The Psychology of abuse in wildlife photography – Part I –


A juvenile black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) held for ~2 days in a capture-release, studio-motivated photo-shoot. Photographed under ultraviolet light to reveal fluorescence of the teeth, little thought was given to potential consequences of prolonged exposure to UV for the subject. Regardless of the real consequences of said exposure, the lack of a rigorous moral framework protecting the subject during the shoot underlines the problem with this photo, and scuttles whatever personal, ad-hoc, post-shot justifications one might apply. Although I saw nothing wrong with my methodologies at the time of the photo, and nor did any of the viewers, self-examination and a ‘post-mortem’ on the aggregate of my behaviours revealed some troubling oversights, and unacceptable behaviours in need of correction. Retroactive responsibility for misdeeds is not something everyone will ascribe to, however, it is something that I have found brings a level peace, and harmonizes the cognitive dissonance as one attempts to reconciliate past actions with present and future methodologies. Photographed in Sani lodge, Ecuador, 2016.

“The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost”, G. K. Chesterton once wrote, and yet, nowhere has that thought been more misplaced, than in the lost and found of Conservation photography. We have accessorized, promoted, shared and popularized our sense of entitlement to the point that wildlife is no longer wild, but rather, baited and, bagged, posed and ‘perfected’; pre-destined for domestication, collared and held fast on the leash of our desires. This will undoubtedly strike some as hyperbolic, and naturally there’s a strong resistance to abandoning one’s pixel perfect picture of nature, as depicted in our collective subconscious, and adopting a view which seemingly undermines the fundamental concept of conservation photography as a benign undertaking. However, it should come as no surprise that like all human endeavours, wildlife photography can and is subject to abuse, both intentional and inadvertent, both singular (the domain of the photographer) and collective (the domain of bystanders, organizations, competitions, photography groups, and viewers alike), as well as consisting of simple and/or complex transgressions. This is not meant as an exhaustive list of the underlying psychologies behind abuse in wildlife photography, but rather, to in-still some measure of complexity, and perhaps even empathy, into what might otherwise be seen as a simple, and obvious moral failure.

Ethics lies at a treacherous crossroads between society, the self, and the subject, with a breakdown between any of these bonds ultimately compromising the integrity of the personal, and collective soul’s architecture. This is to say that our relationships, whether they be between photographer and subject (P-S), between photographers (in-group [IG]), photographer and viewer (P-V), viewer and subject (V-S) or between non-photographers (out-group [OG]) form the basis for our moral integrity or ‘moral code’.

Eg. i) P- S abuse would appear to be the most obvious, and clear example. The lack of dignity and respect one shows to the subject while relative, to a certain extent, is also bounded by collectively-held values at the extremes. Even so, this abuse is more complex than one might assume, and is affected by the other relationships (IG, P-V, V-S, OG), as well as cultural (geographical, situational (eg. research)) mores, and a host of psychological phenomena (pluralistic ignorance, bystander effect, inertia and resistance, collective narcissism, in-group bias, failure to communicate paralinguistic cues, etc.)

ii) In-group failure can result in a culture of diminished personal responsibility, and protectionism from outside criticism, regardless of the merits of said criticisms, perpetuating cycles of abuse.

iii) P-V relationship failure can lead to dishonesty, and media distortion surrounding one’s personal image (biographical/social media/etc), as well as falsifying or misrepresenting the actual images one takes.

iv) An erosion of V-S relationship (eg. the public’s relationship with snakes, spiders, sharks or other seemingly undesirable subjects), has the consequence of enabling greater and greater liberties to be taken on the part of the photographer, without social consequences. This amounts to collective acceptance of abuses committed, and leaves only the personal morality of the photographer as a barrier to abuse.

v) Out-group dynamic failings are like the proverbial runaway train. A photo which loses context, and any measure of personal attachment and hence responsibility, as it traverses webspace. No accountability is taken for popularizing a photo/message/story with one’s vote (SHARE/COMMENT/LIKE), and one’s personal responsibility is trivialized as justification.

The first question, regardless of whether we are the perpetrator, or a simple bystander, should be: “Has there been any wrongdoing, and if so, what is my role in this offence?”. If your reaction as a reader is a reflexive, “but I haven’t done anything!”, ask yourself, “knowing what I know now in terms of the widespread, wide-scale abuse, is that an answer I am okay with?” “Do I have a responsibility, and if so, what is the extent of that responsibility?” “How might I improve the situation?” This introspection is never easy, however, when conducted honestly, it can create an internal dialogue that would otherwise remain dormant, and ultimately, can challenge ourselves and others to be better.


A snail-eating snake (Dipsas indica) curls into a defensive coil during a photoshoot with Tropical Herping in Sani lodge. The removal of the snake from its environment (capture-release), time in captivity, and overall treatment with respect to this and other subjects prompted a change in my own methodologies and a commitment towards greater transparency. Could I, and should I have refrained from taking this and other photos during the photoshoot and confronted the group regarding these questionable behaviours? In a word, Yes. So why didn’t I? It’s a question I’ve asked myself in the wake of personal weakness and it comes down to 1) Bystander-effect – Being with other members of an in-group (photographers) behaving in a concerted and consistent manner, in addition to my own peripheral role in the collection, created a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ which allowed me to justify or negate my own responsibilities (erroneously) in the overall handiwork and the consequences thereof. 2) Deferred responsibility, “It’s there, why not photograph it”. Since it wasn’t I who had collected the subjects, and I was “only briefly” photographing them, I (wrongly) justified to myself that my role in the overall misconduct was minimal 3) Opportunism – I felt that the subjects were there, within reach, moreover with all my equipment conveniently at hand, and thus it would be a wasted opportunity not to photograph them. This represented the failure to take a stand for something more than a base desire to add to my own personal photographic collection. 4) Professional deference – I am not a herpetologist, and although I could clearly see that there were lines being crossed, (ones which I had similarly crossed in arthropod photography at one point or another), I purposefully deferred to greater academic and professional experience in an abnegation of personal responsibility. 5) In-group pressure. This doesn’t have to be the overt censorship by other members, but rather how one sees oneself with respect to the group. I saw myself as a member of this group of photographers, and at this point didn’t wish to upset or alienate the others, and thus I remained silent, and worse-still, partook in the photoshoot. This list serves to illustrate that there is rarely a single reason underlying abuse, but on the contrary, a hodgepodge of jockeying thoughts, and ideologies which can ultimately serve to justify the unjustifiable.