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

Why are lies anathema in all journalism save photo journalism? If a picture is worth a thousand words, is not a film, book, magazine, calendar, or poster containing photographic lies as objectionable as, say, a "news story" inThe New York Times by Jayson Blair. Blair, you may recall, was the fiction writer who masqueraded as a reporter. When the Times learned he'd concocted scenes, sources, and quotes, it fired him along with the paper's unwitting executive editor, Howell Raines. Even "full disclosure" couldn't get that kind of reporting sold or read much beyond supermarket checkout counters. 
 

WHAT YOU CAN DO

When you see a wildlife photo or film that looks too good to be true, it probably is. Write a letter asking for details.

This story originally ran in the March-April 2010 issue as "Picture Perfect."

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

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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