Truth and Ambivalence in Photography

//Truth and Ambivalence in Photography

Truth and Ambivalence in Photography

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.

Osprey Mama + Chick - ©ingridtaylar

Osprey Mama + Chick – ©ingridtaylar

Young Elephant Seal Sleeping at Piedras Blancas - ©ingridtaylar

Young Elephant Seal Sleeping at Piedras Blancas – ©ingridtaylar

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.

Rescued Orphaned Fox Squirrels - ©ingridtaylar

Rescued Orphaned Fox Squirrels – ©ingridtaylar

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.

Injured Racing Pigeon Rescued From the Road - ©ingridtaylar

Racing Pigeon Rescued From the Road – ©ingridtaylar

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.

Heron on the Spillway - ©ingridtaylar

Heron on the Spillway – ©ingridtaylar

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.


  1. Larry Jordan July 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Beautifully written Ingrid. I understand your feelings and feel your angst in these personal words you share for all of us to explore with you. I wish to thank you for being such an incredible champion for our wildlife and want you to realize that every animal you save is one more creature, and their offspring, that would not be here without your intervention. You make a huge difference in the lives, not only of the animals you help, but also of every human being you touch with your life experience.

    Your beautiful images inspirational. Even though I love the birds, my favorite photos in this piece are the Fox Squirrels and the young Elephant Seal that looks like it’s smiling 🙂

    • CQ July 11, 2013 at 8:21 am

      Oh, my, Larry, your summer scenes at the feeder and the pond are quite the paradise! I feel like I was standing there with you, taking in not only all the glorious sights, but also the sweet sounds (thanks for capturing the black-headed grosbeaks’ tune!)

    • ingrid July 13, 2013 at 8:44 pm

      Larry, this is such a kind and validating comment. I appreciate it tremendously, particularly when treading in the territory of what feels like an uncommon reaction to the norm. I meet people consistently who don’t share my point of view nor my sensitivities, and I marvel at the diversity that allows us to view the world and its inhabitants through completely different lenses (though our eyes, our perceptions and our cameras). I actually envy those who navigate these vagaries with a bit less doubt than do I. There’s a comfort in certainty … and I can’t say that certainty is a condition I experience with any permanence. Thank you again for your compassionate note.

  2. CQ July 11, 2013 at 8:15 am

    I echo Larry Jordan’s comment, differing only in my opinion of the photos. I can’t come up with a favorite. They’re all — babies and adults, avians, seal, squirrels — equally precious.

    It’s rare to find a nature photographer and/or wildlife rehabber who has such deep, long-lasting emotional ties to all her sentient subjects. It’s even rarer, I would imagine, for that same photographer/rehabber to articulate those feelings so eloquently. Your every word perfectly describes your every feeling, Ingrid. I know this, because I have the exact same sentiments without — blessedly — having had to witness the moment of passing away, whether in the gentle hands of a human trying to save the creature or in the not-as-gentle beak of a bird feeding himself, his mate, and their little ones.

    Whenever something doesn’t feel fair to me, it leaves a pit in my stomach. Whenever I hear a lie being told, or see a deception being spun, I have the same pit in my stomach. Thus, on some level, I deem the scenes I see among free-living beings — all of which seem so unjust and leave a pit in my stomach — as a temporal picture that isn’t really true.

    Put another way, I am convinced that this picture of “killing to live” will one day be replaced by a new view, and a new reality,, wherein no taking of another life is required.

    Consider that humans have finally evolved morally and spiritually to the point where, in ever-greater numbers, they understand that they don’t need to kill nonhumans to survive, even thrive. Going forward, as we humans increasingly lay down war-like mental and physical weapons aimed at other humans, our improved thoughts and actions will continue to lead nonhumans as they make their own mental/moral/spiritual — and subsequently, physical — evolution beyond both the instinct and the necessity to kill one another in order to survive and thrive.

    I’m filled with hope. And Ingrid’s pure heart toward animals is one reason my hope is growing, not waning.

    • ingrid July 13, 2013 at 8:47 pm

      CQ, it’s probably quite apparent that I question, on a regular basis, the point of much in this life. No matter what our individual human belief systems, all of us, I can’t help but feel comforted by your sense of ultimate justice and compassion in this world. If I carried with me the truth that is your barometer, misgivings like the ones I have might not exist. It’s lovely to have this choice of vision — to fill my own heart with hope rather than despair. Thank you for that reminder.

