The Photographer's Dilemma
Nevis Charles Granum
When I was 9 years old, my father pulled me out of 4th grade and took me to turn 10 in China. “You’re never going to remember two weeks of 4th grade”, he said, “but you’ll always remember two weeks in China.” Everyday his words prove true.
In China, we lived on a riverboat, floating the Yangtze river. We were traveling through the famous 3 Gorges section of the river, a section that would soon be destroyed with the building of the 3 Gorges Dam: the solution to China’s modern need for hydroelectric power. Unfortunately, once built, the dam was going to fill over the 3 Gorges, destroying a natural treasure as well as displacing thousand of humans and nonhumans from their ancestral homes. It was in one of those villages that would soon be destroyed, and its people displaced, that my photographic ideologies would be forever influenced and changed.
It was a fishing village, with single family lineages that dated back thousands of years. A small group of us, led by our guide, were walking uphill along the lone dirt path to visit the local place of worship when we happened upon a woman and her three children sitting on an old pool table. The felt was missing and the pockets were filled with wilting vegetables. My father, thinking it was an interesting scene, took out his camera; a common act among travelers. At sight of the camera, the Chinese woman threw up her hands in frightened anger. My father asked our guide, “Why is she getting so upset?” Our guide responded, “She thinks the camera is going to steal her soul, and the souls of her three children.” My father put the camera back in his bag, and we walked away.
I share this story because most psychologists agree that our experiences with nonhuman animals and the environment shape our view and relationship with the natural world in our maturity. It effects the way we interact with human and nonhuman life, and the decisions we make to preserve it or destroy it. As Julia Corbett says, Professor of Communications at the University of Utah, “It is well documented that the experiences we gain from special outdoor haunts as a children are carried through--with knowledge added and reinterpretations made--to adulthood” (Corbett 15). These experiences “are embedded, reworked, and transformed into more comprehensive ways of understanding the natural world and acting upon it” (Corbett, 15). Understanding this, this story illustrates to me my views on the environment and photography. It explains my love for natural landscapes, and an understanding that it’s disappearing for the sake of modern industrialization. It also makes clear my passion for photography, and it’s ability to capture the souls of fleeting moments. The trip had an overwhelming sense that the beauty that we were seeing would soon be gone forever, knowing that the 3 Gorges Dam would soon be built. The beliefs of the Chinese woman and her three children inspired in me a new power and importance of the camera. It’s not that I want to steal the souls of anyone or anything; a good photograph doesn’t steal a soul, but it does capture it in its state of being and time. As famed photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson once said in an interview, “We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory”. In the context of environmental preservation, this idea is key. To photograph the 3 Gorges before they were dammed was to somehow preserve them, to capture their spirit, manifested in mountains, that would soon be covered by brown water. This feeling of importance is what has lead to my passion for wildlife and nature photography.
However, this story also illustrates a growing theme within my present conscious as a photographer: the ethical dilemma of taking a photograph. The camera became a point of conflict and mixed understandings between the Chinese woman and my father. For her, the camera was seen as a tool of magic malice and supreme greed, but for him, an artistic tool for preserving a memory. In a larger context of my chosen field of wildlife and nature photography, the actions of us photographers are intwined with environmental philosophies and direct environmental impact. Thus, it becomes our imperative to understand these philosophies and the pros and cons of our action. This essay will discuss these ethical dilemmas in the photographic representations of nonhuman life. It will examine our history of attitude toward nonhuman animals, and how those attitudes are manifested today through the photographer’s lens. It will discuss the ethics of photographing in the environment, and the ethical dilemmas that surround common practice. Finally, this essay will submit suggestions for more sustainable and positive representations of nonhuman animals and their environment, and how these changes can impact the effectiveness of modern day preservation.
A Definition of Terms
However, first I’d like to first start out with defining environmental and philosophical terms that I will frequently use in this paper. My understanding of these terms align closely with the definitions of Sahotra Sarkar, a professor of philosophy and integrative biology at the University of Texas, Austin. I’ll often to refer to ‘the environment’ , by this I refer to “the non- human part of nature” (Sarkar 20). I’ll also refer to ‘anthropocentrism’, “in environmental ethics, the assumption that all value ultimately derives from considerations of both human rights, interests, etc., of humans” (Sarkar 202). Also, ‘ecocentrism’, “the assumption that all value ultimately derives from considerations of humans and all entities that are not primarily of anthropocentric origin” (Sarkar 203). By ‘wildlife’ I refer to nonhuman life in ‘the environment’. I believe it is important to have a clear understanding of environmental terms to aid in the clarity of this essay.
