Winning at What Cost? Ethical Considerations for Wildlife and Nature Photo Contests

By iLCP Staff Member Brooke McDonough and Associate Fellow Doug Gimesy

In the competitive field of nature and wildlife photography, it appears that the staging of wildlife to produce a competition-winning image has become more frequent, and in some competitions, rewarded. We have seen, for example, instances where two animals are artificially placed near or touching one another, or the posing of animals in unusual ways and live baiting – all of which can unjustifiably cause stress and anxiety to the wildlife in question.

This behavior on one level is understandable (if not generally justifiable), in the world of social media where the desire to create sensational images to get ‘likes’, and be liked, is sometimes fierce.

However, supporting and rewarding such behavior for the simple outcome of winning a competition is ethically hard to justify, as staging wildlife can come with significant risks.

The dangers of staging wildlife in photography for no greater purpose than to achieve an eye-catching, competition winning image, are three-fold: direct negative animal welfare impacts, normalizing the view that manipulation is generally acceptable, and potentially misrepresenting reality.

Direct negative animal impacts
Firstly, staging an image means manipulating the animal and possibly its surrounds. This has potential negative consequences to the animals’ wellbeing and includes:

  1. physical impacts (e.g. resulting from the animal struggling to move/escape whilst being restrained or positioned for the shoot),
  2. mental wellbeing impacts – which can range from stress to anxiety from being confined and/or handled, and used as live bait,
  3. potential short-term and long-term behavioral impacts (e.g. becoming accustomed to human interaction, being fed etc.)

All these impacts are much more likely to occur without the guidance of a wildlife expert and someone whose primary concern is for the welfare of the animal.

ii) Normalization
Secondly, staging wildlife for a competition image poses the danger of normalizing the view that it’s acceptable to use wildlife simply as a means to a creative or egotistical end, nothing more.

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 actually seen in the wild, or by full disclosure and accurate captioning, however considering the direct impacts and dangers of normalization already explained, it’s usually hard to justify.

With all of this, it is not to suggest that staging of wildlife to create images has no place and may never be justifiable. For example, in the creation of images for educational purposes, or in raising awareness about an important issue (where the image could not reasonably be expected to be captured in the wild, or would produce other negative impacts). However even in these instances, animal welfare considerations and consequences must always be paramount, along with full disclosure about the conditions under which the image was captured.

As members of an international organization of conservation photographers and filmmakers, we have dedicated ourselves to supporting conservation and animal welfare through ethical photography and filmmaking. In doing this, part of the nature of conservation and wildlife storytelling must be putting the best interests of the animal, the species and the environment, as central pillars to what we do. As such we suggest the following:

i) Guidelines:
All wildlife photo contests should have in place guidelines that:

  1. Disqualify images that stage wildlife or any behavior that has the potential to injure or distress an animal or its habitat.
  2. Disqualify images that use baiting (especially live baiting)
  3. 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:

  1. One experienced wildlife photographer who can speak to potential image capture considerations
  2. One naturalist/biologist that can speak to any animal welfare and related ethical considerations

Images have the power to create understanding, engage empathy, connection and catalyze people into action.

Organizations that host photography competitions, however, have the potential to not only engage many people in wildlife, but influence those who take photographs and the large audience they reach.

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 which 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 to wildlife.

Fortunately, most leading international photo contests include some guidelines to protect animal welfare and ensure what is captured is honest and a true reflection of the situation. Sadly though, there are still many that do not.

As such, we feel strongly that such guidelines must be added and we urge all photography contests to review their processes and ensure that policies are put in place so there is no danger that either: (i) wildlife, a species, the environment, or the profession of wildlife and nature photography may be negatively impacted by the running of the competition, and (ii) NO STAGING of wildlife be allowed. The organizations that run these contests, the field of wildlife and nature photography as a whole, and our wildlife will be better for it.

PHOTOS “Small penguin, big city” “This took 120 hours to capture.” – Doug Gimesy
Photo by Doug Gimesy, Winner, People’s Choice – Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year 2017. 

Unstaged photo by Peter Mather, Winner: 2018 Big Picture 1st Place – Terrestrial Wildlife
“An Arctic Fox licks its’ lips after feeding on a frozen caribou carcass. This photo simply required luck and patience. I was snowmobiling across the Alaskan tundra in winter, when I caught a small movement out of the corner of my eye. When I stopped, I couldn’t see anything in the great white plains stretching for 20 miles before me. Looking closer, I saw the white ears of an Arctic Fox about 50 metres away. He was shy and tucked away in the snow. I shut off my snowmobile and simply waited to see what he would do. After 5 minutes, he got up and started digging in the snow. Over the next 2 hours, I slowly slide on my belly getting closer and closer, photographing him and talking to him as I moved. I always talk to my wildlife subjects and let them know when i’m going to move, to ensure I don’t startle them. Eventually, I was able to photograph the fox from 5 feet away as he fed on a caribou carcass. In the end, he fell asleep in front of me.” – Peter Mather

Unstaged photo by Peter Mather, World Press Photo – 2020 Nominee for Nature Stories
“A grizzly bear is captured by a camera trap as it peers into a wolverine snow hole. I was working with some biologists on Alaska’s North Slope on a long term project telling the story of Alaska’s wolverines and their relationship with snow in an era of climate change. I really wanted to get a photo of a wolverine entering one of their snow holes, but I had to do it in a way that wouldn’t impact the wolverine, which is tricky, because sticking a remote camera trap in one of their snow holes can be a very invasive act. We needed to find a way to do it, that wouldn’t impact the wolverine. One day, while doing wolverine surveys with the biologist we found a series of 6 wolverine snow holes in a very small area on a frozen river. We figured that the wolverine had found some fish trapped in a small pocket of water under the ice, as it had clearly been in the area for a number of days. I thought, this is the perfect location, because the wolverine has 6 access holes, so if it doesn’t like the camera it can simply use a different hole and if it doesn’t mind the camera, then i’ll get my shot. Unfortunately for me, this Grizzly Bear showed up shortly after we set the camera, he ruined my photo (kidding) and chased the wolverine away.” – Peter Mather

From Wild to Captive: A Call for Ethics in Modern Nature Photography by iLCP Associate Fellow Melissa Groo
National Geographic: How to photography wildlife ethically by iLCP Associate Fellow Melissa Groo
Audubon: Ethics – a compilation of various articles

Additional article on wildlife ethics and staging
PBS News hour: When whimsical wildlife photography isn’t what it seems
BBC news: Wildlife photo competition disqualifies ‘stuffed anteater’ image
The Guardian: Wildlife photographer of the year stripped of his award