Ethical Guidelines for Photography

Smoky jungle frog (Leptodactylus pentadactylus) found with my friend, Ronald Mori, near Rio Shilcayo, Tarapoto, Peru (08/13/2015).
Ethical guidelines [4]. Photo by Neil Rosser

It is dangerous to assume nature photographs are unmanipulated and that no harm or significant stress have been put on the animal. In the effort to maintain integrity to my photographs and contribute to open discussion about photography ethics, I briefly note the circumstances surrounding each photo I have taken. Transparency is also critical to not misrepresent animal behavior and natural history, biasing viewer interpretations. It is often that I view others’ photographs and notice something interesting about the setting of the photograph or ponder why the animal may be engaging in a certain behavior… only to wonder if it may be indicative of something fascinating about the organism’s biology and ecology, or rather that it is an artifact of the process of photographing the animal.

At the moment I am still updating my old blog posts to conform to this new format. The categories are as follows:

[1] in situ

Animal photographed as encountered, with little apparent change in behavior due to my own presence. This category includes both encounters in which the animal totally disregards me and goes about its business, as well as the animal freezing in place or turning to face me, but nothing more.

[2] after slight disturbance

Animal noticeably halts behavior and changes its position due to my presence. This category involves an animal repositioning itself for concealment or assuming a defensive posture in response to my approach. Additionally, it includes animals photographed immediately after spotted in refuge, e.g., a centipede uncovered after I lift a rock.

[3] after pursuit

Animal flees (no longer situated around the position it was found) as I continue following and photographing. This category does not include touching or handling whatsoever. Most bird photographs fall into this category, with exception of those that do not alter their flight trajectory because of my presence (such as a soaring raptor).

[4] after disturbance

Animal is touched or handled briefly prior to photography. Most often this is done when it is otherwise impossible to photograph the animal in the current conditions, e.g., a snake flees rapidly and is touched to prevent escape, or an insect is prodded to a more visible spot near where it was found. This category not only includes animals that are briefly disturbed for photography, but animals that are purposely interacted with out of curiosity prior to photography.

[5] after capture

Animal is caught and displaced from the position it was found to be photographed. This involves direct and purposeful placement of the animal in a selected spot nearby. Could include animals moved off the road and released, or animals held and interacted with prior to release nearby. For this category, all animals are released immediately after being photographed, back where they were initially spotted.

[6] after capture, under controlled conditions

Animal is caught and taken to another location to be photographed. Most often done with tiny flying and rapidly-moving insects. ‘Under controlled conditions’ means the setting around the photograph is completely manipulated, e.g., a beetle is placed on a leaf or woody substratum, may be outdoors or indoors under low light conditions for the animal to become less active. In all instances for this category, the animal is released back to its location of capture.

[7] after capture, to the detriment of the animal

This category is what needs to be avoided at all costs for photographers, though inevitably it sometimes happens, and we learn from the experience. This could be either that an animal becomes weaker in captivity prior to release, or that it expires while under my care. Like the previous category, this would pertain mostly to arthropods, and although I have never killed or weakened a vertebrate for photography so far, that would fall under this category as well. Further information is provided surrounding the animal’s outcome and/or release within those posts.

[8] for rehabilitation

Animal is taken into captivity for the purposes of rehabilitation, to improve in health so it can hold its own in nature. This category pertains mostly to animals injured by anthropogenic means, e.g., a hummingbird injured from crashing against a window, a mole found immobile on a road, an injured reptile, or an insect dazed from baking on the concrete under the hot sun. In all cases, the animal was deemed unfit to survive in its current state and taken into captivity for that reason. Further information is provided surrounding the animal’s outcome and/or release within those posts.

As a photographer, my ethics are constantly evolving. For example, my own ‘ethical limits’ for the time I spend with an animal until I put down the camera (to say “enough is enough” for the stress I have imposed on the animal) has decreased significantly over the past five years. Of course, we can only guess as to how stressed an animal may be, and the resilience of animals varies considerably. I could spend half an hour photographing a mantis in hand with no ill-effects, but a hummingbird or shrew might perish in that time frame. It’s also crucial to recognize that the absence of visible signs of stress does not mean an animal is unaffected. Through these descriptions, I hope to offer viewers with behind-the-scenes information they can use to interpret the photographs I take. Even though only so much can be conveyed through the discrete categories I provide, I think it is a good start. I welcome questions and discussions for photographs that involve higher numbers on the list, in aims of being transparent about the ethics in nature photography as well as honest interpretation of natural history.

Eyelash pit viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), Estación Biológico La Selva, Sarapiquí, Costa Rica (07/17/2016). Ethical guidelines [5]. Photo by Andrés Vega

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