The Ethics Of Nature Photography: Is The Image More Important Than The Subject?

Is the image more important than the subject? Hint: NO! Moreover, I can’t even think of a hypothetical where it might be.

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I recently returned home from Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve appalled and concerned by the behavior of some fellow photographers. See Ethics And Courtesy In Pursuit Of An Image. The Audubon Society has just published online Too Close for Comfort, an article from its May/June 2015 magazine, detailing how some photographers are pushing the limits and hurting wildlife in pursuit of an image. I highly recommend the article.

And, let’s all remember that our national parks and wildlife refuges are fragile, the animals we photograph are live there, and we are mere visitors.

Ethics And Courtesy In Pursuit Of An Image

I try to keep some thoughts to myself and not be too critical of anything or anybody but sometimes it is awfully hard to remain silent. This is one of those times.

During my just concluded trip to the deserts of Southern California, I was shocked by the less than admirable behavior by some photographers in pursuit of an image. I don’t know if they were simply ignorant of our professional ethics and common courtesy or blithely ignoring them. In any case, their behavior was unacceptable.

2015-04-05_Death Valley_Zwit_0131What did I see that so upset me? I saw photographers walking off trail, disturbing wildlife, littering, purposely stepping in front of other photographers, using inappropriate equipment for the environment or subject, and simply being obnoxious. They may think that one person can’t hurt anything but it is the accumulation of damages of that one person plus thousands or others or even millions of others.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Death Valley National Park, and Mojave National Preserve as well as much of the other lands we photograph are delicate habitats. Within them, there are endangered environments and species and, even if not endangered, the destruction of some environments can take nature hundreds or thousands of years to repair. These refuges, parks, and preserves are our legacy and their destruction would be a sad reflection on us. Once they are gone, they are gone.

I do, however, realize there are competing interests that must be accommodated within these areas, e.g., recreation, hunting, photography, endangered species. Accommodations can be difficult to negotiate and enforce, especially with the high demand put on these areas by visitors and limited budgets. So, preservation falls to us: The photographers and other visitors to these special and unique places.

Most of us aren’t trained as naturalists or biologists. Instead, we need to rely on the experts-the people in charge of these lands, photography associations, and outdoor organizations-that have developed codes of ethics. See, e.g., North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) Code of Ethics and Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics. These codes of ethics are based on science, designed to preserve the outdoors for everyone, and protect the ecosystem and animals living within these precious resources. Read them and follow them.

2015-04-07_Death Valley_Zwit_0239One common and major element of most of these codes of ethics is one that I need to emphasize to everyone-photographers and non-photographers: Treat everyone courteously. It’s simple and makes for a more enjoyable time for everyone. Remember, you are not entitled to go to the front of the line just because you arrive late for sunrise. Those already there got up earlier than you and arrived on time.

By all means, enjoy our refuges, parks, and wild lands but remember we are treading on irreplaceable habitat that, if it is to survive, we must help protect. No image is worth the cost of crippling damage to the environment.