The issue of photographing predator/prey interactions is one I struggle with as a wildlife photographer, and I suspect it puts me in the minority. Whether or not it affects a person emotionally probably depends on how pragmatically they view the processes of wild existence in the context of their own emotional life. There is no dearth of such images, since predation is an ever-present reality. And, capturing the act of predation is a coveted outcome for photographers, one that often points to patience, dedication and immersion in the environment. It’s a significant, common and energy-intensive part of any wild life.
There’s an uncomfortable voyeurism that photojournalists admit to when shooting tragic scenes involving human beings. For me, predation, in the moment predator captures prey, falls under the auspices of that same discomfort. There are two lives literally at stake in that act, both of whom have equal entitlement to their own survival. It’s always difficult for me to watch one expire, even as I genuinely understand the imperative of the other.
Behind the lens, we’re observers of an entire spectrum of behavior that includes feeding, preening, playing, hatching, birth, love, reproduction, nurturing, conflict, trauma, death and sometimes, suffering. We follow them sometimes through an entire nesting season from eggshell to fledging, or through generation after generation of family survival. There will be sadness and loss intertwined with the exuberance of this grand privilege of interaction.
As a volunteer in a wildlife hospital, the training involves detachment — because you will let go. Whether it is through the rehabilitation and subsequent release of the animal, or through that animal’s death, the relationship ends, as it should, when the animal is freed to his or her rightful destiny. Everything from objective language to silent, limited interaction with the patients is part of that process.
The problem for me is that I never truly detach. If my life were a screenplay, that would be my fatal flaw — the one from which I would either learn and grow — or the one which became my anchor and my ultimate downfall. I can behave as though I’m emotionally removed … rolling up my sleeves and doing what I need to do in the heat of crisis. But there are days when it feels as though my heart beats in time with the metronome of their hearts. And, when I have months like this past one, where of 20+ birds I’ve seen struck on the road, I’ve been able to save not a single one, I can’t seem to separate the last flutters of their wingbeats from some small part of me dying inside, too.
This is why I don’t post predator-prey shots as often as I encounter predator/prey interactions. It’s not that I make any value judgment about these events. I feel as deeply for predator as I do prey, particularly when you consider the mortality rate for animals like raptors in their first year — up to 80 percent in some species. Many predators or their young become prey themselves if they weren’t born at the apex of their ecosystem. If you photograph raptors, you may photograph, eventually, a Cooper’s Hawk with young crow. If you photograph crows, you will, eventually, capture a crow in the act of predating another bird species herself. It’s an element in the fullness of their existence. But I admit to pangs of sorrow when the paths of predator and prey collide, even as I can intellectually process it through the filter of my understanding.
The reason this thought came up today is because of some shots I took last night. I was photographing a heron in perfect magic light as she traipsed across the cement spillway of the Ballard Locks. The illumination was lyrical, if light could sing. Every strand of the heron’s plumage reflected that tune.
I knew she was fishing, and she did so successfully — ensuring that she could feed her young in the rookery. When I off-loaded the images, her prey appeared to be a young salmon … the same salmon who might have made his way back in four or five years to the 18th weir I wrote about a few days ago.
The face and the eyes of the salmon in the photo are expressive and irrepressible. I do not know what the salmon’s experience is, but I know that my photographs captured the last moments of that beautiful animal, in a life he clung to as desperately as we would ours, as the heron would hers. I could not bring myself to post that photograph, even though I have obviously posted terns and herons and egrets and Ospreys in the act of feeding, usually with prey animal already deceased, sometimes even unrecognizable for the time that’s passed since their death.
I was struck by how that photo of the salmon represented his experience entirely and with finality, and not mine at all, not even vicariously. It pointed to a violent end for one, and a beginning for another, a baby, who may or may not survive his nesting days. But the experience belonged to them, in all of its mixed associations and repercussions. The picture showed the spirit of the “who” in nature, not the objectivity of the “it.” And this time, I just had to leave it there.