Don't Feed the Bears: Ethics in Wildlife Photography and Filmmaking

Wildlife photographer weighs in on the dos and don'ts of his profession.

The ethics behind photography of wildlife like this great gray owl have come into question after a marine biologist was fined for baiting whales to come closer in order to film them.


Photography sure ain't what it used to be.

Not that that's a bad thing. Today's improved access to the world and ever-changing technology allows image-makers to reveal the invisible, to capture more intricate detail and more unanticipated moments than ever before. But access and technology also allow for a whole new level of manipulation.

Wildlife photographers, for example, have always had the choice, ethical or not, to set up a scene (e.g., using a captive animal or baiting a wild one) or heavily interfere with an animal's life to get the best shot.

Nancy Black, a U.S. marine biologist, made that choice when she fed killer whales on a video shoot in 2004—and will pay for it. This week, Black was fined $12,500 and put on three years probation for luring the marine mammals closer to a boat for filming in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Some of the most famous wild moments caught on film, in fact, were baited or staged. Now, with computers, photographers can manipulate on the back end, too—doing everything to a photo from removing a speck of dust to adding more zebras to the landscape. Today's wildlife photography is, well, a whole new animal. (See National Geographic's tips for photographing wildlife.)

And as Black knows, those who cheat often pay the price. José Luis Rodriguez was stripped of his Natural History Museum Photographer of the Year award for passing off a likely tame wolf as a wild one. Gilles Nicolet, working for National Geographic magazine, got in big trouble for staging a photo about ivory poaching using tusks borrowed from wildlife authorities.

Even the famed David Attenborough took flack for misleading narration suggesting that a polar bear den in a zoo was actually in the wild.

Meanwhile, digital fiddling goes on at all levels, some considered acceptable and others not so much. Likely some of the most egregious cases have gone unnoticed and unreported.

National Geographic talked to professional wildlife filmmaker and photographer Jeff Hogan about what he considers ethical when working with wildlife in the field and how he navigates this slippery slope between authenticity and manipulated moments. Jeff has been living in the woods and shooting wildlife around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and in many other parts of the world, for over 30 years.

Other than, say, laws protecting endangered species from harassment, are there official rules that professional photographers have to follow with regard to wildlife?

Not really. Organizations may have their own guidelines [consider the BBC's, for example], but there is a lot of variation in what's considered acceptable. That's true among photographers, too—ethics vary widely. Plus, a lot of it depends on what you are trying to do with your work. Shooting a documentary means upholding certain standards that you might not have to follow if you are doing something that is "based on a true story" or just making a pretty picture to hang on your wall.

Do you have your own personal code of ethics when you are working around wildlife in the field?

Absolutely. I'm trying to document wildlife behavior, not to create situations. So what I try to do is to be that fly on the wall. You can't get these privileged views of animal behavior unless you are either unnoticed or ignored. If you've spent the time to make the animals completely at ease with you, that can work, but otherwise they shouldn't know you are there. I'm a witness, a spectator—not a participant. I try very hard to stay that way. It never occurs to me to touch an animal, to move it or try to get it to do a particular thing. I want authenticity.

Do you think it's wrong for other photographers to, say, put out food for their subjects or stay in an area where they are clearly affecting the animals' behavior?

I can't say it's wrong, just wrong for me. I think it's always important to ask yourself, is what I'm doing necessary? And how is it affecting the situation? There are a lot of great people out there who would fight tooth and nail for wildlife, but then they get caught up in the moment and will do anything to get the shot they want. Sure, it's a great picture if an animal is looking back over its shoulder right into the camera, but if in the moment before and after the animal is in a panic, I wouldn't be comfortable with that. A photographer has to be honest with him- or herself about what he or she is really doing and make decisions based on that.

So it isn't always wrong to feed or handle an animal to benefit a film or photo?

It's a messy thing; there are exceptions to every rule. I knew a filmmaker once who, after working with an animal for many days, would leave it some food to make up for any interference, in case it had been distracted from finding food or something. That seemed respectful to me. Someone else might put that food on a rock to draw the bird initially, and that I might question. (Related: "The Ethical Flap Over Birdsong Apps.")

Is moving an animal over a foot or two, for a prettier backdrop, a big deal?

It's never crossed my mind to do that, but I guess it depends on the animal, and on what you are trying to achieve. If you aren't calling something "authentic documentary," maybe it isn't a big problem—as long as you aren't putting the animal in harm's way or stressing it out. Or putting it somewhere it wouldn't naturally go. Also important is whether there are lots of other people around, learning from your actions. I live in the wild and I feel I have a right to be out there and to interact with wildlife, making good decisions with the animals' welfare in mind. But I don't want a bunch of people thinking, "hey, I want to do that," and suddenly the animal faces multiple distractions that cause a lot of stress.

What do you think about staging scenes or filming animals in captivity?

Both have their place, but you need to be honest about what you're doing. Where people get into trouble is pretending that, say, something is wild when it's not. Filmmakers, photographers—we all need to be absolutely up front about how we got the job done. Photo captions and film credits should be truthful about this so the audience isn't misled.

What have you been asked to do that made you uncomfortable?

Once my clients wanted me to throw live mice into a scene to draw an owl. I said no.

When have you been tempted to break your own rules?

I was filming beavers and had found a great lodge that had a hole in the top—very easy for me to put my camera inside where the babies were nursing. I'd been shooting the inside for while and the animals were accustomed to me. The clients didn't like the look of the lodge's exterior—it was ugly—and wanted to find a new one. My thought was, to avoid bothering another family of beavers, let's shoot two lodges, one inside and one out, and let viewers assume it was the same location. The clients disagreed. They were concerned about being ethical to the audience; I was more worried about the animals. (See National Geographic's best wildlife photos.)

What makes one photographer a purist and another a shortcut-taker, in your mind?

For me, the passion for wildlife came way before the camera. The camera came into it as a way to make a living doing what I love to do, which is to be out in the wilderness. I think if the only reason you are out in the wild is to get the shot, you will fail miserably, and you are more likely to compromise your ethics. If you truly love being out there, shot or no shot, everything will come to you. There's no reason to cheat.

How has technology helped and hurt people's ability to do this work ethically?

Certainly it has been beneficial in letting photographers truly get intimate views we couldn't have gotten before. But one problem is that now, with radios and cell phones, you might have a lot of people out there traveling in Yellowstone or Grand Teton waiting for the call about an animal's location. When someone finds a bear, suddenly 30 cars show up and surround the animal, everyone jumping out and working like the paparazzi. It used to just be you and the animal, not an unnatural situation, but now there might be a team blasting away with flashes, even barricading the animal in. This isn't tourists I'm talking about but professionals. It really catches me off guard.

What about in the edit room? How much fiddling with images is okay, and what goes too far?

Again, it depends on your audience and your goal, and what you are claiming to be doing. I think it's acceptable to clean photos up, adjust contrast and color, that sort of thing—but I've seen people do things like add more animals to a zebra herd to fill it out. That's misleading; it gives viewers a false sense of that environment, of how plentiful a species is. Now, if that's natural—to see bigger herds [like the one "created" in the image]—then the filmmaker should just wait and film the real thing rather than faking it.

Any advice on doing this work ethically?

Be honest with your client and yourself. If your work is "based on a true story," say so. Then try to just be part of the wild, and be comfortable with your position as a witness of animals. If you are content with that, and very patient, they will come.

Follow Jennifer S. Holland on Twitter.