A Brief History of Attitudes Towards Animals
To best understand our modern connection with nonhuman animals, and how this connection is present in wildlife photography, we must first look back through our historical lineage of attitudes towards nonhuman animals. Our philosophical base begins in Greece, in the thoughts of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle.
Pythagoras understood that human-beings are animals, and further believed that “all animate beings are of the same family” (Porphyry 7, Hadas 2). He held animals and humans in the same regard, understanding the value of living beings. This philosophy is best represented by his, for the time period, unorthodox vegetarian eating habits, as fellow Philosopher Eudoxus explains, “he not only abstained from animal food but would also not come near butchers and hunters.” (Porphyry 7, Hadas 2) These beliefs stem from Pythagoras’ more grand notion of metempsychosis, believing that upon death “the [human] soul is immortal and that it transmigrates into other kinds of animals” (Porphyry 19, Hadas 4) This was a largely unique thought among Greeks, but not among other humans: the Egyptians also believed in this form of reincarnation, detailing that a respective human soul was reborn throughout every animal in the animal kingdom until, 3,000 years later, the soul was to return to the human body (Hadas 4). Pythagoras accepted this metempsychosis as he understood the human and nonhuman psyché: the ability to feel emotions, most notably, pain and pleasure.
In contrast with Pythagoras, his Greek peers Plato and Aristotle were able to create a wide divide between humans and nonhumans. For Plato, his most prominent distinguishing factor was his belief that humans had within them two souls: the immortal and mortal. The immortal soul is located in one’s head and imbues humans with the power of reason and ability to connect with everlasting divinities. The mortal soul, located in the chest, is the force that gives the ability to live. Plato was adamant in his belief that non-human animals only possessed this mortal soul, and it was the human being’s possession of the immortal soul, giving persons reasons, that elevated them above non-human animals. (Fouts 49)
Aristotle also placed humans above nonhuman animals. Though he understood human beings as “an animal capable of intellect”, he elevated humans well above non-human animals in his designed Great Chain of Being. In this doctrine, male humans were second only to angels, as men were gifted with intellect and reason. Below men were women, slaves, and children, who, though human, lacked effective reason and thus were only to be ruled by men. Farther below yet were nonhuman animals that existed only to serve and benefit humans (Singer, Brandt 80). Though Aristotle believed that nonhuman animals held the capacity for similar emotions and limited memory, he was doubtless in their lack of reason, and as a result, they were regarded as nothing more than beasts for anthropocentric gain.
This chain reflects Aristotle’s larger chain of rationality, that the less rational was to serve the more rational: plants were to serve animals, as animals were to serve all humans, as women and slaves were to serve men, as men were to serve the Gods. Within this, Aristotle understood Greek society as the most rational of all humans, calling non-Greek societies “barbaric” as they paled in comparison of rationale.
Unfortunately for the welfare of women, slaves, and nonhuman animals, Aristotle’s beliefs best reflected Greek society, and as a result, were subsequently adopted by the Judeo- Christian tradition and spread throughout Western Europe. As moral philosopher Peter Singer explains, “It was no coincidence that Christian Europe regarded Aristotle, rather than Pythagoras, as the philosopher to follow. His teachings fit well with the Judeo-Christian idea that God made the animals, and then made human beings “in his own image.” So we, not the lions, not the elephants, not the cheetahs, not even the gorillas, are made “in the image of God - that being, presumably, the image of a rational being.” (Singer, Bradnt 80) Consecrated by Aristotelian ideologies, the Judeo-Christians were better able to embrace God’s sanctioned man’s dominance over nonhuman animals as is expressed in Genesis: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and upon every fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis, 1:28)
Aristotle’s philosophy, now coupled with Christian theology, was propelled and spread throughout western Europe and the colonial globe. These words became the new scripture and justification for human dominance over the nonhuman. This view was taught and perpetuated throughout Western society as Christianity held penultimate influence over social and moral action. In the seventeenth century, sanctioned dominance was famously taken one step further by the French philosopher René Descartes. Nonhuman animals, Descartes said, were nothing more than mere machines, “unthinking, nonspiritual beasts” (Fouts 49), vacant of an emotional mind or active consciousness. In opposition to the Greek beliefs that animals, though non-rational, had emotions, senses, and memory, Descartes explained these common attributes as mechanized processes void of soul or spirit, famously stating, “do you protest if I beat a drum?” on being criticized for beating and vivisecting dogs; a yelp of pain is no different than a ringing tap of a drum. Philosopher Peter Harrison shares the words of Marlebranch, Descartes’ student, in his journal article Descartes on Animals, “They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” These words, Harrison says, are “generally thought to capture the essence of Descartes’ view of animals” (1).