  3. M. Firpi July 11, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    I don’t know whether feeling appalled by the natural animal predation events with my photography stems from my identification with the victim (the psychological reason), vs. my socioeconomic background and having grown up in a city vs. having a rural upbringing. I do know that having grown up in a city without very little exposure to wildlife, does make me more sensitive when I go to a wildlife park and watch a natural act of animal predation such as an egret preying on a rat. I actually took a picture of this and posted in my blog; but after having it there for a week I could not bear the sight of it any longer; so I took it down. I had mentioned in that post that watching the egret preying on a mammal made an even deeper impression on me; since rats are mammals and have a more complex nervous system and threshold for pain. Mammals vocalise their pain, so I had to hear the rat squeak in an agony that stirred me deeply.

    As people became more urbanised and relied more on manufactured goods and eventually removed from a solely agricultural sustenance; to witness natural predation acts in the wild became less common. The effects of urbanisation from agrarian societies to manufacture and skilled labor is a social reality that alienated societies from wildlife conservation awareness and events. Humans were forcefully pulled into the industrial age because they simply had no other choice. They had to eat and did not have educational opportunities to do anything else at that time. Later on, even as more educated people emerged; the damage was already done. Cities grew bigger, technology took over, and wildlife became an even “rarer” event. Suburbs emerged; most everyone seeking manufactured goods, and of course, more than anything, jobs.

    The irony of it all is that even highly urbanised and educated people are less likely to survive in the wild. They (and I include myself) are more prone to disease and weakened immune systems because of fossil fuel emission environments, bacteria, and escaped viruses. Why has wildlife become a ‘rare’ event? Other than for exploiting it for commercial and sporting events? It would be simplistic to just blame it all on industrialisation and assume there’s no way to undo the harm. This is why I’m developing my green thumb so that while I live I can make a difference.

    • ingrid July 13, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      Maria, I’m so glad you provided that anecdote about your egret-rat image. I understand — and I share those mixed feelings. As I wrote, we can’t help but encounter life and death in its fullness as we travel intimate worlds of our fellow beings. They have survival mandates that I do not, and they have limited choices compared to mine.

      I recently learned that 95 percent (or more) of the resident Orca’s diet here in the Pacific Northwest is Chinook salmon — just Chinook. Not Coho, not Sockeye, but Chinook specifically. Salmon species here are endangered at large, and when an animal’s subsistence is dependent upon a small portion of an already limited food source, they, too become endangered which is the case for our resident Orca pods. So, what I experience is, in actuality, a hint of mourning for both parties in this precarious balance and uncertain future.

      Recently, I’ve encountered a contingent of photographers from my hometown who relish the bloody encounters and who lavish praise on each other for the most gruesome of the predator shots. I find this glee in predation difficult to comprehend, but I also have to remember that many of them come at their photography from a sterile, gear-oriented perspective rather than from an organic appreciation and love for wild animals. I’d like to believe that respect and compassion will prevail when it comes to human/wildlife interaction.

    • CQ July 15, 2013 at 1:05 am

      The rat saved from the paws of a cat a couple of weeks ago sends his thanks for your sweet sympathy, Maria.

      So does the one who, even though he had already passed (I think from being purposely poisoned), was gently laid to rest in the cool shade of a tree next to a tall wall earlier this week.

      Good on your greening thumb! 🙂

  4. Erin Mooney July 13, 2013 at 8:24 am

    I can’t say any better than the previous comments how beautiful this post is. I am glad to have discovered your website and blog from your comments at Earth in Transition. All I can say is thank you for your images, for your ideas, and for communicating your love of other animals.

    • CQ July 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm

      I’m sure Ingrid, as the blogger, will greet you officially, Erin, but until then, I, as one of her regular readers/viewers, welcome you to the Wild Beat Commenters Club! 🙂

      • ingrid July 13, 2013 at 9:05 pm

        No mouse ears required in this club. 😉 Thanks, CQ, for this generous handshake.

      • Erin Mooney July 14, 2013 at 4:38 pm

        Thanks CQ for welcoming me to the club!

    • ingrid July 13, 2013 at 9:04 pm

      Erin, I’m so glad to find you here! And I’m happy to make the acquaintance of a fellow Earth in Transition reader. I appreciate the many posts and ideas Michael puts forth in the context of furthering respect for our fellow earthlings. I like the idea of Earth in Transition with the promise, as CQ articulates in her comments above, of a world with diminished levels of cruelty and its attendant suffering.

      I’m sure others can relate when I say that I’ve loved animals and nature from my earliest moments. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t share some level of communion with the living beings around me, it just took me years to find a way to portray and articulate that inner understanding. I appreciate your kindness in posting here, and am always elated to meet people of similar mind or heart.

      • Erin Mooney July 14, 2013 at 4:45 pm

        Thank you too Ingrid for your reply. You are lucky to have felt a connection to other animals and to nature from a very young age. I, on the other hand, did not develop such a connection till much later in life — which I very much regret. So now I’m trying to make up for it, trying to be aware at all moments. Reading blogs like yours and Michael’s are an inspiration,

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