A Photographer’s Wild Life
New Vocal Challenge ‘Capture the Wild’ looks to put the spotlight on ‘wild’ in wildlife photography.
Wildlife photography is a hobby of mine.
More accurately, it’s a passion of mine. And while I was never able to make a living from it — I went into journalism instead — it was something I always wanted to do from the time I was eight-years-old and first saw the movie Born Free.
Here’s the thing about Born Free, a 1966 movie based on a true story, in which Joy Adamson, a conservationist originally from Austria but at the time living in Kenya with her game warden husband George, raised an orphan lion cub in their home and successfully returned it to the wild once it grew too big to keep. Adamson was played in the film by then up-and-coming film actress Virginia McKenna, who would go on to become a passionate conservationist in her own right.
The film was filmed in Kenya, and not on a back lot in Hollywood, which would have been much easier.
And the filmmakers used real, semi-wild lions, not zoo lions or circus lions, which George Adamson, the film’s wildlife consultant, warned would prove to be dangerous and unpredictable when placed close to actors on a film shoot.
And that’s why, even today, Born Free has a timeless quality to it.
It looks wild. It sounds wild. It was wild.
The making of the film, and what happened afterwards, is a story in its own right. (Google the film’s stars, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Today, those of us who pursue wildlife photography as a hobby have never been luckier.
Today, we have unprecedented ways in which to find and photograph animals in their natural habitat.
We have camera autofocus systems so sophisticated even somebody with bad eyesight and trembly hands like me can take a hasty picture of an animal in the wild, and somehow keep it in focus.
We have digital cameras that can operate in low light. The animals themselves are often tracked around the clock using satellite collars and GPS coordinates, a sad but necessary byproduct of conservation efforts, as more and more of these marvelous, enchanting living beings face extinction.
Wildlife photography has never been easier, or more important and urgent.
Honest, ethical wildlife photography should be just that, though — wild.
There has been a growing interest of late in so-called photo game farms, where — for a price — unscrupulous proprietors raise exotic animals for the specific purpose of showcasing them to visiting photographers — for a fee. These photographers, many of who should know better, are given an hour or more to photograph seemingly wild animals against magnificent, wild backdrops, whether in Montana or Minnesota. Animal handlers train the animals to pose for the visiting photographer, allowing the photographer to get the perfect shot: bright, lively eyes, luscious fur, not a hair out of place.
You can see many of these photos on the covers of popular magazines, including some that purport to celebrate nature and wildlife in the wilderness.
You may be fooled into thinking these animals are happy and healthy and running free. They are not. In too many cases, once the paying photographers go away, they’re locked in tiny pens, no bigger than circus cages really, until they’re let out and manhandled for the next group of paying photographers.
Vocal has introduced a new challenge — Capture the Wild — that invites contributors to share their best animal pictures and, just as importantly, how they got the shot.
I can’t pretend to know what criteria the judges will use, let alone predict who will or what win, but I do get the feeling the emphasis will be on the wild in Capture the Wild.
The lead judge, Melissa Groo, is a serious photographer: an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, an advisor to the National Audubon Society to do with ethics in bird photography, and the wildlife specialty columnist for Outdoor Photography magazine. Her work is represented by the National Geographic Image Collection, and my guess is she won’t look too kindly on any photo that looks as if it was taken at a photo game farm. (In wildlife photography, the word ‘capture’ has nothing to do with captivity; it’s used to describe that perfect click moment, when you’ve captured a wild, living creature in a moment of astonishing beauty or unique behavior.
Capture the Wild is likely to be a popular challenge; the top prize is $2,500; there are cash prizes for second and third place; and the contest won’t close until June 8. There will be hundreds, probably thousands, of submissions.
The Capture the Wild Challenge is the perfect time for all of us to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves to what lengths we’re willing to go to, each and every one of us, to get that perfect animal shot, and whether ethics — the quality of life of the animal being photographed — enters into the equation.
