When wildlife photographers enter an animal’s habitat, they have the potential to disrupt or even threaten an animal’s way of life.
So does that mean it’s morally wrong to take a wildlife photo?
Not always, says wildlife photographer and conservationist Melissa Groo, whose recent National Geographic article is called, “How To Photograph Wildlife Ethically." She says animals need their stories told now more than ever. According to a recent United Nations report, one in four species is facing extinction.
Groo says when it comes to wildlife, the first step for photographers is to do no harm.
“The more that I've learned about wildlife photography, the more I've come to understand that it's not really about rules of right or wrong. It's more about nuances and really bringing decisions to bear upon each time that we're out there because each animal is so different,” she says. “So it's really about sort of building into our field craft, how can we be out there and be really sensitive and really attuned to the bird or other animal in front of us.”
Photographers should also do their best not to habituate animals to human contact. This means they shouldn’t feed animals in order to get a photo. Groo says that “is not a depiction of reality.”
“I think it does viewers a disservice. It paints the sort of Disney-like view of the world at a time when people are increasingly disconnected from nature,” she says. “And I really feel it's incumbent on us as photographers, whether we're amateurs or we're professionals, to accurately depict nature to really try to connect people to the realities of nature. And that's the beauty of nature. It is wild and I'm always trying to tell people, 'Let's keep it wild.' ”
On doing research before snapping a picture
“There's so much information out there at our fingertips on the internet and if we can just arm ourselves with some basic information about that species [such as] what are the signs of stress and what are the cycles in their lives? It's so vitally important to understand what the threats are to a particular animal or whether it's endangered or it's threatened.”
On leaving the vegetation around nests or dens be
“I do know that some people, professionals to amateurs, may alter habitat around a nest or a den because they're searching for a more sort of aesthetically pleasing image. But what they're not taking into account or perhaps ignoring is that the animal or the bird chose that particular spot because it provides such perfect camouflage and because it shields the young from the elements, from the harsh sun, from the wind, from the cold.”
On advocating against feeding wild animals
“Foxes that have become habituated, for instance, to people feeding them from cars. For one thing, they may often get hit by cars because they run towards cars but also they're emboldened behavior can really be perceived as a threat to people and can be threatening to people just walking around because they come to associate all humans with that hand out. And so there's been many cases where foxes have had to be put down by the staff at Yellowstone. There was an incident last year in Grand Teton where a black bear mama and her two cubs were being fed fruit from cars, and she had to be euthanized and her two young are now living out their lives in captivity.”
On the idea of conservation photography
“Conservation photography is a new, well relatively new, but rapidly growing genre of photography wherein photographers, it's not just about taking that picture, it's about doing something with that photo even if it's just on social media. Anyone can be a conservation photographer. It's really about using your photos to go to work in service of that animal. And it's about educating other people how to better respect the wildlife that we're so lucky to have with us or that we're so lucky to travel to see. So how do we sort of really use our photos to advocate and to conserve. And it's about being accurate and truthful on social media.
“The power of visual imagery is really stronger than it's ever been in history and photos can quickly go viral. And I think as photographers, we have so much power, and I feel we're at a time when wild animals are increasingly pressured and increasingly in fragmented areas. And we as photographers, wildlife watchers, birders, we've got online databases and instant messaging and GPS and thermal imaging and drones and camera traps, all of these tools that give us so much power. And yet we've lost half of Earth's wildlife in the last 40 years, and one in four species is at risk of going extinct. So it's really about how can we be out there and tell these crucial stories and yet leave as little footprint as we can and understand the distances that we have to be from certain animals. You heard about this girl getting tossed, perhaps, in Yellowstone last month by a bison? They were within five to 10 feet of that bison just completely flouting the park's rules.”
On how she got the shot of a snowy owl and her chick
“That was in Utqiagvik, in Barrow, Alaska, which is the northernmost point in the U.S., which is the last stronghold of snowy owls nesting. And I worked very closely with the biologist and he had set up a blind quite a distance from the nest, and I was, of course, working with my 600 millimeter with a 2x teleconverter, which granted me 1,200 millimeters. Those photos are cropped. Every time I approach the blind though, it would instantly flash the female off the nest. And that gave me great angst to see her disturbed and worried for her young, but it's really a balance. It's that decision that you have to make. Is this story really crucially important? Do you have an avenue in which you're going to tell a critically important story about a threatened animal or an endangered animal, and it's going to get a great audience and you're going to be able to perhaps attract funding to the biologist and all of that?
“So that's what I mean about every time we go out, if it's a really sensitive situation, we have to make very careful decisions, work with biologists when we can and really find a way to make those pictures go to work. But I will say the scariest moment I've ever had as a wildlife photographer was being dive bombed by the father of those young. Snowy owl males are incredibly fierce in protecting their young. And he came at me and I had to duck and roll. He would have taken my scalp off with his talons if he could have. I'm not scared of anything but that was truly scary.
“I got into that blind and after a few moments, the mother returned to the nest and the chicks were fine. I sat very still in that blind for hours in the freezing cold and documented their relationship. I documented the male bringing in lemmings, which are their primary food source, they're the rodents of the tundra. And I was able to capture these really intimate moments. So in the end, I feel in the balance, that that really was worth it. If I could just end with one last word for all of us to keep in mind that for us, it's just about a photo. But for that animal, every single moment is about survival.”
See more of Melissa Groo's photography here.
This segment aired on August 26, 2019.