Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature

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. 
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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


In defense of the makers of

In defense of the makers of "Winged Migration", a clip is available on the DVD release showing how the movie was made.

I also have no problem with

I also have no problem with photographers getting pictures from zoos or "farms" as long as the animals are treated well AND they are honest in their disclosure about where the shots were taken. While any picture of a lion might be cool and promote donations and awareness the photographer who has taken the picture in the wild has produced a more honest view of the animal. Many animals in the wild will be thin and scruffy and sometimes full of ticks or other parasites. Their life is hard and we should recognize this, not be fooled into thinking that the sleek fattened lion from the zoo is from the wilds of Africa.

you must not be very observant, Ted

I've seen more wildlife than you on a Saturday afternoon walk with my dog. Of course I don't bother with photos - the current "trophy" of naturalist types these days, along with their bird lists. But this kind of misleading nonsense is to be expected from someone who advocates law breaking and killing of cats. Birds are OK, but the buggers shit on my car. Maybe you're not really a naturalist after all.

Natural nature?

@Jessie, et al: Off the top of my head, nature photos should be natural. Like so many things in the world today, we are the victims of widespread deception. Use the food industry as an example: the " term "all natural" means absolutely nothing, and yet people are still duped by it into thinking they're buying something healthy for them. We want what we want (including having our fantasies fed) and don't want to look behind the curtain to see how it's produced. I suppose the consumer can be held partially accountable for not asking too many questions, but it's very easy for clever people and corporations to mislead. I think the basic human inclination to believe, or want to believe, that we're being told the truth is exploited.

I have been a photographer for 30 years, though not a nature photog per se, and I am shocked by and was ignorant of these practices. I have shot wildlife pictures in zoos (SD Wild Animal Park for example), with long lenses, which I could arguably have passed off as shot in the wild. I would NEVER have done so, and it's a result of integrity and honesty being drilled into me by good editors in the newspaper business. In the early days of Photoshop, there were photographers FIRED for removing small distracting items from a photo, like a coke can. FIRED. You tell the story of the photo ... period. Now of course, with digital and wide distribution (e.g., Getty, Corbis) of photos from all kinds of sources, with little vetting for the integrity of the photos and photogs, it's very easy to claim ignorance. Don't ask, don't tell ... how convenient.

Of course, these photographers selling "nature" photos shot of captive animals and passing them off as shot in the wild know exactly what they are doing. They can get a much greater ROI (return on investment, of time and money) and improve their odds greatly of getting sold or published by doing this. It's cheating, a shortcut, and when people don't know they are being lied to it's appalling. There are genuine nature photographers who do wonderful work, which is debased by this fraud.

Having looked at the "hook and bullet" magazines for years, I had NO idea that the big atypical buck I saw the great shot of was a captive animal, even changing hands for big buck bucks (no, I didn't stutter), and kept on life support so his earning years could be stretched. Disgusting. I also had no idea that Marlin Perkins and his pal Jim would throw a wild cat into a river only to "rescue" it for the camera. My naîve innocence has been shattered ... I loved that show as a kid.

Editors and filmmakers have no excuses: They should know what they are publishing or putting out and whether it was produced honestly. Otherwise, they pass the fraud on, and they do it because it makes their jobs easier and their product "sexier" and therefore, more saleable. In the end it's all about the Benjamins (as it always seems to be, whether it's having 5 yr olds sewing inexpensive soccer balls in indentured servitude, or cougars living in cages for photographers) but it's still fraud.

Wildlife Photography

Cruelty and abuse of the animals is, of course, hideous and should be stopped. But I fail, completely, to comprehend your ethic about honest and dishonest photos. If the subject is a lion, then it's a lion, it can't be anything else, and when I look at the picture, it makes not the slightest difference to me whether it was wild or not (so long as it isn't mistreated). I'm just grateful that the photographer gives me the opportunity to view the magnificent animal. And yes, photos of beautiful animals DO encourage people to donate to conservationist funds. A bunch of printed words don't move me the way a photo of a tiger or a polar bear does. This seems to me rather like the hue and outcry when photographers began to use digital cameras instead of "real" cameras, i.e. film cameras. If a photographer wants to slog thru torrid jungles for months on end or shiver in a frozen wasteland, well, that's up to him (or her), and it makes for an interesting story. But it doesn't have much to do with the actual photos, which stand on their own, having good pose, angle, color, contrast and composition, or not.

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