My only intent in visiting Boundary Bay was to get a glimpse of Snowy Owls. I’ve never seen them in the wild, and although I brought my camera, I didn’t expect to be close enough to get any shots. My gear has its limits, and I also knew the owls were celebrities among birders and photographers. Having quiet, contemplative moments with my camera was not on my personal agenda that day.
What happened instead is that we encountered behavior in the field that quite upset me. It always does when I see people doing things to disrupt wildlife. But, I’d never been to one of these rare-bird frenzies (I avoid them on purpose), and I think the number of breaches in the field — well, what I saw as ethical breaches — was dramatic enough to shift my perspective.
My first response, if you were here the other day, was to call out the questionable behavior in a post. Usually, my subsequent response is a bit more circumspect. In observing these photographers, then responding to emails from a few people who were upset by my views, I’m reconsidering my own methodology, my own motivations and my own conscience in issues of wildlife and wildlife photography.
I saw people at Boundary Bay whose sole motivation appeared to be the shot. In the case of the owls, they were going for the shot — eye level, clear backgrounds or Mt. Baker as a backdrop, great light. I’ve seen some of those photos online now and they are gorgeous, there’s no question. There wasn’t one person standing on the dike trail with camera gear who didn’t understand why those guys were out there. It wasn’t our lack of ingenuity or courage that kept us on the trail.
Boundary Bay as a Forum Topic
In browsing through threads at photography and birding forums, I found that Boundary Bay is now a frequently discussed issue in terms of wildlife photography ethics. My anecdotal reading suggests about 75 percent of fellow photographers are unhappy about the marsh behavior, and maybe 25 percent defend it. Again, it’s totally unscientific but there seemed to be one or two defenders of marsh photographers in each thread.
In reading those posts, I came upon a comment from someone that redirected my thoughts. He said, “there are a lot of people out there with wildlife photography gear. But I meet very few wildlife photographers.” He went on to explain that in the film days, most wildlife photographers he met had grown into that role from their early passions as birders, naturalists or even hunters. There was an underlying connection to the animals they were photographing that transcended mere technical aptitude.
I can’t say if this is true, because when I bought my first Fujica SLR in the late 70s, I didn’t have the money for anything but a kit lens, not to mention extra dough for film. So, I’m one of the new crop of wildlife photographers he mentions — and a work-in-progress at that. I can’t compare what’s happening today to what happened back then. We all know the Mutual of Omaha wildlife stories, so I’m reticent to idealize. Maybe some of you can speak to that.
Today, however, the sheer number of people who are capable of getting the shot is almost limitless. And, unfortunately, I don’t see our resources or our wildlife as limitless, considering the consistent threat our expanding population poses for habitat and ecology. The photographers at Boundary Bay who flushed owls, and who thought the “please don’t approach owls” signs didn’t apply to them, were not putting those priorities ahead of their photography. They were not living as examples of conservation and respect for the environment around them, the way I suppose I expect wildlife photographers to be, in my own subjective understanding. The situation there was such a vivid example of that concept, it’s made me turn the lens on myself and scrutinize my own behavior — as in, have I ever done something similar?
I didn’t start out quite as judicious as I am now. I made the same mistakes many beginning wildlife photographers make in not fully grasping the nuanced reactions I should have been looking for. I was lucky to be mentored by an avid birder from my wildlife hospital — an amazing person I call Bird Master, who schooled me in birding etiquette. But, she wasn’t always there to supervise my outings and suggest better ways to go about my practice. My biggest error in those days was not understanding which species tolerated us well, and which were quite afraid. I learned quickly that pointing my lens at a migrating duck flying overhead caused it to divert course. My learning curve was pretty fast, because I hated seeing those reactions in the animals. But it was, still, a learning curve.
Why Photograph Wildlife?
Now that I know more, now that I have hundreds of thousands of clicks under my fingers, I’m asking myself, what is the whole purpose of my photography as an endeavor? Short of the immediate gratification of a good shot, what is it all for — particularly in a field where the well-being of other living things must be considered?
