Take Nothing but Pictures?

In one of my earliest blog posts, I wrote about the ethics of wildlife photography. I summarized my list of guidelines with the adage, “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures.” While I still stand by my guidelines, I now think that that phrase leaves something to be desired. It’s a good principle, but it’s a little too simplistic – there are lots of things that people do while “doing nothing but taking pictures” that can make things significantly worse for the wildlife or environment being photographed.

As I’ve talked about many times before, photography can be a force for good in nature conservation (in fact, that’s basically the core principle of the Wild Focus Project). But whether or not the photos benefit the subjects depends largely on the photographer’s behavior and intentions. Photographing wildlife or nature isn’t necessarily always a good thing to do. If a photographer is irresponsible, uninformed, or just plain careless, they can do far more harm than their photos could do good.

  This photographer is WAY too close to the bear, endangering both himself and the animal. Image by  Rebecca Wiles, via NPS.

This photographer is WAY too close to the bear, endangering both himself and the animal. Image by Rebecca Wiles, via NPS.

One of the most common ways that photographers (and other people in natural spaces) screw up is by trying to get close to a wild animal, or to get in position for the best angle. They can damage the ecosystem itself, by trampling delicate plant life underfoot or inadvertently destroying shelter for smaller creatures (e.g. removing rocks in streams to build cairns). They might try to approach an animal, making it feel uncomfortable or threatened (sometimes enough for it to lash out). Some might try to lure wildlife closer by putting out food (which messes with the animal’s diet and makes them more susceptible to human threats) or playing animal sounds or bird calls (which can confuse animals into thinking there’s a predator or competitor present). These issues have been around as long as people have been taking pictures.

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There are also more recent problems with wildlife photography born out of social media. If you’ve been on Facebook or Instagram at all in the last several years, you’ve probably seen at least one wildlife selfie, or at least a photo of someone holding an animal that’s not a pet. While not all wildlife selfies are inherently bad (e.g., if a bird decides to land on your arm and you take a photo), a lot of them are the result of animal cruelty. Not necessarily on the part of the photographer, but more from local opportunists. This has become an especially big problem in the more touristy areas of the Amazon rainforest; sometimes locals will go capture animals like sloths or pythons, keep them locked up in horrible conditions, and pull them out when tourists come by and hawk photo opportunities.

As you can see in the photo above, I was once one of those ignorant tourists. I was on a guided river trip near Manaus, Brazil in 2012, and we visited a village where a couple of the residents had sloths that they passed around for us to hold and take pictures. I have no idea what the treatment conditions were like for those sloths, but in hindsight, I don't have high hopes. Unfortunately, I never even thought about it until years later when I started my master's in science communication. I had that photo as my Facebook profile picture for a while, and I got nothing but positive feedback on it. It's not a picture I’m proud of, but I'm holding on to it as a reminder to be more conscientious in the future.

  Image by  Eleni de Wet .

Image by Eleni de Wet.

Another issue with social media is some of the image sharing functions – specifically, geotagging. Several social media and photo-sharing services, including Facebook and Instagram, allow and encourage people to pinpoint the exact location where they took a photo. This function is all well and good if you’re taking pictures of your brunch and want to share the restaurant where you got it, but it can cause major problems when you’re photographing certain species. Specifically, animals that poachers might be interested in. A few years ago, there was an outcry after poachers managed to use geotagged photos of rhinos, taken on safari drives, to locate the rhinos and kill them for their horns. Several conservation parks in Africa have stopped telling visitors where they can find rhinos, but stopping people from marking locations with their phones is harder.

  Education has become an important part of ecotourism and outdoor recreation. Image from the  US Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District .

Education has become an important part of ecotourism and outdoor recreation. Image from the US Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District.

A lot of this sort of behavior is born out of ignorance rather than malice, and many outdoor recreation organizations are working to educate people about responsible behavior. Research studies have found that most people are more than willing to give up proximity and abstain from feeding wildlife when it’s (politely) explained to them that what they’re doing is harmful, and why. As a result of this, education has become a hugely important aspect of ecotourism and nature experiences. There have also been pushes from environmental groups to educate people about issues with wildlife selfies and geotagging. Towards the end of last year, Instagram started issuing warnings about animal cruelty when users searched for tags like “sloth selfie”. Ensuring that photographers are well-informed increases the likelihood that they’ll be responsible and respectful towards wildlife and the ecosystem.

  Responsible photographers and animal watchers in Yellowstone National Park keep their distance from a bear and two wolves across the Lamar Valley.

Responsible photographers and animal watchers in Yellowstone National Park keep their distance from a bear and two wolves across the Lamar Valley.

As long as photographers are informed, responsible, and respectful, their pictures can be enormously beneficial for the wildlife that’s being photographed. Social media is an especially powerful tool for spreading images and info about wildlife and nature (as long as we’re careful about it!). Beautiful and compelling shots of an animal increase its popularity, which in turn increases how much people pay attention to it and want to preserve it. Increased popularity brings in more people to ecotourism businesses and wildlife conservation organizations, leading to more income and resources for conservation efforts. People learn more about the animals and ecosystems. And as I found in my thesis research last year, photographing wildlife appears to increase people’s emotional attachment to nature, which is a key factor when it comes to making decisions about conservation and pro-environmental behavior (as explored in my friend Conor's research).

So, “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures” is a nice sentiment, but it might be in need of some revision. Maybe something more like, “Leave it as you found it, and maybe take some photos if it won’t disturb or harm the animal or environment. Oh, and do your research and be careful with social media.” It’s a little unwieldy, sure, but covers a lot more ground.


References for this post:

Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Hughes, K. (2009). Tourists’ support for conservation messages and sustainable management practices in wildlife tourism experiences. Tourism Management, 30, 658-664.

Green, R.J., & Higginbottom, K. (2000). The effects of non-consumptive wildlife tourism on free-ranging wildlife: A review. Pacific Conservation Biology, 6, 183-197.

Kals, E., Schumacher, D., & Montada, L. (1999). Emotional affinity toward nature as a motivational basis to protect nature. Environment and Behavior, 31(2), 178-202.

Vining, J. (2003). The connection to other animals and caring for nature. Human Ecology Review, 10(2), 87-99.