I’m extra cautious out there as a photographing fool. I feel I owe the animals my respect when they allow me into their inner sanctum to photograph them. Knowing their very lives depend on wariness toward me, I do not take it lightly when a wild animal allows me the privilege of documenting her life and behavior. I tread slowly, carefully and don’t linger if I see that my presence is causing any danger or distress. I wrote a bit about this in a post last year: Wildlife and Nature Photography Ethics.
When people lure animals, domestic or wild, into a trusting relationship of interaction, usually through appealing to their primary need for food — and then choose to harm them — to me, that’s one of the least noble expressions of human choice. It’s a betrayal of an implied trust.
In photography, this issue comes up time and again in terms of how humans treat or habituate wild animals. And how the behavior of the photographer affects the short-term or long-term well-being of the wild subject. There are some recognized standards, like those applied by the North American Nature Photography Association. As with anything there’s also some contention over how these guidelines apply to each individual situation.
Audubon Magazine recently ran a piece on this subject, entitled Picture Perfect. It’s definitely worth a read. The article addresses the game farms used for various wildlife shots, including those pristine closeups you often see in wildlife publications and hunting magazines.
The towhee photo gallery below plays into the issue of trust since I shot these images during a highly vulnerable time for birds: bath time. I was meandering by a shallow creek and saw this Spotted Towhee splashing around.
If Spotted Towhees had middle names, they’d all be Spotted “Elusive” Towhee or Spotted “Furtive” Towhee.
The towhee’s first, natural reaction was to scoot back into the shrubs. Normally, I’d move back at this point and give the bird a bit of space to do his thing. But before I could, he gave me the benefit of the doubt and hopped back into his bathing pool for some splashes. As these photos attest, his eye was on me the entire time. I sat at a distance — my 300mm 4/3 lens is actually an effective 600mm (35mm equivalent). And once I grabbed a few shots, I let him take the rest of his bath in peace.
Anyone who’s out there on the trails, with a camera, knows these moments happen. They are precious beyond description and I’d go so far as to say transcendent. Meeting the eyes of a deer in the scrub . . . coming upon a Killdeer nest with a parent so protective she’ll fake her own disability to lure you away from the nest . . . catching a mother opossum by surprise, toting her young in the dusky quiet . . . in all of those moments, the animal has a split second to contemplate her next move, to assess my danger as a human. I’m not perfect in my behavior. I muck up. But I do think it’s important to recognize intent . . . that in all of those moments, I have a choice about how I treat that vulnerability. I choose not to take advantage of that trust.