, the cost of a trip to such a location is often prohibitive, so the choices are quite simple: photograph a captive snow leopard, or don’t shoot one at all!
Capturing a Captive Animal in a Learning Environment
While training for wildlife photography after I left my corporate job a number of years ago, I enrolled in two classes, “Photographing Wildlife” and “The Business of Nature Photography.” Both classes included photographing animals in a controlled environment. Following lectures by a successful, professional nature photographer, we would shoot as a group with captive animals, followed by image critiques. This was very useful to me, and I attribute some of my behavioral/action images I capture today from this learning experience.
Sometimes, you may be looking for a specific behavior from a species. In this instance, it may be advantageous to photograph a captive animal, where you will likely be spending more time with the species and increasing your odds to capturing the wanted behavior.
Important Factors When Photographing Captive Animals
If you photograph captive animals, there are a few things you should look for. First, do your homework upfront and check out the person or facility that you are considering using. How well do they treat and care for the animals they have? Ask for references, and check them out. What kind of food/shelter are given to their animals?
What is the facility’s qualifications? Do they have a suitable background with animal care? Do they have a good veterinarian that they use for both routine and emergency animal care?
Ask about the scheduling of animals for photo shoots. Are the animals given a regular “rest time,” away from people?
Back to Ethics
If you decide to photograph captive animals, remember to be ethical, not only when photographing, but when editing and presenting your work to others.
I always make sure that I label my captive animal images as “Captive.” You don’t want to misrepresent your work and I have found that it’s always best to be open and honest. A few years ago, one of my photography friends showed me a beautiful image of a bird of prey as it was landing. When I commented on the image, I was told “sometimes you just get lucky.” Some time later, I overheard another person commenting to the same photographer, on the same image. The photographer told that person, “that was a captive animal and the handler had just called the bird in to land.” I have to tell you, I lost some respect for that photographer. In my mind this was “lying by omission.”
And, by the way, all of the images I used in this post were captured using captive animals.
What ethics did I miss? Have you ever photographed captive animals? How do you treat photographic ethics in nature?
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About the Author: Jim Braswell is a lifelong resident of Missouri, photographing nature in Missouri and beyond. His photographic passion is wildlife and wildflowers. When working with wildlife, his goal is to capture animal behaviors and actions. Besides photographing nature, Jim teaches photography and Photoshop at a local career center and participates in several art fairs/festivals every year. View more of his work on his website at: http://www.showmenaturephotography.com/