This last question is the one that’s put me into a head spin of rumination these past couple of days. What is it all for? Watching people stalking birds for the shot made me feel culpable by association or maybe, more accurately, it made me ask whether any photo is worth the trade-off of entering a wild animal’s space. There are very few shots anymore that can’t easily be acquired by someone with much better lens than mine, and more access to exotic wild places and animals. I don’t encounter a lot of first-response photographic situations, like the Cosco Busan oil spill where I was able to document oiled birds while assisting with rescue efforts. I’m most gratified when something I shoot can be used to document a larger, more important issue, or can be donated or auctioned or sold to help wildlife organizations. I’d like to put my photography to more such uses. But short of those experiences, what am I doing this for on the other days?
In answering that question, it became clear that I simply wouldn’t thrive if I couldn’t interact with animals this way, but it’s not camera dependent. If you took away my E-3 and my tripod, I’d still be in the same places, doing the same things, sitting on the sidelines watching White Pelicans preen and Willets paint Escher patterns on the sky. It’s been in my blood since I was born, owing, perhaps to the animistic origins in my Latvian heritage or to the similar sensitivity of my parents.
As a little kid, I used to dawdle wherever I thought animals might be, and can’t even count the hours I spent staring at creek waters, just hoping a fish would pass through unexpectedly. I’ve never outgrown the sensation of a missed heartbeat when I see movement in my periphery, or see something as fantastic as a set of ears or antlers in the scrub. My ultimate hope, if I can be so ambitious, is that someone who previously didn’t understand, can — through a photo or a post or a conversation — gain a greater understanding for the animals and spaces I love and work to protect, and then develop a similar protectiveness for this place we all, all of us species, call home.
What’s changed for me after Boundary Bay is the shots I’ll be willing to take. As I mention, even in my own ethical mission statement, we all flush birds sometimes. Even walking on a trail causes disturbance. But, I like the Buddhist idea of “right intent” … a commitment to ethical self-improvement. I will be much more selective about my intent when going for a shot. There are times I’ve pulled out my camera for a quick shot, even knowing the light wasn’t just right. Was it worth putting an animal in that single moment of potential stress, with a human predator pointing an object at them, for a shot that probably would be nothing more than average?
Today, we took a walk on the waterfront on a deep-freeze day, with wind so bracing I couldn’t even bring myself to pull my camera out of the bag. Still, as we were walking, a huge raft of ducks — I mean huge — appeared in a breakwater area of the waterfront. Right by the trail, hundreds of Goldeneyes, Scaup, Surf Scoters, American Wigeon, Red-breasted Mergansers and other birds swam in peace alongside us. I knew that if I brought out my camera and pointed it — especially at ducks who are skittish — there was a chance they’d paddle away. So, we just stood and watched as they tilted their heads and eyes back toward us. And it was a moment of connection to see them preening, swimming, diving, and utterly comfortable with our presence as fellow beings on the shore. Those are the best moments in photography, too — when the animals invite you into their world by virtue of your patience and your craft in quietly blending in.
I try to see adverse events and challenges in life as opportunities to learn something. During my last rumination on photography — and on purpose and beingness in life — I wrote this too-long treatise I called The Being Versus the Getting, which helped me be less acquisitive in the field. So, in a backward kind of way, I guess I have to thank the photographers in the field at Boundary Bay, for reminding me to, yet again, reassess and improve my own behavior and actions.
Thanks, too, to the lovely Karen for posting her own reflections on ethics at her blog, and to Mia for the ethics issues she addresses at her beautiful photography blog. Your words and thoughts give me much pause for thought.
All images shot with my now-old Olympus E-3 and Zuiko 70-300mm (600mm equivalent reach). The Northwest light was heavily muted — through clouds, so it actually had to be about the moment for me, not the shot.