The Ethics of Disclosure in Nature & Wildlife Photography:  Point of View

July 2, 2009

"Is that coastal sunset picture for real, or was it PhotoShopped?" We have all heard similar questions, and they are asked for a reason. Today, the public does not know if photographers are being honest with them.  

In the last century, the public came to trust the legitimacy of nature and wildlife photography by virtue of the medium - film. The photograph made with film corroborated itself and carried a presumption of authenticity.  When digital imaging entered the scene, and photographers acquired the means to easily alter the content of any photograph, seeds of suspicion were sown.

Among today's nature and wildlife photographers, two schools of thought have emerged regarding the alteration of images. There are those who want to reveal 100% truth in the photograph, and those who want the option to alter it.  

Each camp has its merits, and neither should be superior or inferior to the other.  Both schools should be free to practice their respective style without criticism from the other, and both should be free from public doubt.

This can only become a reality, however, when all photographers become accountable, and disclose any "material alteration" to any photograph placed before a client or the public.  

By "material alteration", I do not mean the removal of dust spots, the routine adjustment of color and contrast, or minor cropping. A "material alteration" occurs when anything is added to or taken from the original image. Or, where two or more images are combined to make a composite.

Cranes Silhouette, Bosque del Apache, (Composite)

Each photographer must decide how to handle disclosure. When dealing with clients and the public, it makes sense to provide a disclosure in writing. Whether put forth by letter, email, IPTC content, or as a note on a website, a written disclosure provides evidence that a disclosure, in fact, was made. 

If there is doubt about the need to disclose, play it safe and err on the side of disclosure.  While photographers have the option to alter an image, or even create art, they do not have the right to mislead the public by leaving the impression a photo is original, when it is not.

Besides image alteration, the usage of genetically wild animals as controlled photographic subjects at wildlife game farms raises  questions about disclosure, and how a photographer should label those photographs for presentation to clients and the public. 

Wildlife game farms are available in many parts of the country.  They offer photographers the opportunity to photograph a variety of captive, often exotic, wild animals in a natural setting, at a fraction of the time and cost of finding and photographing the animals in the wild.  

In a couple of days at a game farm, a competent photographer can produce excellent, even stunning images of wildlife;  images, which would draw admiration if taken in the wild.  Realistic photographs of these animals are becoming prevalent in the marketplace.

When viewing a photograph of an undisclosed game farm animal in any publication, it is likely that an unsuspecting member of the public will assume the picture was taken in the wild.  This assumption, of course, is not true.

Tropical Fish at Reef (Aquarium + Composite)

So, can a photographer legitimately suggest that it is permissible to hide the fact that a game farm image depicts a captive animal?  Can a photographer ever justify misleading a client or the public with a game farm photograph?  The answer to these questions is obviously "no", else we would all fail in the public's eye, and as a profession.

Confronting the issue, the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), for the purpose of maintaining integrity and trust among nature photographers, photo users and the public, has adopted a Truth in Captioning Statement "suggesting" the abbreviation "Capt" be used to identify an image of "any living creature in a zoo, game farm, cage, net, trap, or in drugged or tethered conditions."

I am not critical of those who photograph at game farms, but I firmly believe that any photograph of a captive animal taken at a game farm should be labeled as such. There still remains something to be respected about the skill of the photographer who captures a remarkable image of an elusive animal in the wild.

While I have never been to a wildlife game farm, I have taken  photographs at zoos, aquaria, and butterfly centers.  When I display these images, I disclose where (zoo, aquarium, or butterfly center) the image was taken so the viewer will know the image was not made in the wild.  

Photographers have the right to photograph what and where they wish, but the public has the right not to be misled when those images are placed before them. 

When all photographers are accountable, and the discloser of  image alteration and captive animal usage becomes customary, the public trust will be restored. Until that time, the public will continue to question the authenticity of various photographic images, and the character of those who make them.

                                                                          Ron Day