In the century following Descartes, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant also defended the human hierarchy over nonhuman animals. Kant, however, justified his claim by the nature of independent “personhood” of which he believed non human animals were incapable. He believed that this idea of “personhood” made human beings a more elevated species, and thus above nonhuman animals. Philosopher Christine Korsgaard explains in her journal, Self- Constitution in the Ethics of Plato and Kant, that “what distinguishes action from mere behavior and other physical movements is that it is authored - it is in a quite special way attributable to the person who does it, by which I mean, the whole person” (3). In this light, both Kant and Descartes believed that nonhuman animals were but machines, not controlling themselves consciously, and certainly not because of individual personhood.
The philosophies of both Descartes and Kant were beginning to isolate and willingly remove human beings from the rest of the natural order. Their views best reflected the beliefs of their largely societal surroundings: “The record of medieval Europe was one of massive deforestation, erosion, siltation, exhaustion, pollution, and extermination. Animals were subject to severe exploitation and cruel treatment...Nature was seen as antagonistic...This viewpoint is reflected in words such as ‘wilderness,’ from an old English word meaning ‘of or about wild beasts.’”(Corbett 21-22) The natural order was seen as disorder, and humans saw civility only in separation from the “wilderness”.
However, there were other modes of thinking at the time. Hermann Samuel Reimarus, for example, the Eighteenth Century german philosopher and writer, published his best selling book, General Considerations on the Instincts of Animals, in 1760. The book outlines a new way of thinking about nonhuman mind and behavior, rejecting Cartesian ideologies. Famed Dutch ethologist, Adriaan Kortlandt, explains that within the pages Reimarus concluded that:
“(1) animals have sense organs similar to ours which conduct stimuli to the brain; (2) they organize their behavior according to their perception of the world around them; (3) this proves that they have a mental representation of the world around them; (4) that is, they have a ‘Seele’ (in German, the psychological concept of mind and the theological concept of soul are homonymous)...This he was 100 years ahead of his time on the homology argument of Darwinian animal psychology” (Kortlandt 1)
And it was 100 years before Reimarus, during the epochs of Descartes and Kant, that a revolutionary discovery was made by the Western world that would directly challenge previous philosophies, and forever change the western notions of the human/nonhuman connection: the chimpanzee.
Our Relative the Chimpanzee: A Change in Relation
Of course the people of Africa, most notably West Africa and the Ivory Coast, had long known of the Chimpanzees and their relationship with them. The people of the Congo understood the Chimpanzee as their ancestor well before the time of Charles Darwin; the English word “Chimpanzee” stems from Congolese, meaning “mock man.” As modern primate researcher Roger Fouts explains, “The peoples of West Africa, who have lived side by side with chimpanzees for aeons, have never thought of them as being deficient in their ability to reason. On the contrary, they have long known that chimpanzees make and use stone tools, medicate themselves with indigenous plants, organize social activities like hunting, and even have a rudimentary form of political culture.” (Fouts, 48) The idea that humans have dominance over nonhumans isn’t an inherent characteristic of humanity, but instead an influential belief of western philosophy and Christianity.
