BBC – Wildlife Photography and full disclosure

Coyote pup sitting beside yellow daisies, Jasper National Park, Canada.

Coyote pup sitting beside yellow daisies, Jasper National Park, Canada. Please click on the image above to view a larger version of this photo.


Hey Folks,

Here’s an interesting article from the UK Telegraph; the first paragraph pretty much sums things up: “The BBC is accused of routinely faking footage in wildlife documentaries, by using studio sets, sound effects and tame animals to portray creatures in the wild.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: yes, indeed, the UK Telegraph commenting on any media source of ‘faking’ anything is pretty sad. Let’s disregard tabloid integrity for a moment and consider what this is really about (and what’s WAY more fun); wildlife photography.

Wildlife photography does not include zoo and game farm animals; shooting captive subjects, given that some folks are perpetually going to choose to do this, should always be labelled as such, even if only via context (see Darwin Wiggett’s bear photo for an example; and notice that he captioned it regardless).

I have yet to hear anyone explain how photographing a bear in a cage is wildlife anything. The root of the word ‘wild’ is free-willed, not Free Willy. I understand, for certain, there are degrees of what that might mean. Is a zebra migrating hundreds of miles across the plains in Africa before being hemmed in by a fence really free willed? *

The fact that there are indeed myriad shades of gray, woven through every possible facet of our world, does not make charcoal black any less black. We might differ on where 18% gray is, but we know what black is.

A bear in a cage is a bear in a cage, and not wildlife. Steel bars and free will aren’t friends.

Wildlife photography must be about wild, as people photography must be about people. Photographing captive animals is no more wildlife photography than photographing my pickup truck parked in front of the house might make me a Nascar photographer; a photo of me in my stylishly stunning goretex jacket is not fashion photography.

So what is “wildlife”? In thinking of how critically different a captive animal is to a wild one, I’m reminded of a powerful passage by Derrick Jensen in his great book, Thought to Exist in the Wild, Awakening to the Nightmare of Zoos: “A sea lion is her habitat. She is the school of fish she chases. She is the water. She is the cold wind blowing over the ocean. She is the waves that strike the rocks on which she sleeps and she is the rocks. She is the constant calling back and forth between members of her family, this talking to each other that never seems to stop. She is the shark who eventually ends her life. She is all these things. She is that web. She is the process of being a sea lion, in place. She is her desires, which we can only learn by letting her show us, if she wants; not by encaging her.”

That’s what wild is. A bear in a cage relentlessly pacing back and forth thru its own shit is not.

The power of photography is in its capture. What makes a photo so appealing to a viewer is the moment. Reality portrayed on a 2 dimensional plane. If we look through great moments in all forms of photography and ask the question of what is it that evokes a reaction in a viewer, it’s clearly a response to some perceived sense of reality, to some actual experience; even if that sense is simply someone else’s “take” on reality. We understand that moment. We feel it. We relate to it.

I think it’s important that we don’t deny that power, that integral function of a photograph. Photography might, translated literally, mean ‘painting with light’, but that’s a superfluous definition. Photography is most definitely NOT painting. Photography is photography.

When we present that photography as something other than what it actually is we’re not documentarians. It’s a copout to hide beneath the veneer of “artists” as well; the only use of the term “artist” that might be appropriate for those photographers who don’t disclose captive subjects is “con-artist”.

Speaking of such, even the National Advertising Division recently made a similar statement when they banned an ad by Proctor & Gamble for too much digital manipulation. The NAD took things a step further, however, and pointed out that even a footnote isn’t enough; that is, full disclosure should be FULL disclosure: “You can’t use a photograph to demonstrate how a cosmetic will look after it is applied to a woman’s face and then – in the mice type – have a disclosure that says ‘okay, not really.’

Some folks claim that labeling their photographs reduces nature photography to a form devoid of ulterior meaning, but I disagree. We humans label things. We label animals, features, subjects, moments, days, places, etc. We label each other. We label ourselves. And yes, we label our art. We label sculptures as ‘sculptures’, paintings as ‘paintings’, poetry as ‘poetry’, and so on. We even subdivide each form into further categories, and label pieces and subdivisions accordingly. Photography becomes ‘journalistic photography’, or ‘still life photography’ and ‘nature photography’. This is what we do. Its how we know the world.

IMO, the power of nature photography is its expression of the natural world. Portrayals of captive animals as wild animals loses much of the power that comes through our relationships and experiences with nature. I see no harm in expecting artists and documentarians alike to pronounce their work for what it is. The phrase ‘nature photograph’ carries with it certain intimations. A trip to the zoo is NOT one of those.



* PS: the answer to the question about the zebra is (a), yes.

3 thoughts on “BBC – Wildlife Photography and full disclosure

  1. Mark

    Hmmm, seems I have seen that rationale before, that truth “ruins the atmosphere.”

    Then again, look at us as a society…we often believe something that is in line with our ideologies or preconceptions regardless of what the truth is. The truth is inconvenient, if you will pardon the loose borrowing of the phrase. I am not surprised that “only 50 people called to complain.”

  2. Ron Niebrugge

    That is disappointing as that was such an excellent documentary and I was fascinated on the “how they filmed it” part where they showed the building of numerous remote controlled vehicles. They sure gave the impression that it was all done in the field. I hate being deceived.

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