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The Albatross Effect:Wildlife Photography, Eco Tourism and Ethics 

Literature Review by Liv Davies

Within this literature review, I will be looking at wildlife photography and ethics. By definition ethics is classed as “moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conduct of an activity”. General Code of Ethics and Principals (2017) “Photography ethics are the principles that guide how we take and share photographs. Photography ethics are subjective, contextual, and fluid, meaning that every person’s ethics will be different, because ethics are based on a person’s life experience and values.” (2018) For example, if you were taking an environmental portrait of someone to demonstrate who they are, their choice of object to hold or clothing to wear may differ from others. This may be because of religion for example; everyone is different so as a photographer you must show respect to each person, despite differences.  Ethics and morals are an important part of life, as this code protects us and others against injustice and helps keep a stable structure in society. Within photography and journalism it is a key principle, for example the Society of Professional Journalists have a code that states (2014) “Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

 

They say “the camera never lies” but in our modern world today, we know otherwise. It is all too common knowledge that most images, particularly fashion images, are manipulated, “photo retouching is even more integral for a photographer.” (Sibirtsteva, 2019) What about wildlife photography? “The early 1900s saw the first acknowledged example of 'animal fakery’ - a term coined by Roosevelt - when an unnamed photographer tied a woodlark to the top of a small tree and tried to pass his picture off as authentic.” (Carwardine, 2012) This is an example of fakery and pure cruelty, that defies all ethical codes in modern day wildlife photography.  With the further development of technology it became easier to digitally manipulate images, for example in ‘“1982, National Geographic catapulted photographic manipulation into the headlines. Its designers famously squeezed together two Egyptian pyramids to make the image suitable for the cover.” (Carwardine, 2010) The question of ethics is raised here, is it okay to manipulate images? “Ansel Adams is an icon of nature photography. But even he partook in some creative re-interpretation of reality. His most famous photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez (1941), in which he played with the exposure to make the clouds in the upper half of the image disappear.” (By The Editors, 2014) Some people may not be bothered if an image is fake or manipulated, however there are many who disagree “and believe that there should be a tacit understanding between photographer and viewer that what you see in a picture represents the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” (Carwardine, 2010)

 

As I mentioned earlier, respect for the subject is a key ethical code of any photography. It is just the same when it comes to wildlife photography. It is paramount that the welfare of wildlife is always put first when photographing or filming nature. I have gathered from reading wildlife photography books that each book will always have a page on ‘ethics’. These pages are always placed at the front of the book, showing the importance of it and also how the author considers it a necessity that the reader actually reads it. For example, in Hoddinott and Hall’s (2013) book the literal first page has a title of ‘Ethics’; it reads “first and foremost, wildlife photographers have a responsibility to their subjects. Every plant and animal, rare or common, is unique and its welfare is always more important than a photograph”. Putting your personal photographic needs before an animal's welfare is wrong and unethical, “disturbance should always be kept to a minimum and at no time should your subject be placed at risk. If your subject shows any signs of distress, you should retreat quickly and quietly.” 

 

I want to discuss a documentary series I have been watching recently. It is called Iolo: The Last Wilderness of Wales and it is presented by Iolo Williams, a Welsh nature observer, author and television presenter. The series follows Williams through wild areas around Wales, where he searches for wildlife to observe and discuss them. Ethics and respect for wildlife is made prominent by Williams throughout this documentary series. Each time he is about to observe a nest or particular bird, he will say “these birds are protected by law, you need a licence to get close to their nest”. (Iolo: The Last Wilderness of Wales, 2020) For example, when he is approaching a goshawk nest in the Cambrian mountains, he mentions how he will not hang around for too long as it could scare the mother, as goshawk’s are incredibly shy raptors. Another good example of why ethics around wildlife photography /filmmaking is just so important are the curlews. In William’s visit to the Elan Valley he locates a curfew of curlews, he also locates a nesting curlew. He mentions how the Elan Valley is in danger of becoming baron of wildlife. William’s notes how the number of breeding curlew’s in Wales has decreased by 80% in the last twenty years. He said “if I do find curlew here, I am not going to stay because they are so endangered”, “I am not going to disturb them…..it’s important not to approach the nest, so you don’t give the predators any clues.” (Iolo: The Last Wilderness of Wales, 2020) Many amatur photographers may not know about species that are endangered and may consider it a great idea to approach and photograph a curlews nest. When a species is critically endangered, such as the curlew, approaching a nest will have detrimental effects on that species thus enforcing the fact that it is vital ethics are learned and practised when photographing any wildlife. 

