A few years ago, I met a girl. She's so beautiful it's suffocating. And she had nice personality too. What more could I ask for.
It's your lucky break, I said to myself.
After a few dates we started a relationship, and I poured my heart in. But things took a quick turn. I found out we had completely opposite beliefs and values in most of the more serious matters. I tried to adjust but I also knew that I could never change myself, and I should not try to change her, especially when it was about core values. We tried to make it work but it didn't. It was devastating as I saw the future crumbling in front of me, a good dream being crushed. It's like a little dagger piercing into my heart day after day. We broke up after a few months.
That little dagger piercing feeling reminded me of my wildlife photography experience when I first started.
I started wildlife photography 6 years ago as a passionate hobby, while still keeping my full time job. As a newbie, I was so amazed and intrigued by the beauty of the wildlife photos when I browsed through magazines, books, and the internet. I would look at each of those pics in awe, wondering how long it took, and how much the photographers endured, hiding and waiting in the harsh and extreme wilderness, for that special moment, when the animals showed their most beautiful natural behaviors.
I wanted to be a witness of the wonder of nature, to see these wildlife in their natural habitat. I told myself, if I could take a picture 10% as good as those, I would be so happy.
I particularly remembered a few of those amazing photos that got me into wildlife photography.
- Great gray owl mousing: One was a great gray owl flying towards the camera with both talons out. I didn't even know what a great gray owl was before, but was instantly mesmerized by their beauty and their powerful glance and huge and fluffy talons. I would look at these photos constantly in pure admiration, hoping I would get to see them one day. You can easily google "great gray owl mousing" to see those images.
- Snowy owl hunting: Another one was a snowy owl taking off from the snow. Who wouldn't love the majestic snowy owl. You can google "snowy owl hunting" and click on images.
- Osprey pouncing: I also saw a shot with an osprey flying out from the water, grabbing a fish in the talon, flying towards the camera, with water splashed all over the place, perfect green background. So powerful! Google "osprey finland".
- Puma jumping:And I saw a place where people could get snow leopard, pumas and tigers running towards the camera and jump, and it only cost $300/hour. It's still a lot of money, but to be able to see these animals I dreamed for my whole life, how crazy cool was that! Just google "puma montana".
- Golden eagle vs red fox: Then, there was this stunner, a golden eagle, my favorite bird in all my childhood, maneuvering in mid air, with talons out, trying to grab a red fox in the snow. The red fox, helplessly running away, turned his head, with mouth wide open, as if giving one last try to fight off the eagle. The whole scene was in falling snow. I had never seen a golden eagle in my life, nor a red fox. I gave utmost respect to the photographer, guessing that he must have waited for that shot his whole life. Try google "golden eagle red fox", you will be stunned too.
As a beginner, I was ecstatic, knowing that I might have a chance to really see these wild animals if I took wildlife photography seriously, and be patient. Again, I see a future so beautiful.
After doing a lot of research on the topics so that I can join some of those photo workshops or tours, I was frozen.
For those photos of great gray owl mousing and snowy owl hunting, the photographers actually went to a pet store to buy mice, and tossed them near where the owl was perched, so that the owl would fly there and grab it. They just focused their camera right at the mice, to capture the shot when the owl flew in.
And for some other owls such as the barred owls, photographers just play bird calls in their speakers to make the owls think there was an intruder in their area, so they would fly out to the open to check. And they would take pics while the owls were flying.
As for the pumas, tigers and snow leopard, I did more research, and I found out there is this whole new area called game farm and captive animals. Just imagine, if you are being captured and put in a cage, being starved so that you would follow orders. Then you would be brought out to perform running, jumping to be awarded some meat, while the one who caught you were paid a lot of money. I don't want to be that animal. So I have no interest to photograph them in such situation. Legendary photographer Mr. Tom Mangelsen wrote an article about his viewpoints on game farm animals. I advice everyone to take a look HERE. Mr. Mangelsen said in the article,
Any layperson on the street would likely agree that forcing animals to perform for several hours per day while “wandering around freely” in so-called natural settings and then putting them back into chain linked cages is cruel and inhumane.
Then the golden eagle and red fox. I found out that the photographers actually put red fox carcass at an area where the golden eagle frequented. Many said that the red foxes were road kill. But I guess the photo that I saw must be an accident, where the red fox somehow survived a road kill. There are workshops where people can pay and go hide in a blind there, with a red fox carcass placed in a place probably with a nice background, and then they wait for the golden eagles to come, and they capture a "once-a-lifetime shot".