It was the British born naturalist Thomas Huxley that was first to conclude that humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestors, influenced by Charles Darwin’s upheaving work The Origin of Species. Darwin agreed, stating in his following work The Decent of Man, “Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped probably arboreal in habits.” (Fouts 51) He also concluded that chimpanzees not only resembled humans physically, but also mentally, understanding their intellect, memory, and, most importantly, their ability to reason. These findings not only challenged the biblical word of God, but a hallmark of previous western philosophy: that humans are alone in the power of rational thought.
The chimpanzee, and the homology findings of Darwin, blurred the previous sharply defined boundary between human and nonhuman. Their presence offered to the western world a radical view, one situated at the opposite spectrum’s end of popular belief. They offered reasoned proof that nonhuman animals were, in fact, our biological brethren, and that all life, human and nonhuman, shared a common ancestor. Though Darwin’s findings were largely rejected by Christian theology and hierarchical philosophy, they nonetheless reestablished a truthful sinew of connection between humans and nonhuman nature during the ever-separating period of Europe’s 19th Century industrial revolution.
This connection lead to new ways of research in the Twentieth Century. Perhaps the most famous of these researchers is Jane Goodall, whose groundbreaking discoveries of Chimpanzee behavior revolutionized the way many viewed the human/nonhuman connection. However, Goodall was unique in comparison with the classical ethologists. Born in London in 1934, Goodall had a passion for nonhuman animals at a young age. She recalls of her young passion, “That early interest continued. I watched insects and birds in the garden and, as I got older, made notes about them. Then I began reading books about Africa. Dr. Dolittle and Tarzan--stories about African animals. By the time I was eight, I knew that I had to go to Africa” (Goodall 34). 15 years later, Goodall would fly to Africa and fortuitously meet famed archeologist and naturalist Louis Leakey. In 1960, when Goodall was 26, Leakey asked her to head the research of Chimpanzee behavior at Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Though she briefly studied primotolgy in London in 1958, Goodall lacked a formal degree. However, as she explains, “I was concerned that I had no college degree. In his [Leakey’s] eyes this was a plus: he wanted a person whose mind was uncluttered by scientific theory” (Goodall 35) At Gombe, Goodall not only revolutionized the way human/nonhuman connection, she also popularized a new method of research: one of respectful observation and connection. Goodall explains:
Well, when I first got to Gombe, the chimps would un off, even if I was 500 yards away. It was rather depressing. Then I discovered “the peak,” a wonderful vantage point with a view over two valleys. I stopped trying to get close to the chimps. Instead, I climbed up to the peak day after day and sat there watching through my binoculars. As I gradually pieced together the daily behavior patterns of the chimps they slowly got used to me and eventually lost their fear. Then I was able to move ever closer...Even now, 29 years later, I never take my relationship with the chimps for granted. When I sit among a group in the forest and a mother will allow her infant to sleep a few feet away from me, I am overwhelmed by the trust that the chimpanzees have in me. It’s a terrific responsibility--I must never allow that trust to be broken.” (Goodall 35)
I share this story at length because I believe it illustrates proper conduct for a human/nonhuman relationship, and for the purposes of this essay, proper conduct of the wildlife photographer. This will be discussed further later. However, the vicarious experience and photography played a crucial world in sharing Goodall’s story with the world. In August of 1963, National Geographic Magazine published, My life Among Wild Chimpanzees, and article written by Goodall with full color photographs by Baron Hugo van Lawick. The article initiated Goodall’s celebrity by sharing her story and the story of the chimpanzees. Further, it shared photographs of Goodall, Gombe, and most importantly, the chimpanzees who, many were beginning to realize, were not so different from themselves.