The best wildlife photographers — and Groo is one — appear to get close enough to be accepted by the animal they’re photographing, without intruding. It’s a tricky line to walk.
It’s about respecting nature — presumably the reason we’re out there to begin with — and leaving a light footprint. It’s all too easy to scare your photo subject away or damage fragile habitats just by your presence.
There is no reason, though, none, that can justify photographing an animal on a photo game farm, especially when that animal is caged 23 hours a day for the amusement and entertainment of paying visitors.
The reality is that animals photographed in the wild are often nowhere near as photogenic as those taken in captivity. That’s partly the point. True wildlife photography is about capturing an image of an animal living wild, in its natural habitat, and everything that a life in the wild entails.
Wild lions, for example, are almost always scarred from fights and covered in flies. They lead a hard life. Survival for a wild lion is a day-to-day struggle, and it shows.
Furthermore, the would-be photographer has no control over lighting conditions, no choice in the backdrop, and no guarantee the animal is even willing to be seen in the first place. How, then, are you to get a wildlife picture that’s both a once-in-a-lifetime capture and an ethical shot?
Here are some quick pointers. They may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people, even some professional photographers, ignore them.
Do no harm. Don’t do anything that will disturb an animal in its own home. Don’t do anything that will prevent it from hunting, eating, sleeping or, especially around lions, procreating.
Be respectful. Staying mindful of what’s around you plays a huge role in capturing that miraculous, once-in-a-lifetime image. Most nature photographers are of a similar mindset: Nobody wants to be the bad guy who spoils it for everyone. Wildlife photographers are a community, just like any other community.
Don’t feed the animals. Well, yes, obvious, but even some professional photographers, the unscrupulous ones, dropping a little food as bait, to entice a shy animal into the open. This is not about providing a free meal to an animal that would otherwise go hungry; it’s about encouraging unnatural behavior that, in many cases, will encourage that animal to associate people with food. And that always ends badly for the animal. “A Fed Baboon is a Dead Baboon.” That’s an actual sign in Cape Town, South Africa, to discourage drivers from tossing unwanted sandwiches and other food to baboons by the roadside. Many of those baboons end up being shot as nuisances, and an agitated baboon can get really dangerous. Is it really worth it for a selfie?
And, speaking of selfies,
No selfies. Selfies around wild animals have a way of becoming distinctly uncool in a hurry. Wildlife photography is about the wildlife, not you. And if you’re not willing to take my word for it, fine, take Jane Goodall’s instead. Discouraging selfies of chimpanzees, among other primates, has become one of Goodall’s most ardent campaigns over the past year.
Follow the rules. Yellowstone National Park, to cite just one example of a park that has put nature up top on its list of priorities, requires that park visitors stay 25 yards away from wild animals, 100 yards for bears and wolves. The rules are there for the safety of both animals and people, and they’re there for a reason. The wilderness is wild. The clue is in the name. Yellowstone is not a photo game farm.
And about those photo game farms. The truth is that, even in a strong economy, many people are unable or can’t afford to go to some far-flung location to see animals in their natural habitat.
There are places, though, that keep animals in captivity that are humane and ethical, and serve a humane purpose. There are rescue centers, animal shelters and sanctuaries for exotic animals that have been mistreated or abused.
Photographing critically endangered animals in a zoo or sanctuary setting can play a vital role in conservation.
The respected, award-winning photojournalist and veteran National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, who was recently profiled on 60 Minutes, is a prime example: His Photo Ark project (worth looking up on Google, and at https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/photo-ark/explore/) aims to take a photographic portrait of every single living species on Earth, including those facing imminent extinction. In many cases, Sartore has said, some species are so rare they can only be found and photographed in a captive setting.
As with anything, there’s a right and wrong way to pursue our hobby in wildlife photography.
Just remember: There’s a huge difference between a legitimate sanctuary or zoo and a place that’s sole purpose is to exploit wild animals for profit.
Good luck in the Vocal Challenge!