The same thing for the osprey shot. They build a hide near where ospreys frequented. And once the workshop participants are ready, the leader would have fish throw at a spot with nice background. As the osprey pounced at the fish, they took the pictures. Anyone can pay and rent a blind there.
How ironic was that? Almost all the photos that amazed me in the beginning and got me into wildlife photography were taken in such ways. Then I dig a little deeper:
My dad told me a lot of stories about kingfisher when I was a kid, and I have always loved kingfishers. I googled "kingfisher splash". Turned out people put a small bucket with fish in the water near the kingfisher habitat to get those.
When I told my non-photographer friends how much I dreamed to photograph wolverine, they all asked me the same question. "You mean you want to photograph Hugh Jackman?" Apparently not many people knew that wolverine was indeed an animal (first). And it was on top of the list of any wildlife photographer because the chance of seeing them in the wild was as close as seeing a unicorn. I was told that the only place to photograph wolverine was in Finland, so I was almost ready to sign up those workshops no matter what the cost was. Then I found out the wolverines there were also being baited. People said, "well if you wanted to see a wolverine, that's the only way." I don't know... It just felt very different. And I lost my interest to go.
I googled the park where I saw stunning photos of foxes, pine martens and other rare animals, and I found from a blog post that people put peanut butter on tree branches! The claimed that the peanut butter was used to feed small birds but somehow these animals showed up.
Many of the eagle shots were taken when people feed them with fish. Some even put Styrofoam inside the fish so they floated, which would be easier for the eagle to grab. But its poisonous:
Many of the song bird photos were taken with a fake printed paper background and fake perch.
If you see insects or reptiles, such as a praying mantis, or a frog or a snake doing cool poses in perfect background, a lot of the times those animals were pre-refrigerated! Take a look at an article shared in facebook recently by Outdoor Photographer Magazine Columnist, esteemed photographer and my friend Melissa Groo on this topic:
Melissa wrote a wonderful article on ethics in Outdoor Photographer Magazine:
Audubon also published an ethics guideline recently.
Then a week ago, I was reading a book called "Mastering wildlife photography" by Richard Garvey-Williams. He touched on the topics of ethics, and said he once heard that some photographers would drive their Jeep to chase a hyenas in Africa. They intentionally drove the hyenas to exhaustion, not letting him to rest, until he finally broke down, stopped, and turned his head towards the jeep, saliva dripping due to fatigue. And those photographers would get their prized shots.
My heart bleeds reading those.
When I started as a wildlife photographer, I thought all the photos were captured in a way that the animals were showing their natural behaviors in their natural habitat.
Now, I could not even look at those pictures anymore, especially the Great Gray Owls and Snowy Owls. There's nothing natural. It's not real. It's just cheating to me. I lost interest and never looked at those workshops again. It's like a childhood dream being crushed. These pictures didn't bring me joy nor wonder. They are fake to me.
There are numerous heated discussions about whether it harms the animals or not. Some photographers claimed that its baited in a safe way. Some said the feeding is for conservation of certain species. Many chose not to disclose. I don't even want to go there. I just think that if a kid comes to you one day, full of excitement, and asks how you took that picture, I don't think you would be proud to say that you got the picture because you lured the wild animals using food. You are basically exploiting the need, the purity and the trust of a wild animal, who couldn't speak for themselves, for an intention of a photo.
But I don't know. Even prestigious photo contests like BBC allows (non-live) baiting and many winning shots were taken using baits. Was I being too much of a purist?
Do I take the red pill and face the painful truth of reality, or take the blue pill and continue to live in this illusion? Where should I draw the line? Because I am really lost as a wildlife photographer.
I remember reading a quote in one of Michio Hoshino's books. It said "those people who manipulated the behaviors of a wild animal just for the sake of a photo is not deserved to be called a wildlife photographer, because what they did lowered the value of a wildlife photo."
I also remember George Lepp said in his book "Wildlife Photography: stories from the field" that 'a fed coyote is a dead coyote', when he sadly photographed a coyote approaching him near a parking lot, where the coyote had obviously been fed by other people before, and started to rely on humans.
Few days ago, I saw a quote by photographer Kevin Schafer in his book "Penguin Planet" (as I was doing research while writing my book on Falkland Islands and realized the book name I wanted to use, "penguin planet" was already taken by him long ago). He said,
In my view, the "wow" factor of photography - its power to delight and even astonish - is directly tied to its being perceived an honest record of a real event. Without that, a picture is just an illustration, and truth is irrelevant.
All of the following photos were taken without baiting, or bird calls; and the animals or birds are not captive.
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