 

Wildlife photography is a very popular hobby, for example “Now in its 56th year, the wildlife photographer of the year showcases the world’s best nature photography. This year’s competition attracted more than 50,000 entries from professionals and amateurs across the world.” (2020) It feels like a lot of people love wildlife photography, even more so since the COVID pandemic in 2020. The more people that get into wildlife photography, the greater the tourism. For example, Andrew Marshall’s book “Photographing Wildlife in the UK” is dedicated to showing the hotspots for wildlife, such as the Isle of Mull. Marshall wrote (2016) “The white-tailed eagle can be encountered almost anywhere around the island.” The Isle of Mull is full of tourist attractions because of this, for example Marshall mentions the ‘Lady Jane Mull Charter’ that guarantees an eagle sighting every time. Keen wildlife photographers flock to places like the Isle of Mull in hope of securing brilliant photographs of rare wildlife, but more people means a higher likelihood of violating ethical morals towards animals. In Fennell and Yazdan panah’s (2020) study it states “As wildlife tourism and ecotourism continue to grow as important sectors of the tourism industry, care needs to be placed into how tourists interact with the natural world. Getting closer often means subjecting animals to undue stress in efforts to maximise our viewing pleasure.” They went on to write, “Consistent with the tourism industry in general, codes of ethics remain an important tool to educate tourists about the impacts of their behaviours, and they often act as anchor points that provide sensitivity to others.” Further highlighting the importance of an ethical moral code structure that every wildlife photographer must be aware of. Ethical codes could be considered even more important when tourism as a result of wildlife occurs, Fennell and Yazdan panah (2020) enforce this, writing “Photography, ethics, and wildlife are all important aspects of the tourism experience”. 

 

It begs the question then, how much damage does the hobby of wildlife photography have on wildlife? How much does this hobby affect the ethics and moral codes of wildlife photography?  ‘Ecotourism is now defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (2015). Education is meant to be inclusive of both staff and guests.’ (2020) With the rise of eco conscious citizens and the emergence of ecotourism, it is evident that more care is being taken when travelling to specific sites of interest in regards to nature and wildlife. However, there still poses the overall threat that a heavy influx of visitors to certain places can bring. For example, “Ecotourism is now a large industry and there are not enough regulations to control how it is operated. [It can often bring about] the destruction of local resources to make room for ecotourism, for example trees felled to make lodges for tourists [or] natural resources are destroyed to make souvenirs” (2021) Not to mention the excess pollution that any travel and tourism brings, from carbon dioxide emissions or even “tourist hotels sometimes dump[ing] waste into rivers causing water pollution.” (2021) 

 

Of course these are not exactly direct effects of wildlife photography, but it comes as part and parcel with it encouraging tourism. Keen wildlife photographers often strive to get the best image or capture an image of a rare creature. For example, when a single Albatross visited the Yorkshire coast at RSPB Bempton Cliffs, many visitors flocked there day after day. The albatross became famous and was even named Albert. “Ms Jackson, the reserve's visitor experience manager, said the large bird's presence was causing a surge in visitors, staff have dubbed the "albatross effect".” (2021) The albatross is known amongst sailors as a bearer of bad luck and there is a saying, and I quote ‘an albatross around my neck’ which references a curse. In a way, this single bird arriving to the Yorkshire coast did bring bad luck to all the wildlife affected and disturbed by the huge surge and influx of people. It is this need and determination to photograph wildlife that really puts it at risk, as many are unable to see past the need for an image and are unable to consider the wildlife’s welfare first. When I visited the cliffs myself and spoke to a wildlife photographer, he mentioned how even at 5am in the morning, the car park was full. People crowd around the nature reserve and can often scare or stress wildlife. As I mentioned earlier, to quote Iolo Williams  “I am not going to disturb them…..it’s important not to approach the nest, so you don’t give the predators any clues.” (Iolo: The Last Wilderness of Wales, 2020) At Bempton cliffs there are thousands of sea birds nesting, this huge gathering of people day after day, trying to photograph Albert the albatross surely would catch a raptors observant eye when looking for lunch. I will also mention as we are on the topic of albatross’, that due to climate change and the rise of carbon dioxide emissions, albatrosses are divorcing.  “Albatrosses form monogamous pairs that can last for the entirety of their 70-year lifespans. Warming seas are harming albatross couples' resilience, leading to higher rates of separation in the seabirds. ... new research has found a surprising cause of divorce: climate change.” (2021) Of course it is not only tourism and travel causing climate change, there are thousands of other factors, but it is almost ironic that the desire to photograph so many different types of birds and animals does in fact lead to travel, therefore more air pollution, which in turn is having a huge impact on the lives of the wildlife that photographers strive to capture. In effect, damaging their own subjects. 

