Imagine you receive a phone call with a message from a beautiful voice, beckoning you to meet them out for coffee in ten. You gasp and wonder, might this be the person for me that I have been longing for and they want to meet me for coffee this moment?!

You rush through readying yourself for this rendezvous, skipping breakfast and haphazardly finishing your chores and grooming, with just enough attention to making yourself attractive enough to meet this possible mate.

When you arrive, you search for the beautiful voice and possible companion, but everyone you see seems busy and not the one you seek. You wait and wait and grow hungry, but continue to hope that this person will arrive.

Little did you know that this was a ruse by the coffee shop to get your service, your money and your presence in their establishment, and they did so by hitting you in your sweet spot: your wish for a partner with a beautiful voice…

I think we can all agree that this is an unethical way to get business, but it is far too common for human beings to bait and switch one another as a means to an end.

In my work as an ethical nature and wildlife photographer, I see practices similar to this being employed in the world of photo tours and bird photography all too often.

Recently, beautiful photos of owls have been popping up in our feeds as it is breeding season for the Northern Pygmy Owl. When I have gone out to photograph these majestic creatures, I have waited in a blind for several hours by their nesting cavity in hopes of capturing an image of this elusive creature. In fact, I had searched for years to find this spot and, yes, waiting did eventually pay off. Patience is paramount in my line of work.

But the photographs I have been seeing lately are not a result of this patience. They are actually contrived, taken by the means of calling the bird with the sound of its mate, baiting them to a place where photographers wait with cameras in hand. They capture the shot, while the bird continues to wait in confusion for a possible mate, forgoing hunting, resting, or other necessary survival habits. This is not a small thing, though it may seem benign to those who do not know the nuanced impact of this problematic practice.

I used to make this mistake myself before I understood the consequences and impact of my actions. Once I learned that there was another way and the importance of capturing natural behavior as opposed to contrived or forced, I changed. I want to capture truth, and so I have made the sacrifices and taken the time to evolve how I do things as a conservation visual storyteller. The story needs to be real, and how I behave influences the behavior of my subjects. If the behavior of an animal is changed by my presence, I am no longer documenting natural phenomenon. I can see that this can be a slippery slope for people, but I am here to show that we can change how we do things. This change is small but deeply impactful, not only to the natural world, but within myself. To know in my heart that I capture natural behavior is deeply satisfying.

It’s not hard to call in a bird. They will sit on your head. It is not a feat of patience; it is unethical. Not only is it unkind and disrespectful to the owl, deeply dishonoring it by leading it on, but it is a lie to those who are looking at the photographs with awe at the ‘patience’ required for such a shot. For those of us who are ethically birding and photographing in the field, it is a slap in the face to see these photos and know the sordid methods used to capture these images. I think to myself, ‘how can folks believe that this is an acceptable practice AND bring in money, recognition, and clients under such a lie?’

The answer comes when I consider the deeper problems that we face as conservation visual storytellers: people are selfish and they do not respect the natural world and that is why we have our work cut out for us to protect what little we have left. How can we hold ourselves and one another accountable to getting on the same page about what is ethical and kind to our subjects, those we seek to protect and uphold as dear creatures we share this planet with?

What do you think? How do you want to be in this world? What impact do you want to have on both humans and these precious species who rely on instinct to survive in a world with less and less habitat and options for breeding? We have already taken so much, pushed so many into struggles to survive by our belief that our lives and livelihoods matter more than theirs.

This is why we are out there doing this work to celebrate, protect, raise awareness, and respect the natural world BEYOND humans, so that there are wild spaces for animals to thrive and for our children’s children to enjoy with awe, wonder, and stewardship.

So the next time you encounter that bait and switch practice of calling a bird in to be photographed, say something. If you photograph a bird who has been baited, called in or captive, label it. This is the truthful disclosure required by NANPA for all photographers who attract birds with sounds and calls. This is a start. Together, we can strive to be more ethical with one another, and perhaps, with our subjects as well. Truly, I believe that our work needs to move more in the direction of patience in our practices so that we can tell the truth and be proud of it.

Photos in this article are of a Northern Pygmy-Owl that I waited in a blind to photograph. Please enjoy these natural captures and join me in this journey of ethical nature and wildlife photography where patience pays off and no one is harmed in the process.



One Response to Ethical Nature Photography: Truth in Captioning
  1. Comment *Thank you Donald for telling the story. It seems so harmless, when, in fact as you said, it’s a ruse.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *