Photography Ethics & Flora and Fauna.

“Treat all subjects with respect and dignity.”

What are the ethics of photography?

Photoethics states: “Photography ethics are the principles that guide how we take and share photographs. Photography ethics are subjective, contextual, and fluid, meaning that every person’s ethics will be different, because ethics are based on a person’s life experience and values.

So, we know what the ethics are relating to photography in brief, however I wish to expand on this subject more because I’m witnessing these ethics ignored by a minority of professional photographers (that should know better), and by many amateur’s too.

The Wildlife Code of Conduct states:

“As a responsible photographer of wildlife I capture my images as seen on the ground. I always put the welfare of the subject’s life and care of the environment above any photograph I take. I never use flash, props, live bait or any bait that will adversely affect the behaviour of an animal.”

What do we mean by bait and how does photography baiting impact on wildlife? Baiting is just that. Either you or someone else has deliberately set about to bait species of bird or a mammal for the soul purpose or luring animals into the bait for photography or hunting.

Depending on what country you live, baiting could be illegal. Baiting wildlife is a controversial subject that has a little bit of black, a little bit of white, and a whole lot of grey. In general, I firmly disagree with baiting wildlife for photography, unless the photographer is working in conjunction with researchers, the baiting is done in a way that is not injurious to the subject or the environment, and the photography is for the purpose of science or conservation.

For photographers who are only looking to get a cool photo — something they can submit to magazines for the cover, submit to photo contests, or to garner likes and comments in social media — baiting is, in general, a lazy and often destructive practice. It is also cruel, as the photographer willingly gives up the life of the bait animal in the pursuit of a photograph.

Just a few of the issues that pop up with, for instance, baiting owls for photography include habituating owls to humans, especially along roads, which both alters their natural hunting behavior and creates a higher risk of car strikes. It alters the natural diet of owls, as baiting is usually done with store-bought mice. It alters the role those owls play in the ecosystem by reducing the amount of wild prey they catch, or sometimes causes them to cease hunting entirely, which changes the overall dynamics of the ecosystem. It runs the risk of the introduced bait animals spreading disease, or getting a foothold in the area and becoming an invasive species. If one uses a lure instead of live bait, that person is causing an owl to use important energy reserves that should be spent on hunts that result in catching actual food.

It also creates photos that aren’t true to natural life, and that is where the issue of truth in captioning comes up.

What about domestic animals, such as dogs, cats, or even horses?

The basic code is to ensure you treat that animal with the utmost respect, dignity, love and compassion. Barking orders at a dog or cat won’t work, in the same way it won’t work with a human subject. Firing flashes at horses, dogs or cats with epilepsy or neurological conditions can also cause seizures.

There are many signs of fear, anxiety and stress in dogs. Things to look for include a tucked tail, ears back, licking the lips or nose, whale eye (wide eyes showing the whites of the eyes), looking away, lifting a paw, trembling or shaking, a low body posture, yawning, panting, grooming, sniffing, seeking out people (e.g. looking for comfort from you), hiding, not moving, a stiff or frozen posture, urinating and defecating.

What about horses? Well, the same principles and ethics applies, you need to remain relaxed at all times around such large animals. If you’ve never shot equine or farm animals before, please take oneself up to a farm, get use to the smells, noises, and general layout. If its not for you, or you’re concerned harm and damage may occur, then leave it until you’re ready.

Horses pretty much tell you what they are feeling, and what they are about to do with their body language. It’s all about patience, waiting and calmness. Never rush an equine photo shoot. Horses are like children, they go against any pressure to be rushed.

Take regular breaks too, stressing horses out during studio work can lead to agitation, anxiety, and worst case scenario – you and owner could be injured. Don’t load yourself up with camera kit, turn silent shutter on, and if possible try to work with natural light.

Like photographing any animal, taking pictures of horses comes with its challenges. Before using flash, though, it’s a really good idea to check with the owner that the horse won’t be scared by the light. I personally wouldn’t just rely on the owner telling you its okay neither. Take the horse outside of the stables and try with the flash. If it causes alarm and distress the first time, don’t use it again.

And finally, what about flora? I often see this area overlooked by many amateur and professional photographers down to YouTubers and Influencers’. Believe it or not, trees and plants feel alarm and distress too.

There are 6147 plant species which are endangered or critically endangered. Over 8000 tree species, representing 10% of the planet’s trees, are threatened with extinction due to the degradation or destruction of woodland and forest habitat or unsustainable timber production. Before you venture to a nearby woodland, woodland glade, forest, or nature trail always research the area first. Make sure you ask questions, are there any vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species of flora and fauna in the area? If so, you need to be careful where you tread, and always keep to the trail. If you feel there’s a possibility you need to venture off the trail always consult the local council or rangers.