 

To conclude, it is vital that there is a moral ethical code structure around photography, especially wildlife photography. This literature review really brought to light the irony of wildlife photography; in that it seeks to admire the beauty of animals but in itself it can promote excess travel and the disturbance of wildlife. Wildlife is often unable to defend itself or communicate with us unlike human subjects. It is therefore so important that all wildlife photographers/videographers put the animals' welfare first. Without a moral code there would be devastating effects to nature and eco systems. With our current climate crisis and many species going extinct or becoming endangered, all those who want to start wildlife photography as a hobby should really put everything into perspective, remember that it may not be necessary to travel far and wide to photograph the rarest species, that you can find a lot of wildlife on your doorstep, wherever you are. Put wildlife before your photographic needs, consider the ethics before picking up a camera.

Fennell and Yazdan panah (2020) ‘Tourism and wildlife photography codes of ethics: Developing a clearer picture’ Annals of Tourism Research, 85, Available at:https://www-sciencedirect-com.ergo.southwales.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0160738320301675?via%3Dihub (Accessed date: 15/11/21)

 

(2020) ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2020: People’s Choice in Pictures’ The Guardian 1 December. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2020/dec/01/wildlife-photographer-of-year-2020-peoples-choice-in-pictures (Accessed date: 24/11/21)


 

Iolo: The Last Wilderness of Wales (2020) Iolo: The Last Wilderness of Wales, Series 1, Episode 3, BBC One, 6 August.

 

Hoddinot, R and Hall, B (2013) Wildlife Photography Workshop UK:Ammonite Press

 

General Code of Ethics and Pincipals (2017) Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/policies/conduct/ethical-principles 

 

Arete Stories (2018) Photography Ethics and Why They Matter Available at:https://www.photoethics.org/content/2018/5/31/photography-ethics-and-why-they-matter Accessed: 2/12/21

 

Society of Professional Journalists (2014) SPJ Code of Ethics Available at: https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp (Accessed: 2/12/21) 

 

Marshall, Andrew (2016) Photographing Wildlife in the UK UK: fotoVue 

 

What is Ecotourism? (2020) Available at: https://ecotourism.org/what-is-ecotourism/ Accessed: 3/12/21

 

BBC (2021) Global Tourism Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zq4hvcw/revision/7 Accessed: 3/12/21

 

Sibirtsteva, Maria (2019) The Ethical Side of Photo Retouching: Must Read for Photographers. Available at: https://blog.depositphotos.com/photo-retouching.html (Accessed: 13/5/21)

 

Carwardine, Mark (2010) ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ BBC Wildlife, May 

 

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britain, Dry Plate Photography Available at: https://www.britannica.com/technology/dry-plate (Accessed: 12/5/21)

 

Gillies, Natasha (2021) Monogamous Albatrosses are Getting Divorced because of Climate Change Available at: https://scroll.in/article/1012042/monogamous-albatrosses-are-getting-divorced-because-of-climate-change#:~:text=Warming%20seas%20are%20harming%20albatross,of%20separation%20in%20the%20seabirds.&text=However%2C%20new%20research%20has%20found,of%20their%2070%2Dyear%20lifespans. (Accessed: 8/12/21)

 

BBC (2021) Bempton cliffs albatross makes return to Yorkshire coast Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-57683184 (Accessed:8/12/21)

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