Two photos. One, immaculately composed, brightly lit, showing a mountain lion, bright-eyed and well-fed in the foreground against a pristine backdrop of fresh snow. Its furry coat is glossy, every hair in place; the photo itself is in carefully measured, brilliantly sharp focus.
The second photo, in focus but otherwise unprepossessing from a technical standpoint, shows a mountain lion, skinny and weather-beaten, huddling under a rocky overhang. The semi-cave is open to the elements; the mountain lion, in dimly lit shadow is in the background. If you had not been told there was a mountain lion there, you might easily miss it. As a photo, you wouldn’t give it a second glance.
One photo becomes a lightning rod for public attention; the other is quickly forgotten.
It should be no surprise which photo was submitted to a number of prestigious wildlife photography contests.
There’s just one problem — a minor problem or a major problem, depending on your personal sense of ethics and what, if anything, constitutes a legitimate wildlife photo.
The first photo was taken in a game farm, the kind that has been proliferating of late in rural states in the continental U.S. and Canada, where visiting photographers are charged a fee — substantial, in some cases — for access to the animals.
Photographers pay a set fee for each, individual species. Bears fetch more than raccoons, and Siberian tigers are at the top of the pay scale. The animals are kept in enclosures and released into a wild-looking compound, with a handler directing their every move, when a paying photographer visits.
The second photo, taken by a field biologist fed up with seeing photos of well-fed, “happy” mountain lions supposedly living in the wild, wanted to take a “real” photo, to show ordinary, everyday animal lovers just how hard life in the wild can be for an apex predator living rough. There is no such things as a well-fed wild mountain lion in winter. Big cats don’t die of comfortable old age; they either starve, being too old to fend for themselves, or are killed by a younger, fitter, more aggressive cat moving in on its territory.
It may seem like semantics, but the issue of whether wildlife photos depict genuinely wild animals behaving naturally, without the use of bait or the promise of easy food, or whether they’re taken of captive animals under controlled circumstances has taken on added significance now that environmental and conservation photography is as prestigious as commercial art photography and photojournalism. The London Natural History Museum’s annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and the U.S.-based Nature’s Best Awards, which culminates in an annual gallery display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC are serious, well-attended events.
Natural history photography is now a regular component of the World Press Photo awards and the annual Magnum Photography Awards, open to submissions right now, until the end of the month.
National Geographicwhich encourages amateur photographers to submit images to their daily “Your Shot” competition, as well as semi-annual nature and travel photographer-of-the-year competitions, features a disclaimer in its award contests requiring photographers to sign an affidavit confirming that any images of wildlife were taken in the wild unless noted otherwise.
Most people judge a photograph on its merits — either it’s a compelling photo or it isn’t — but the issue of breeding captive animals for photographic purposes has also become an animal-rights issue. Many game-farm animals are abused or are penned up in small, uncomfortable enclosures when no one is looking, as the following links to news sites show.
As with so many divisive issues, there is no easy answer, no clear-cut set-of-rules.
Swiss-born, Vancouver-based nature photographer Daisy Gilardini, whose near-miraculous sequence of photos of a mother polar bear with two virtually newborn cubs has won several prestigious awards in the past year, captured her polar bear images last March northern Canada’s Wapusk National Park, in Manitoba, in temperatures reaching 50 below zero.
It was so cold, she says, she felt shaken to the core of her being. Even for someone born and raised in the Italian-Swiss Alps, huddling in minus-50-degree temperatures for a picture of a polar bear seemed extreme — but the sacrifice was worth it in the end.
Gilardini is an avowed believer in the idea that “wild is wild,” and that images of captive or baited animals have no place in wildlife photography competitions.
Her image “Hitching a Ride” was shortlisted forthe 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s “People’s Choice Awards,” subject to a popular vote.
Another image in the same category, a visually striking close-up of a crocodile chomping down on a ball of loose meat, was taken in a private game reserve in South Africa; the crocodile was lured to a hide by bait from the carcass of an animal that had been killed on a nearby reed island.
Another, even more evocative image in the category, showed a Japanese macaque’s hand gently cradling her sleeping baby. The image was taken at Japan’s world-famous Jigokudani Monkey Park, outside Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Jigokudani Monkey Park is a wilderness area, famous for its snow monkeys. The monkeys are fed by park attendants — so they can be seen by tourists year-round and not just during the four months of the year it snows — the monkeys are not considered genuinely wild.
Does it really matter?
Possibly not. Except that — quite aside from the moral question of ethical treatment of animals — a competition that promotes itself as a wildlife photography contest, or even a nature photography contest, should be a true reflection of nature and the wilderness at its most wild, with no interference from outside agents, either it’s the photographer or actual, trained animal handlers.
It’s called wildlife photography, after all. The clue is in the name.