Ethical Beast - the dangers, dilemmas and choices of acting ethically in conservation media.
Updated: May 19, 2019
There is no denying that there is a large part of me that is rather feral. Don't get me wrong, I have reasonable table manners, always thank the bus driver and will occasionally conform to social pressure and wear mascara. However, when it comes to rules, I struggle unless their seems a sensible reason for them. Taking my daughter to her theory driving test and being told I couldn't sit in their empty waiting room incase it filled up. Well, situations like that lead to soap box incidents that really aren't pleasant for anyone.
Working as a conservation photographer and writer, I am bound by a multitude of different and occasionally conflicting ethical codes of conduct. I have learned that it is important that when seeking the truth, the need to get published does not tarnish our methods creating a sense of distrust for those who come after us. It makes the job really hard and to be frank, is embarrassing when you have to apologise for unscrupulous journalists.
Driven by a deep seated passion for wildlife and its protection, abiding by such rules tends not to be a problem. The International League of Conservation Photographers states that one should "place the welfare of our subjects above all else." Put in basic terms, this means when faced with the dilemma of taking that perfect photo that could win you international acclaim, if you are distressing the animal, you must walk away.
Unfortunately, it is my passion to protect the natural world that has led me into some rather grey ethical areas and occasionally some downright red alert ones. What is ethical for the welfare and conservation of endangered and protected species is not always in the best interests of people. This sort of makes sense when you consider that most species have become endangered because of mankind. One of the most obvious grey areas is invading the privacy of people versus the public good of the story.
Now when I say people, I don't mean taking a photo of our future queen topless. I mean photos and/or interviews of criminals. The sort of criminals that slash and burn international CITES laws like they are going out of fashion, break national environmental legislation with impunity and laugh at the concept of animal welfare. The sort of people that are chipping away at our our biodiversity and contributing to the extinction of one million species.
According to WWF, "the illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest illegal trade behind drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting," and unsurprisingly plays a role in this mass extinction event. As you can imagine, those involved in such criminal activities are not only dangerous but adapt at circumnavigating the law or being exposed by the media. This creates a dilemma for conservation photographers or environmental journalists seeking interviews or photos as to respect privacy, it is customary to introduce oneself as a photographer or journalist, thus giving people the opportunity to decline.
However, there aren' t many wildlife criminals who will knowingly let the media into their lair, give an honest interview and, importantly, let you out alive. Even if they did, there is no camera stabilisation technology advanced enough to counteract your shaking hand in such situations. If that wasn't challenging enough, it's unethical to pay said criminals for fear of adding bias to the interview. As for purchasing illegal wildlife products to gain their trust, well, that not only breaks national legislation but stimulates the very trade you are trying to quash.
There is a let out clause. According to the Guardian's Editorial Code, the UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator Sir David Omand states "the degree of intrusion must be justified by the seriousness of the story and the public good that is likely to follow from its publication." However, this is where things get a bit grey as peoples' values vary. In my world of passionate conservation, going undercover might intrude on the criminals' privacy, but rescuing a hoard of animals and instigating long term conservation actions as a consequence is a significant public good. Particularly when facing our Sixth Mass Extinction.
Unintentional consequences are just as damaging and can be harder to predict. Whilst working on a project in Cambodia, I rightfully received an apprehensive welcome at Free the Bears. Arriving to photograph a rescued poached female sunbear cub, I was warned that adorable photos taken out of context could inflame the illegal wildlife trade in for the exotic pet industry. It is worth remembering that behind every photo of a rescued cub, lies the brutal killing of their passionately protective mothers.
I have to determine what will be the consequences of taking any photo. For example, if I ask to photograph a wildlife criminal extracting bear bile, will this make something happen that wouldn't have ordinarily happened? The answer to that is probably not. The illegal wildlife farmers would have extracted the bile regardless of me being present. However, asking my underworld connections in Vietnam if I could photograph some amputated bear paws set off major alarm bells. How could I be sure that they wouldn't kill a bear specifically for me to photograph? The answer was I couldn't so that avenue remains unexplored.
Wildlife photography is prone to enabling different unintentional consequences than conservation photography. That beautiful shot of an adorable seal is one dimensional. It might connect the viewer with the wonder and beauty of wildlife but fails to reveal the threats that endanger a species. One cannot see from a single portrait photo the impact of the fur-seal trade, the hidden dangers of discarded non-biodegradable ropes or the collapse of seal breeding colonies as global warming thins the ice. One has to question therefore whether omitting the whole truth is, in itself, a failure to act ethically?