The Vicarious Connection
Through the internet, television, photography and newsprint, we’ve become a world of vicarious travel and experience. For most, it is through these vicarious means that we connect with the natural world and nonhuman animals. Today we rely on photography and television documentaries for transportive and vicarious connections. As Alexander Wilson explains:
“Humans have always invented ways to form an interactive relationship with the Earth, often endowing that Earth with the qualities of the only subjects we know-- ourselves. Nature and wildlife movies... Are thus one expression of a long human tradition of investing the natural world with meaning. Those meanings are often as not laden with sexism, colonialism, and species hierarchy...Still, the anthropomorphic gesture is a means of making the world beyond the garden wall intelligible to us, and of breaking down the ideology of “humanity vs. Nature.” (Wilson, Corbett 127)
The success of National Geographic illustrates humanity’s modern desire for vicarious connection better than most. The magazine published its first issue in 1888; today the magazine is published in thirty-six languages and reaches 8.3 million people monthly. Overall, as the National Geographic website states:
Through various media vehicles, including its official journal, National Geographic magazine, and other publications, its films, television programs, cable channel, radio, music, books, videos, maps and interactive media, the National Geographic Society reaches more than 450 million people a month. The Society's unending commitment to integrity, accuracy and excellence has positioned "National Geographic" as a benchmark brand and a leader in publishing, photography, cartography, television, research and education. (National Geographic)
More specifically, National Geographic has become a “benchmark brand” for wildlife photography. In fact, it was National Geographic Magazine that largely popularized the field. In 1906, they published the first story of wildlife photography. The photographs were those of George Shiras III, a native of Pennsylvania and a member of the Public Lands Committee. His photographs had caught the eye of Gil Grosvenor, the editor of National Geographic Magazine at the time, who had seen them after President Theodore Roosevelt had personally congratulated Shiras on his conservation efforts. 74 of Shiras’ photographs were printed in the July issue titled Hunting Wild Game with Flashlight and Camera. About the photo article, Grosvenor recalled it as “one of the pioneering achievements of the National Geographic...It was an extraordinary educative series: Nobody had ever seen pictures like that of wild animals...I can’t exaggerate the enthusiasm with which they were received by our members” (Grosvenor)
Today, that enthusiasm and excitement has turned into a phenomenon. According to the study, The Latest On Trends In Nature-Based Outdoor Recreation, carried out by Forest Service scientist and researcher, Ken Cordell, in 2008, nature photography is the fastest growing outdoor activity in the United States. As Cordell explains:
“Of these top seventeen activities, six involve viewing, photographing, identifying, visiting, or otherwise observing elements of nature...The growth in viewing and photographing pants and natural scenery has been most rapid, at about 78 and 60 percent, respectively. A motorized activity, driving motor vehicles off-road, occupies the number three slot; it grew by 56 percent between 2000 and 2007. Next are viewing, photographing, and identifying wildlife and birds. Thus, four of the top five activities are viewing, photographing, and otherwise observing nature.” (Cordell 8)
Understanding this rapid growth in nature and wildlife photography, it becomes extremely important that photographers understand the ethical and moral implications of their presence in nature and their representation of both the environment and the nonhuman wildlife that call it home.
Land Degradation and Amateur Involvement
The incredible rise of outdoor photography has begun to cause ill-effects on the land. So much so, in fact, In 2006, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service strongly encouraged the National Wildlife Refuge System to implement and provide photography conveniences such as specified platforms and blinds to reduce impact (Boyd 2). The sheer number of photographic tourists walking or driving over the land which they had come to photograph, was causing land degradation and habitat loss. Furthermore, this rapid increase in outdoor photographers means that the photographic field is ever-growing with uneducated amateurs. Aided by the advent of the Digital DSLR, a largely affordable digital photographic system with many cameras aimed specifically at outdoor photographic hobbyists, amateur outdoor photographers have begun to physically shape the landscape, evidenced by the previous suggestion of the USFWS. More than land degradation, the un-educated photographer serves as a good example for many of the ethical dilemmas that surround nature and wildlife photography today.
Ethical Dilemmas in the Field
Perhaps the most important dilemma is the harassment of wildlife. This disturbance can be broken down into two categories: passive and intrusive. Passive disturbance can be caused by a group or an individual, and is commonly associated with land degradation and habitat destruction. Though the photographer isn’t aware of her/his impact, her/his presence can inadvertently negatively affect sensitive species. On the other hand, intrusive disturbance is a direct disturbance. These can manifest in many ways, such as unethical noises to grab the attention of a nonhuman animal, or getting to close to a nest and potentially causing abandonment or offspring fatality (Boyd 2).
Often times both passive and intrusive disturbance are manifested at once if the photographer chooses to trespass into land closed to the public. This is a common occurrence amongst photographers, who often get lost in their viewfinders or the idea of the perfect shot, and forget their ethical obligations to others. By walking off of paths, the photographer puts himself/herself in danger of destroying fragile ecosystems, intruding on breeding areas, as well as placing himself/herself in greater danger of harm.
