From Wild to Captive: A Call for Ethics in Modern Nature Photography

Article by iLCP Associate Fellow Melissa Groo

Broad-Winged Hawk, Captive, The Raptor Trust Center, New Jersey, Melissa Groo

This is a thrilling time to be a nature photographer. The digital age has brought advancements in camera capabilities that only a couple decades ago were beyond our imagination. Shared GPS coordinates, drones, thermal imaging, camera traps, photo metadata, online forums, and other tools inform us on the location of elusive, charismatic wildlife, allowing us to close in on them quickly and in numbers. Photography workshops promise to take us to every corner of the earth for bucket list adventures. Social media gives us platforms to instantly share our adventures with families, friends, and followers.

Though this might well be the greatest time in history to be a nature photographer, it’s possibly the worst time to be a wild animal. Habitat loss, wildlife trade, pollution, and climate change are all profoundly affecting wildlife. Global wildlife populations have fallen by 58% in the last 50 years, according to the 2018 Living Planet assessment released by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund. If the trend continues, that decline could reach two-thirds of all vertebrates by 2020.

Meanwhile, the power of visual imagery appears to be at an all-time high. Photos can seize attention and quickly go “viral,” having impact that the written word often fails to attain in this increasingly fast-paced world. This can be a profound force for positive change and course correction. At the same time, such an environment is fertile for artifice and manipulation (human nature being what it is). In addition, everything is taking place against a backdrop of increasing skepticism for once-trusted news sources, some of whom even falsify stories, doctoring still images and even videos to tell more convenient or self-serving “truths.” The juggernaut of social media has also spawned a culture of mistrust, stoked by intense competition and one-upmanship. In order to be seen, visual boundaries are pushed, whether in the arena of extreme adventuring, lavish lifestyles, or stunningly close encounters with charging wildlife. The race to garner the most likes and the most followers invites shortcuts in ethics and honesty.

Although in some genres of photography, such shortcuts leave no victims save for the duped viewers, in other genres there are serious issues of human rights, animal welfare, and habitat destruction. In nature photography, the need for ethical standards has never been greater, particularly in regards to how we both approach and represent wildlife.

Shortcuts in nature photography may sometimes be taken at a wild animal’s expense, such as invading its space to spur a look of ferocity, cutting branches away from a nest or den to get an uncluttered, more aesthetically-pleasing view, or throwing out pet-store mice to compel an owl to strike a stunning in-flight shot aimed at the photographer. Artistic visions and goals may supersede any consideration for the immediate or lasting effects of a photographer’s field practices. The naturally-occurring, authentic behavior or habitat of an animal may be perceived as too boring, too static, too messy. Photographers’ motivations of course vary widely, and each of us are entitled to pursue our own artistic objectives. However, undeniably, as nature photographers, when we are in the field, by nature of our very presence, we are having a direct effect on the land and our living subjects. To be true stewards, to be purveyors of the truth, and to be cognizant and respectful of our fellow creatures, requires ethical considerations and standards. Fortunately, many nature photography and conservation organizations are adopting ethical guidelines for nature photography, such as the National Audubon Society. These guidelines can be a helpful starting point for all of us.

Bobcat, West Yellowstone, Montana, Melissa Groo.

Responsibilities to our wild subjects don’t end when we return to the comforts of home. We still impact the natural world, whether we realize it or not, when we represent an animal to an audience, even long after we have taken it. The implicit or explicit message we convey, and how we discuss–or omit–the truth of its life, affect a viewer’s perception of that animal and of how we photographed it. We live in an era where the sophistication of post-processing techniques can obscure or disguise the truth of an image, to even the most seasoned eye. The indistinguishability of what is real and what is not in nature photography begs the need for authenticity and truth. Trust between a photographer and his/her viewers is critically important. This bond of trust can be fragile, easily broken in an instant when deception is uncovered. Honest captioning has become a critical ingredient for wildlife photographers who value that trust.

Why is it more important than ever to be honest with viewers? In large part because our growing disconnect from nature and the natural world is real. Our relationship to the world around us is in large part mediated by our handheld devices, our impressions of the natural part of that world often derived entirely from what we see on those devices. The sum of our experience with the wild world may come straight from Instagram. What do we come to believe about how the natural world works? Is there any understanding conveyed about the needs and challenges of a particular species, or the way in which it interacts with its environment? Do we ever learn anything about how it’s connected to that environment, about what the components of that environment are that it can’t exist without, or that can’t exist without it, living and breathing, alive on the landscape? In a world of disconnection, getting across the idea that everything is connected is more urgent than ever.

As a counter to this disconnect, “conservation photography,” has sprung up in the last couple of decades. Its primary goals are environmental activism and change. Essentially photojournalistic in style, it tells a visual story that brings to light meaningful ecological truths. The point of view of the photographer may range from dispassionate and objective, to deeply personal and emotional.

The International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) was founded in 2005 to help formalize conservation photography as a distinct genre; to recognize, link, and promote photographers who were devoted to conservation through their photography; and to articulate the ethical standards that underpin conservation photography. ILCP’s stated mission is to “further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography.”

The highest ethical standards help guide ILCP Fellows. But a photographer doesn’t have to be a Fellow with this organization to actively adhere to the basic ethical principles it has set forth. These principles rest on the values at the heart of ethical photography: placing paramount importance on the safety and welfare of a subject, and on the accuracy and honesty of the story told or implied.

In truth, ethics are not always black and white. There are many shades of gray, and just about every situation when we are out there is unique, requiring different approaches. What we can do is build ethical considerations into our fieldcraft as surely as we can build in knowledge of our camera’s settings. Considerations like taking the time to learn about the natural history of our subjects and their landscapes, minimizing disturbance on wildlife during critical nesting cycles, or keeping predators wild and unhabituated to humans.

Lion Cub, Tanzania, Melissa Groo

Photography of captive wildlife is increasingly popular in nature photography, providing a convenient, affordable option to tracking animals in the wild. Such photography has different ethical considerations which are no less urgent. Captive animals are in the care of facilities whose motives range widely, from pure altruism to sheer profit-seeking, and there are many gradations among these extremes. It is a poorly regulated industry, and it’s up us to do the necessary research to determine what kind of facility we are visiting. The dollars we spend can perpetuate cruel, unethical practices, such as the ongoing breeding of exotic wildlife expressly for our photo sessions, or can support legitimate sanctuaries providing critical forever homes for animals that may have been abused, abandoned, injured, or orphaned, and cannot be returned or released to the wild.

Online resources make useful information available to all of us, and well-respected, accrediting bodies have done a lot of the work so we don’t have to. If interested in visiting a place that calls itself a “sanctuary” or a “rescue,” it’s essential to know that these labels mean nothing and can be claimed by anyone. A good starting point is to check with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to see if it’s listed there. If interested in visiting a zoo, we can check to make sure that it’s accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Note that the AZA is distinct from the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), a recently-formed, somewhat controversial coalition with a decidedly confusing name/acronym. Although some debate may occur whether every AZA-accredited facility provides the quality of life to a captive animal that some of us would wish, these facilities are certainly held to high standards of care.

One of the alluring traps for amateur photographers are photography game farms, where exotic, charismatic carnivores, kept in cages most of their lives, are trotted out to perform for paying photographers. For years, there was a thriving market for these images, as, when the need arose for shots of certain rare or elusive species, magazines claimed there were no other options, that no “good photos” existed of these creatures in the wild. This is certainly no longer the case, as, given our advanced technology, transportation, and information systems, just about every animal has now been photographed in the wild, sometimes exhaustively. Non-invasive tools like camera traps are also increasingly providing images of furtive animals.

Though these places continue to attract customers, most photographers now shun them, well aware that the photos derived from the use of these “photo slaves” are no longer allowed in most magazines or photo contests. Yet these images continue to permeate social media, particularly Instagram, where perfectly coiffed snow leopards and mountain lions leap between boulders or surge fiercely at the camera. The photographers, almost always omitting the fact that a handler is standing by with treats or prods, and that this animal will soon return to pacing in its cage, lead viewers to believe this was a once-in-a-lifetime, even risky encounter in the wild.

Mountain Lion, Triple D Game Farm, Montana, Andrew Geiger for Audubon.

Most viewers have no way of distinguishing these photos from photos of truly wild animals. If they knew the truth—that these are captive animals bred simply for profit and performance–they might feel very differently about condoning these images in any way. Viewers would be disgusted if they came to realize that these facilities are the exotic version of puppy mills, churning out new batches of bobcats, lynxes, and cougars every spring to pose cutely on stumps or among wildflowers for photographers. Once they outgrow their cute stage, the fate of these hapless animals is largely unknown, although some reports find them ending up at facilities that are little more than roadside zoos.

ILCP feels strongly that photography game farms are unethical and that the concept is outdated. To be specific, “photography game farms” as cited here are principally in the business of making money from genetically wild, captive animals that perform for paying photographers, filmmakers, and artists. We believe that the images that originate from these businesses dupe viewers, dishonor and pollute the field of wildlife photography, and cruelly consign exotic animals to lives of cages and commands. This position is explicit in our code of ethics, and we stand with the other organizations, magazines, and competitions that have rules forbidding photography game farm images, and statements on the unethical nature of game farms. These include the National Audubon Society, National Geographic magazine, National Wildlife magazine, Nature’s Best, and Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year. We urge local, regional, and national nature photography groups to similarly take a strong position.

Cheetah Cub, Tanzania, Melissa Groo

The truth is that the mantle of responsibility for veracity, integrity, and ethics in nature photography includes not only photographers, but all consumers of photographers’ images. It’s time for organizations, publications, stock agencies, and photo contests to take a stand for ethical photography across all platforms from web sites to social media, condemning images from photo game farms and pseudo-sanctuaries, as well as the baiting of predatory birds and mammals for photography, a practice which habituates and endangers these animals.

Finally, truth in captioning is more critical than ever. We do a disservice to animals when we deny the truth of their lives in an image. The life—even soul—of a captive animal, especially a genetically wild one—is very different from that of a truly wild one. As nature photographers, whether we are interested in conservation, in accuracy, or simply in building a loyal and trusting audience, the honesty and clarity of our captioning serves three parties best: the animal, our viewers, and our own reputation. Labeling images of captive animals as captive ensures we keep a covenant of trust with the end users of our images. Truth in captioning is also critical when creative manipulation in post-processing has altered the reality of a scene.

We all share this planet together. We all share a responsibility to respect and preserve life for future generations. As nature photographers, may we honor and celebrate the natural world, seeking to educate rather than mislead, to shine a light on the truth rather than obscure it, and above all, to dignify and honor the lives of creatures who cannot speak or advocate for themselves, and yet grace us with the gift of their beings.


Melissa is a wildlife photographer, writer, speaker, and educator. She’s an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine, and writes a bimonthly column on wildlife photography for Outdoor Photographer magazine. She speaks and writes extensively on issues of ethics and conservation in wildlife photography, and was Chair of the Ethics Committee for the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) from 2014-2018. She remains on the committee as a member, and also serves on the Conservation Committee. In 2018 she received NANPA’s Vision Award. Her work has been published in numerous books and magazines, such as Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, and Natural History. Melissa is represented by National Geographic Image Collection and has a long-term gallery at Audubon Greenwich in Connecticut.