  • Be a safe and respectful photographer/videographer — do not touch animals or poisonous plants, and stay on trails.
  • Watch where you step! When you’re taking photos, it’s easy to trample other plants without noticing. You could be stepping on one of the last patches of endangered Gentiana verna or the alluring Orobanche alba.
  • Avoid contact with live wildlife, and never touch a dead animal.
  • Know the limitations of your camera and tripod. If you know your camera or its lens is not capable of capturing certain shots then look into renting or buying the specific camera kit.
  • When visiting national parks where flora and fauna poachers are active, DO NOT provide the public the locations of your images. For example, if you’re photographing Rhinos in the Kaziranga, don’t give the geo-location out. The same applies to endangered specie of bulbs and cycads. Keep it to yourself. Be responsible. Don’t tarnish all of us photographers.

So, we should all know now the ethics of photography. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity.

Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a minority that don’t follow these ethics and deliberately give the photography community an appalling name. Furthermore, there’s literally no excuse. For example, you don’t need to read this article to know and understand that you must treat everyone and every living organism with respect and dignity.

The horrifying image below demonstrates how the photography industry is given a bad name. Back in 2018, Mercer Harris Photography stated this wasn’t animal abuse and the ethics of photography were being followed at all times. He even insinuated that these were harmless frames. Mercer stated:

Since these images started to go viral, people have started to call his local agricultural authorities, city hall and the sheriff’s office to complain. They (the authorities) have determined that he’s done nothing wrong. Harris says that people are “selectively picking out and cropping a small number of photos selected from his entire body of work”. He also says that misinformation is being spread about what’s seen in the shots.

He went on to say that “We’ve never had an animal harmed or die” in over 30 years of photography. He says that the goal is to share the love between animals and children, and that adult supervision is always just out of frame. The type of supervision that might be required to step in when, say, a rabbit is grabbed by the ears or ducklings are being choked.

Who’s to blame here, the child, the photographer or the parents? Credits: Mercer Harris Photography.
Do you believe this is in acceptable behaviour? Credits: Mercer Harris Photography.
Nothing to see here, allegedly, stated Mercer Harris Photography. Credits: Mercer Harris Photography.

The buck doesn’t just stop with domestic animals though. The fact the local Sheriff, Animal Welfare and the photography company didn’t believe anything was amiss, demonstrates there is likely many others out there getting away with such antics, and its giving us good photographers a bad name.

In 2009, an Alaska wildlife photographer pleaded not guilty to a federal charge of baiting bears without a permit while shooting pictures for a History Channel show.

Jim Oltersdorf of Soldotna was accused of hanging bait over a scale to draw bears to weigh in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It was for an episode of the show “MonsterQuest.” The episode, “Giant Bear Attack,” first aired in September 2008.

Oltersdorf’s lawyer, Brent Cole, told The Anchorage Daily News it was not bear-baiting because the photographer was not hunting.

In 2016, an orthopaedic surgeon was charged with littering and feeding endangered birds with live fish injected with air.

Lee Soon Tai, 62, who operated a clinic at the Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, allegedly committed both acts on two occasions last year in Bukit Batok Town Park. In October 2015, a video of three photographers allegedly baiting grey-headed fish eagles in Bukit Batok by using live fish injected with air made its rounds on social media. The video was removed from Asia Online. Fortunately I found it on Facebook.

Baiting for the social media likes, the money, or just for competitions is cruel.

They apparently did this so that the fish would remain afloat and attract the attention of the bird.

This would help the photographers snap an “action” shot of an eagle swooping down on its prey at the water surface.

Photographers caught the flack again in 2019 when the owners of the Lavender field at Valensole, Provence – in the south of France had, had enough. They erected a rather crude sign stating: “Respect Our Work Please.”

Credit: Paul Reiffer.

I was somewhat shocked it took this long for the workers to speak out. When I visited the lavender fields I was left utterly gobsmacked at the behaviour of the ‘minority’ of utterly selfish photographers, YouTubers and Influencers’. As Paul has confirmed there were mobile wardrobes, stage lights and rubbish. Furthermore I could hear the humming of drones overhead. And as you may have guessed, drone flying in this area is now strictly prohibited because of a minority of selfish photographers’.

Paul Reiffer stated in his blog: “With a car full of gear, we pulled up to a spot I’d noticed last year just after harvest, expecting to see a few other photographers, given that all signs pointed towards a good sunset. What I found, however, was truly shocking..

..Cars dumped, strewn all along the roadside, blocking traffic with people darting in and out across the road. Mobile wardrobes (with 5-6 outfit changes) being transported into the farmer’s private land for a fashion “shoot”. Photographers with step-ladders to get higher up, trampling and crushing the rows of lavender which had been cared for all year. People picking (yes, another word for stealing) huge bunches of lavender from the farmer’s fields for their photoshoot, and ultimately, to take home.

And all this occurring inside the fence that the land owner had clearly erected to keep people out.”

You can read Paul’s blog post here:

Every week I witness at least a dozen photography violations online from local to international forums, some of these violations have won awards too, despite the fact its evident to the ‘trained eye’ how those shots were taken.

Please, for the sake of us, our businesses, the photography industry, show kindness, love, respect and compassion. Please stop trampling endangered species of flora, and respect peoples work and home life.

Please pay particular attention to drones and how they can impact on wildlife.

Thank you for reading.

J. J. Williamson.

Photojournalist & Historian.

Published by J. J. Williamson

Prints, frames, stock images and portrait services.

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