Trespassing can be perpetuated by the photographer's presence on the internet. The rise in popularity of photography has influenced the creation of popular photography forums like Flickr, Photobucket, or even Facebook, that allow photographers to share their photos and the location and details of those photos with the world. This knowledge is widespread among hobbyists, amateurs, and professionals alike. Problems arise, however, when photo locations are disclosed, as many photographers may rush to take a photo of their own, adding new pressure and degradation to the ecosystem. This modern phenomenon is causing parks and refuge areas to rethink their policies and regulations, such as use of permits, seasonal restrictions, and photography regulations.
Photography and Trophy Hunting
It’s impacts and responses like this that allows for a close comparison between photography and trophy hunting. Julia Corbett, professor of communication at the University of Utah submits that, “the phrases of photographing (you take a shot, shoot a picture) are metaphors of the hunt and of conquering. There is an element of “bagging” and capturing a scene in the natural world and presenting the trophy to the human audience” (129). Certainly language perpetuates the comparison, however there are others. Both hunting and photography involve such ethical dilemmas as baiting and captive wildlife, as well as more direct comparisons of progressing technologies such as scopes and G.P.S, specified and organized groups, a large amateur and hobbyist population, camouflage clothing, and a large amount of time spent outdoors in wilderness areas (Boyd).
However, trophy photography and trophy hunting to differ in their impact. As famed environmental philosopher, Aldo Leopold, describes in his keystone work, A Sand County Almanac:
“We generalize, then, by saying that mass-use tend to dilute the quality of organic trophies like game and fish, and to induce damage to other resources such as non-game animals, natural vegetation, and farm crops. The same dilution and damage is not apparent in the yield of ‘indirect’ trophies, such as photographs. Broadly speaking, a piece of scenery snapped by a dozen tourist cameras daily is not physically impaired thereby, nor does it suffer if photographed a hundred times. The camera industry is one of the few innocuous parasites on wild nature.” (288)
The hunting comparison becomes even more interesting regarding the use of traps. Trapping has long been noted as an effective but inhumane form of hunting, causing much pain and suffering in the nonhuman animal. However, in photography, camera traps have been largely celebrated for their lack of disturbance. A camera trap is, in short, a camera with a shutter controlled by a motion detector. The photographer will set up the trap out of sight in a promising location, leave it alone for a period of time, and return hoping that a nonhuman animal has triggered a beautiful photograph of itself. Though this practice seems like a good solution to intrusive disturbance (assuming the trap is not implementing flash photography, though many do), it presents another ethical dilemma: “an unnatural, atypical view” (Corbett 128)
Photographic Perspective and Perception
What Corbett means by this is what she describes as “photographic intimacy”, or in other words, “making the encounter look ‘real,’ not contrived and staged. What is more accurately an animal performance in front of a camera crew is presented as natural, authentic, animal behavior” (128). In this, Corbett argues, comes a distorted view of reality, one that “distorts and separates the visual from the rest of our senses. The camera exaggerates the eye’s tendency to fragment, objectify, and estrange in a way that makes us feel like neutral observers. However, at the same time we gain objectivity, we lose the notion of interrelation and being there” (Corbett 129). This objectification and estrangement is no more evident than in the work of photographer Tim Flach.
