I admit: this blog post is way overdue. The more I thought about the topic I wanted to write about, the more questions arose instead of answers. And, the more I knew I had to write about it anyway. Read it as an exploration, the beginning of a dialogue.
Only when I am in nature, do I feel at peace and connected to all that lives and all that makes up this amazing Earth. This intense love I have of the natural world inspires me as an artist and a photographer. I want to share the beauty of nature with others, to open their eyes to wonder.
At the same time, I become increasingly aware of the dangers that sharing images of nature bring to the very thing I love. Recently NPR called attention to the effect of Instagram feeds showing gorgeous photos of stunning locations. Everyone sees the photos on Instagram and thinks, I want to go there! The result is crowds of tourists trampling the vegetation, starting fires, leaving toilet paper, etc.
In my previous post on Iceland, I commented on hordes of tourists only interested in getting a selfie in front of the most spectacular scenes. Dutch photographer Theo Bosboom recently won the Fred Hazelhoff Award for the photo series Iceland is Hot, showing tourists in Iceland taking pictures of themselves and of each other, oblivious to the natural beauty surrounding them. He wanted to call attention to how Iceland has changed from a destination for serious nature lovers to a country with mass tourism, high on the bucket list of millions of people.
Last summer, a friend and I visited a location where we knew we could find the elusive and (in The Netherlands) rare tree frog. As far as we knew, the location was a well-kept secret. But, when we arrived, we found that most of the vegetation had been trampled by groups of photographers, all hunting for the same ‘unique’ shot of a tiny tree frog on a leaf. Ultimately, this will destroy the tree frog’s habitat.
Ultimately, we destroy the very thing we love. The cruel practices of game farms pitting captive wolves against captive bears so that photographers can post their sensational ‘wilderness shots’ on Instagram and Facebook have been exposed and commented upon by many indignant readers. But the practice of faking the shot is much more pervasive and embedded in the world of nature documentaries and photography than we would like to believe, as this Audubon article shows. If you think it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
An ethical approach is essential. And, as wildlife photographer Melissa Groo argues, an ethical approach cannot be found simply in rules and guidelines. It needs to be grounded in the empathy a photographer feels for her/his subject.
Fortunately, organizations and individuals are starting to take a stand for ethical nature photography. The International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) held a conference last weekend on how photographers can make a difference for our planet. This is taking the matter of ethics one step further. How can the effect of nature photography bring good to the planet instead of destruction?
As I continue along this path of discovery, I find myself torn between the desire to photograph the rare and the wonderful and the desire to focus on the miracle of small, ordinary things we often pass by without noticing. I’m sure I will continue to visit faraway places to record the beauty (and the tragedy) I witness there. But my photography focuses more and more on the beauty that’s all around us, if we would stop and look.
I have also stopped revealing my specific locations. I, who hates secrets, am starting to realize that sharing locations does more harm than good.
The most important ethical principle of all, I think, is to never lie or fake a shot. If you took that stunning Goshawk photo from a photography hide, simply say so. Photography hides are a good way to get close to your subject without disturbing them, so there’s no reason to dissemble. If your subject was baited or captive, be honest about it. Don’t let people think you got that fabulous shot by stalking the animal or bird in the wilderness unless you really did.
These five guiding principles:
Approach your subject with empathy;
Find a way to make a positive difference;
Photograph the small and ordinary;
Don’t reveal your locations; and
Never lie or fake a shot
are, for me, a way out of the conundrum that nature photography and my love of and responsibility towards nature presents.