Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature
The dark side of those wondrous wildlife photographs.
By Ted Williams
Published: March-April 2010
National Wildlife, a booming market for game-farm photos until about 10 years ago, now uses none, though it does publish the odd shot of a zoo or rehab animal, reporting origin in the caption or credit. Genuine wildlife photographer and ardent game-farm critic Tom Mangelsen used to tease National Wildlife photo director John Nuhn by telling him he should change the name of his magazine to National Game Farm.Nuhn got the message and not just from Mangelsen. "I was getting tigers running along beaches in Santa Barbara, mountain lions in perfect positions on red rocks in Utah," he says. "I figured these are more than just captives; these guys are being trucked."
But nature magazines are dwarfed by other markets, few of which know or care about the source of animal photos. Most magazines and virtually all publishers of posters and calendars, even those commissioned by environmental organizations, have no standard for honesty in wildlife photography. The vast hook-and-bullet press is shameless. Battery acid is splashed on captive fish to make them leap frantically. I talked to one genuine wildlife photographer who has quit submitting deer photos to hook-and-bullet publications because he can't compete with all the photographers who rent or own penned deer bred for freakishly large antlers. One such mutation, appearing on the covers of countless hunting rags, had four owners, the last of which bought him for $150,000. For years the ancient beast was kept on life support with medications and surgeries.
One might suppose that Outdoor Photographer magazine would have strict standards. But no, it advertises game farms and instructional safaris to the scenic destinations to which game-farm animals are trucked. In November 2009 it ran a half-page photo of a timber wolf in "rural Montana" that "suddenly strayed from the pack" to sniff the camera and tripod of a photographer. This was an untruth; rural Montana wolves don't behave this way, and there was no pack. I emailed the photographer and asked him at what game farm he'd taken the shot. "Animals of Montana," he proudly replied. One might also suppose that NANPA would have strict standards. But no. It advertises game farms, distributes game-farm promos to members, even sells its membership list to game farms.
There is, however, a rapidly growing countermovement called the International League of Conservation Photographers. ILCP director Cristina Mittermeier offers this: "There are no standards for the care of game-farm animals. They're rented out for profit. I find that sickening. We don't even know how many game farms there are. They give nothing back to habitat conservation." The ILCP is working with the American Standards Association and a standards expert from the EPA to bring decency to game-farm photography by setting up an advisory group to establish guidelines. Advisers will include representatives from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the photographic community, and the game farms themselves.
If there was ever a need for game farms, it has diminished, especially with the advent of autofocus lenses and super-fast pixel imaging. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Sharon Cohen-Powers, now president of NANPA, ran a photo stock house called The Wildlife Collection. "Back then getting a sharp image of a bird in flight was a miracle," she says. "And there were the baby shots--if you didn't have them, you didn't make the sale. It was like, 'Please go out and shoot at game farms.' And it wasn't long until you started saying, 'Stop shooting at game farms. I don't want these shots anymore--they're all the same.' "
The intrusion on and habituation of wildlife that game farms are said to prevent has been reduced by remote, motion-sensing camera traps. Even 15 years ago Joel Sartore was using this technology to photograph Florida panthers--among the rarest of cats. Steve Winter braved temperatures of 30 below zero in northern India to get the camera-trap shots of wild snow leopards that appeared in the June 2008 National Geographic. And for his stunning coffee-table book Great Plains (University of Chicago Press), Michael Forsberg invested close to four years and many 1,200-mile commutes to get camera-trap photos of wild cougars in South Dakota's Black Hills. They're nearly as sharp as the fakes Geiger and I procured in two hours.
When game-farm advocates claim it's "impossible" to photograph subjects like wild Florida panthers, cougars, and snow leopards, what they really mean is that they don't care to suffer the necessary discomfort and spend the necessary time, effort, and money. Even without competition from game-farm patrons, genuine wildlife photographers struggle to make a living; with that competition some have to find new work. That's unfair.
But my biggest gripe with captive-wildlife photography is its dishonesty. The spectacular Winged Migration, released in 2001 by Sony Picture Classics, turned on the nation to the beauty of and threats to the avian world. But the film didn't get around to informing viewers that some birds were tame, raised from eggs, and imprinted to their handlers. Did the end justify the means? I'd argue no.
Condemning untruthfulness in all media, Sir David Attenborough, standard-bearer for ethics in wildlife filmmaking, declared: "You can lie in print; you can lie on film; you can lie on radio." But when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Cruel Camera confronted him about a scene supposedly shot under snow in the Arctic in which a polar bear gives birth, he admitted that it was shot in a zoo.