“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.