Have we reached a point in wildlife photography where the need to be different, to create images that stand out, is making us walk a very fine line?
I understand this need completely. It drives me and it is the reason that I do what I do. It’s a passion I share with photographers who I take out into the field. But there are rules aren’t there? Unspoken truths which, even way back when I was guiding full time, was never questioned and forms the foundation of what we do, or should be doing, as wildlife photographers.
A few days ago the 50th Wildlife Photographer of the Year was announced and acclaimed National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols won with this image.
Amazing as this image is, and I am a huge fan of Nichols’ work, I am not convinced that it was the best wildlife image of 2014 but with photography competitions like this, which rely on the creative vision and decisions made by a small group of judges, I suppose it is expected that we kind of agree to disagree. The discussion of whether this image deserved to have won the prestigious title or not has already been pulled to pieces on social media platforms and online forums so let’s leave that be. When I saw this image the concern I have been mulling over for quite some time was again brought to the fore in my mind.
More and more wildlife photographers are starting to use drones and remote control vehicles to get closer to their subjects in order to get unique images. Images that up until now very few, if in fact anybody, has been able to get.
Did Nichols use a drone or remote control vehicle to capture his winning image? It does not specifically mention this in the description of his winning image but the work he did for National Geographic photographing Tanzania’s lions was well documented for using drone technology and remote control robots and this winning image is included in all of the coverage of that project. One of Nichols’ other images, one taken with a remote control vehicle with a camera attached to it, was also highly commended during this year’s competition.
Now I would never question the ethics or behaviour of someone like Nick Nichols who, apart from being an inspirational professional with many years in the field experience, has been adamant about the ethics in photojournalism but it feels like we might have passed a point of no return. A point where the unspoken truths of wildlife photography might just be brushed off to the side in order to get the shots.
How many photographers are now, inspired by the amazing work of photographers like Nichols, going to rush out and get their own drone or remote control vehicle? How many of these photographers, thinking they know more about wildlife and animal behaviour than they really do, are going to take the need for unique images too far and blur the lines of ethical wildlife photography?
A few years ago in the Mara I saw first hand what happens when technology like this ends up in the hands of photographers who have no regard or understanding for the stress level of their subjects and just want the shots. During a river crossing a group of four photographers launched a drone in order to get aerial images of the wildebeest as they were crossing the river. Long story short, they proceeded to stop an entire crossing, stress the animals out way more than they already were and spoiled the entire sighting for everybody around them.
With drones and remote control vehicles being pushed more and more into the spotlight through online imagery and photographic competitions do we not stand a risk of every second photographer trying to get shots without doing the hard yards? Is it possible that in a few years from now you could arrive at a wildlife sighting in your favourite park and have a number of specially modified remote control vehicles, which are already being sold commercially, around the subject? And perhaps a drone or two floating in the skies above?
We have all read about people behaving like complete idiots in places like the Kruger National Park as they drive their vehicles closer and closer to an animal to make it get up so that they can get a shot. How is driving a remote control robot with a camera right up to an animal, into it’s personal space, and getting unique images due to the animals reaction any different?
The unspoken truth in guiding, and I would like to believe in wildlife photography as well, is that the moment you change an animal’s behaviour you have failed. You have stepped across a line that should never be crossed regardless of how amazing the resulting images are.
A hunched down leopard snarling right into the frame? Yes, it might be a great image and very sharable on Facebook but it is also the result of pushing a subject, stressing it out, in order to get the shot. It’s just not right but the need for ‘different’ seems to make it ok.
On the Wildlife Photographer of the Year website it states: “WPY champions ethical photography. Images are chosen for their artistic composition, technical innovation and truthful interpretation of the natural world.”
Artistic composition and truthful interpretation of the natural world goes without saying. These are things we all strive for all the time and what keeps us going back out into the field. Technical innovation is where some people might loose the plot a bit. Just because we have the ability to put our cameras in the air or drive them right into a subject does not necessarily mean we have to. Is there a new precedent being set? Is wildlife photography as we know it changing?
Make no mistake, the techno geek in me would love to get my hands on a drone or have my camera on a remote control vehicle but I just cannot reconcile this need and getting different images with the affect it will have on my subjects. I would also like to believe that having grown up in Africa and with a deep understanding and appreciation of our wildlife I would never, even if I had the technology at my disposal, blur the lines between capturing images of nature and affecting the stories. Will animals eventually get used to being approached by flying cameras and DSLR’s on wheels? I’m sure they will but is that really what we want? I sincerely hope not.
Do you not think there is a reason why the skies above some reserves are no fly zones? Why you should not approach to within a certain distance of animals you are viewing and photographing? Respect, safety, sustainability. Is it worth risking any of these purely to get a new type of shot? Apart from all the other concerns dare we even think about the implications from a poaching point of view?
From a wildlife photography competition point of view it seems that drones, remote control robots and camera traps have been accepted as the norm and a way to create great image. This is not going to change. That’s fine, but in order for us not to loose the essence of wildlife photography, to hold a camera in your hand while relying on patience and field craft to get your shots, would it not make sense to create separate categories for these kinds of images? Comparing an image taken with a remote control robot and one taken the good old fashioned way is not quite fair. If, for a moment, we look past the ethical question of influencing the subject, the angles and type of images created will always be different and it would be a very sad day if we have to rely purely on drones and robots to create award winning images. Separate categories will give the majority of photographers, who shoot out of hand, the opportunity for their images to be judged on merit rather than against a very different type of image. We can then only hope that the photographers who go the remote route do so in an ethical and sustainable manner.
Yes, using technology will enable us to create incredible images in order to showcase the natural world in a brand new light and people like Nick Nichols will continue to lead the way but we need to be very, very aware of the slippery slope we are navigating. With an ever-growing sense of curiosity about the wild places of the world comes an inherent responsibility to protect and preserve our beautiful natural heritage.
In the right hands drone and remote control robots will continue to change the way we see wildlife photography but the moment the images we create, with or without new technology, become more important than the natural subjects we are photographing we have failed.
Until next time.