Flach is a British photographer best known for his human-like portraits of nonhuman animals. His website biography notes, “In his internationally acclaimed personal projects Equus, Dogs Gods and More Than Human, he has demonstrated an unparalleled understanding of how we read and respond to images of the natural world that continues to inform all areas of his practice...Flach’s work provides a unique glimpse into the extraordinary nature and complexity of our relationship with animals” (Flach) Flach’s images, however, are anything but ‘natural’. In the February 2013 issue of American Photo, Tim Flach’s photographs were featured in an article titled, Animal Instinct: What do Tim Flach’s portraits say about us?, and in it he describes his process:
“Often I’ll take the studio to the animal...There was black velvet behind the animal, but for other shots there was concrete, so I set up a beamed light source so that the background goes black, to approximate a sense of studio-quality lighting. Very rarely do I add black in post production. I wouldn’t even shoot something on a gray background and then go make it black, because I feel that’s artificial...In some cases I engage the animals, maybe having a trainer dangle a chunk of meat on a stick. In other situations, I’m shooting through glass and I don’t control anything.” (Flach)
Flach’s process and photographs completely separate nonhuman animals from their environment, and given that much of nonhuman life is lost in habitat loss, this separation is exceedingly important. Also, by photographing “through glass”, Flach is upholding a distinct separation between humans and nonhuman that allow for anthropocentric control. By attempting to photograph nonhumans as if they were humans, and by paying no mind to the habitat and wellbeing of the nonhuman animal, Flach is dangerously perpetuating anthropocentric and instrumental ideologies. He uses nonhuman animals to ask what they can “say about us”, instead of having respect and interest for the individual being of the nonhuman animal itself. In addition, he uses such disturbing and highly unethical techniques like having a trainer “ dangle a chunk of meat on a stick”. It is photographers like Flach that justify Corbett in her thinking that photography, “is an index not only of our power over nature but also of our distance from it” (Corbett 128). However, in vivid contrast with photographers like Tim Flach, there are photographers like Nick Brandt.
Positive Photographic Influence
Brandt is a British photographer who works exclusively in Africa. His unique film portraits have become renown in the photographic world. In his defining book, On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, Brandt describes his process and ideologies:
“For me, every creature on this planet has an equal right to live. Whether human being, Serengeti elephant, or factory farm cow. This is why I take these photographs. I hope that maybe you will see these animals, these non-humans, in the way that I do - as not so very different from us. I photograph these animals - that specific elephant or cheetah or lion that has drawn my eye - in the same way I would a human being, watching for the right ‘pose’ that hopefully will best capture his or her spirit...This means getting close. It’s one reason why I don’t use telephoto lenses. I like to frame the animals within the context of their world - the sky and landscape - rather than within a telephoto blur of scrubby ground and bushes...Portrait or panorama, it can take weeks to get a photograph. 99% of the time, I’m just waiting.” (Brandt 78)
Brandt is best known for his intimate portraits of nonhuman animals. Like he mentioned, he does not use telephoto lenses which requires him to get very close to the nonhuman animals which he is photographing. By doing this, Brandt feels that he is able to best capture the individual personality and being of each respective nonhuman animal, or in other words, their “spirit”. This intimacy also allows him to include the all-important environment in his prints, drawing attention to both the necessity and beauty of the ecosystem. However, this does call into question Brandt’s ethics in the field. It is known that Brandt employs the services of luxurious safari services such as Ethan Kinsey Safaris and Louis and Leakey Safaris. One must also question is strict use of short prime lenses instead of telephoto. As previously discussed, close contact with nonhuman animals can result in harmful disturbance. However, it appears that Brandt’s “patience” is out of respect for this ethic. By be being patient, one can achieve a level of comfortability with the nonhuman animal. Though humans and nonhumans don’t regularly speak a common language, we can still largely understand each other. One can understand if nonhuman animals is not comfortable with our presence, just as nonhumans can sense this about us. I perceive that this patience comes with an understanding of this shared comfortability. That said, Brandt’s work has received praised from such notables as Jane Goodall and Peter Singer. Goodall submits:
“Nick has depicted the individuality of his animal subjects -- it is almost impossible to look through his book without sensing the personalities of the beings photographed. I think I knew from the very beginning that the lives of individual animals mattered and had meaning in the great scheme of things. My forty-five years of learning about and learning from chimpanzees has only strengthened this conviction -- as do Nick’s photographs. Look at the intelligence and self-awareness that gleams in the eyes of the chimpanzees. Sense the absolute self-confidence of the lions...For these photographs, by emphasizing the importance of each living being, will surely inspire others to join our cause and help to stop our senseless destruction of life and beauty before it is too late.” (Goodall 13)
As Goodall expresses, great images have the power to create positive change. Given the extreme vicariousness of modern day, the way photographers represent nonhuman animals becomes all the more important. In contrast with Flach, Brandt represents nonhuman life well. He views nonhuman animals as individuals, each possessing a unique individual spirit. These views manifest in his prints. In addition, he makes a distinct point to include the environment in his photographs, and by doing so, uplifts the importance of habitat preservation. Most importantly, he celebrates nonhuman animals for who they are, for the beauty of their existence, rather than trying to compare them with us.
