Winning at what cost?
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
The staging of wildlife for photography competitions
By international League of Conservation (iLCP) staff member Brooke McDonough and iLCP Senior Fellow Doug Gimesy
In the world of social media, where the desire to create sensational images is fierce, staging photos and misrepresenting reality is nothing new. However in the competitive field of nature and wildlife photography, sadly it appears that this practice has become more frequent, and even sometimes rewarded. We have seen for example, instances where two animals are deliberately placed near or touching one another, the posing of animals in unusual ways, and even baiting. We have also seen the captioning of images that both anthropomorphise wildlife, and misrepresent the truth about a situation - all for what appears to be no greater purpose than social media ‘likes’ and fame.
So the question must then be asked, can the staging of wildlife, for what appears to be no greater purpose than recognition in a photography competition, ever really be ethically justified?
‘Small penguin, big city’ by Doug Gimesy Winner: 2017, Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year (People’s choice). “This took nearly 2 years and 120 hours in field to capture. I first became a member of Earth Care St Kilda and would go out with researchers to better understand them and what was ok etc.. Then when the conditions were perfect, with permission, I would go out, set up my camera, and sit quietly, waiting - indeed hoping - for some penguins to move into the frame” – Doug Gimesy
The dangers of staging wildlife can probably be broken into three areas; animal welfare issues, normalizing the treatment of wildlife as simply a means to a competition end, and (potentially) misrepresenting reality.
Direct negative animal impacts
Firstly, staging an image normally involves manipulating the animal in some way and/or its surrounds. Doing this can have:
physical impacts (e.g. resulting from the animal struggling to move/escape whilst being restrained or positioned for the shoot),
mental wellbeing impacts – which can range from stress to anxiety from being confined and/or handled, and used as live bait,
potential short-term and long-term behavioural impacts (e.g. becoming accustomed to human interaction, being fed etc.)
And of course, these are much more likely to occur if not under the guidance of a wildlife expert, or someone whose primary concern is for the welfare of the animal.
Secondly, the staging wildlife for primarily competition purposes (and possible notoriety), poses the danger of normalizing the view that it’s acceptable to use wildlife simply as a means to a creative or egotistical end, and nothing more. That’s impossible to justify, and the dangers of accepting such an attitude has recently been exposed when National Geographic reported on the hidden cost of wildlife tourism and selfies.
iii) Misrepresenting reality (i.e. deception)
Finally, staging wildlife presents the danger of misrepresenting reality. Of course, this concern can be overcome if what is staged is also actually seen in the wild, or by full disclosure and accurate captioning. However, considering the direct impacts and dangers of normalization already discussed, it’s usually hard to justify.
Having said all this, we are not suggesting that staging of wildlife to create images never has a place, or may never be justifiable. To us, the key question, do the ends justify the means? For example, the creation of images for educational purposes, or to help raise awareness about a bigger issue (and where the image required could not reasonably be expected to be captured in the wild, or as a result may create other, greater negative impacts), may be all good reasons to stage an image. However, even in these instances, it would have to be said that any animal welfare considerations and the consequences of such an approach would have to be front of mind, along with full disclosure about the conditions under which the image was captured.
So what’s the solution?
For us, a key consideration for all wildlife photography and storytelling must be to put the best interests of the animal, the species, and the environment, first. With this in mind, to help achieve this, we suggest the following be adopted by all wildlife photography competitions:
i) Guidelines: All wildlife photography competitions where wildlife images may be submitted should have in place guidelines that:
Disqualify images that stage wildlife or any behaviour that has the potential to injure or distress an animal or its habitat.
Disqualify images that use baiting (especially live baiting).
Provide full and honest captioning and metadata that includes:
disclosing conditions under which the photograph was made
considerations given to any potential negative wildlife impacts
We note and applaud the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for having the following in place:
“Entrants are not permitted to submit images that …. portray captive or restrained animals, animal models, and/or any other animal being exploited for profit unless for the purposes of reporting on a specific issue regarding the treatment of animals by a third party”
“Entrants are required to report on the natural world in a way that is both creative and honest”
“Entries must not deceive the viewer or attempt to disguise and/or misrepresent the reality of nature”
“Caption information supplied must be complete, true and accurate”
“Entrants must not do anything to injure or distress an animal or damage its habitat in an attempt to secure an image……an animal’s welfare must come first.”
ii) Judging committee
All photography competitions where wildlife images may be submitted should consist of a jury which comprises at least:
One experienced wildlife photographer who can speak to potential image capture considerations
One naturalist/biologist that can speak to any animal welfare and related ethical considerations
'A Salvins at Sunset' by Doug Gimesy
Winner: 2021 Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of The Year ‘Animal Portrait’.
Images have the power to grow awareness, create understanding, engage empathy, build a connection, and motivate people into action. In a world where wildlife and nature is under assault, photography competitions clearly have the potential to help do this, but they also have the ability to influence those who enter, and also the photographers who don’t. Because of this, they have great responsibility to ensure their impact (driven by what is accepted or rewarded) is not negative to wildlife or a species in any way. Photography competitions that include wildlife and nature categories, or accept images of wildlife within the competition, should really only reward those people who also hold the highest ethical standards for honesty, professional practices, animal welfare, and empathy for wildlife.
Fortunately, most leading international photo contests include some guidelines to protect animal welfare and not misrepresent reality, however sadly there are still some that do not. Of course, individual photographers need to take accountability for their actions and the consequences that follow - regardless of whether the image is taken for a competition or not - however as a start, we urge all photography contests to review their policies to ensure not only is reality represented, but animal welfare is paramount. The organizations that run these contests, the field of wildlife and nature photography as a whole, and our wildlife, will all be better for it.
Doug is a professional conservation and wildlife photojournalist who focuses on Australian issues. A Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), his clients include National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, bioGraphic, Australian Geographic, Audubon, as well various mastheads like The Guardian and NewsCorp.
Initially trained as a zoologist and microbiologist, he later completed a Masters of Environment and a Masters of Bioethics. Together, these two qualifications helped shape his thinking as what type of issues he should be focusing on and why – conservation and animal welfare issues.
Believing people should focus on the issues they care about and those close to home, his recent work has focused on the conservation and animal welfare issues facing the platypus and the Grey-headed Flying-fox - having most recently facilitated the banning of platypus-drowning ‘opera house nets’ and the listing of platypus as threatened species in his home state of Victoria, as well as launching a children’s book (with his partner Heather) on Grey-headed Flying-foxes titled ‘Life Upside Down’. Current projects include covering the illegal reptile trade out of Australia, the impact of bushfires and floods, and series of portraits called 'Wildlife Warriors, Conservation Champions and Animal Advocates’.
Winner Wildscreen Panda Photo Story Awards 2018
Winner Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year 2015 (Monochrome), 2016 (Our impact), 2021(Our impact and Animal portrait) Finalist Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016, 2020, 2021
His hope is that the images and information he shares, will inspire people to stop, think, and treat the world more kindly.