Thoughts For Future Ethical Representation
Nick Brandt’s techniques and ideologies provide a good base on which one can begin formulating thoughts for improved photographic ethics. Photographers should be aware of how they are representing nonhuman life in their photographs. As has been discussed in the work of both Flach and Brandt, this representation plays a crucial role in how we humans think of nonhumans. The prints, as well as the action of the photographers, perpetuate either anthropocentric or eccentric beliefs, respectively, to other photographers and the viewing public. Even seemingly small compositional details such as the angle at which the photographer chooses to photograph the nonhuman animal becomes important. For example, if the photographer is shooting above, looking down on the nonhuman animal, this image may perpetuate unethical themes of human dominance over nonhumans. However, if the photographer chooses to photograph the nonhuman animal on an even plane, the photo represents, even subconsciously, an equality between two beings, which may hold the power of positive connection, and in turn, benefit preservation efforts. The small compositional details, as well as the way in which photographers photograph, has tremendous impact on the viewer’s beliefs. In the future, photographers need to take notice of this, and need to be assured that they are promoting ethical values in their practice.
Given the amount of photographers working today, especially the huge number of hobbyists, education on nonhuman animals and the environment, is crucial in order to have a positive and sustainable photographic practice. In 1997, Tershy et al. conducted a study of public education and its impact on the park seabird habitat on San Pedro Martir Island, California. The study found that tourists who were educated on local ecology and ethical conduct had a lower impact on seabird welfare, causing a 0.4% disturbance rate, while uneducated tourists had a significantly higher disturbance rate of 5.6% (Tershy et al. 1997) This study makes clear that education can play an important role in the wellbeing of nonhuman animals, as well as the safety of photographers. Just like any hobby or practice, it is important to know what you are doing as well as the area in which you are working. Given the large and growing number of hobbyists and the high accessibility of photographic locations, it is vital for photographers to educate themselves before they enter parks, reserves, refuges, or the wilderness. Education assures better wellbeing of nonhuman life and the environment.
Along with this education almost certainly comes a higher level of respect for nonhuman life and their habitat. Respect is, I believe, is the most important value to have as an outdoor photographer. The work and methods of Jane Goodall provide a good guide for this. Goodall did her best to be nonintrusive, watching from afar with reverence, until she was accepted by the chimpanzees and was able to respectfully observe and appreciate them for who and what they are. Photographers would do well to follow this ethical approach. Though it is clear that most photographers don’t want to, or can’t afford to spend 3, or 45 for that matter, years with the nonhuman life they have come to photograph. However, the same level of respect should still apply. As photographers, be aware of the comfort level of the nonhuman life which you are photographing. Do not be intrusive, but instead come treading lightly. Be educated on the environment and the nonhuman beings that you have come to photograph, and if you do not respect that life, do not come at all. Understand the power that your photographs hold, a pay close attention to the ethics and ideologies that your images and actions may perpetuate. A good rule of thumb can be found in the old adage, “Treat others the way you would want to be treated”. Oftentimes it is as simple as that.
Another Young Boy’s Experience
I’d like to conclude this essay with a brief story from a recent photography show at Pacific Lutheran University. I was displaying four of my photographs from Tanzania, Africa. These photographs, I felt, upheld many of the positive and ethical practices that have been discussed in this essay, such as reverence for the individual being, equality in representation, and the upholding of more ecocentric ideologies.
During the opening, a father and his young boy, I’d guess around 1 or 2 years old, began looking at my photographs. The young boy began to smile at the sight of the large (4x5 feet) photographs. I could tell he was having a transportive experience. He began mimicking the sounds of the lions, feeling the stripes of the zebras, and stood in awe at the majesty of the giraffes. He was experiencing the personalities of each individual nonhuman being, and in doing so, taking joy in the connection with them. I don’t know what his view of nonhuman life will be in his future, but I do know that my photographs created a small moment of that positive connection that I’ve felt for all of mine, and given what we know about the effects of childhood experiences and the environment, that means everything to me.