Disclosure and Truthfulness in Conservation Photography, a Photojournalism Moral Compass

by | October 13, 2008

NatureScapesPhotography is a critical element in the conservation toolbox. It allows conservationists to cut across the boundaries of illiteracy and indifference that isolate people from our fundamental kinship and obligation to nature. Photography can ignite the spark that moves people into action. The relationship between photographer, subject and viewer, therefore, must be one that is cemented in truth and trust.

Although much has been said about the creative freedoms allowed to nature photographers, images of nature that are used specifically for conservation communications must be credible documents that faithfully illustrate instances and facts witnessed by the photographer. When it comes to conservation messages, it is imperative that journalistic integrity go hand in hand with scientific accuracy to deliver messages of unquestionable validity on subjects that can oftentimes be politically charged. There is a real danger of losing the public trust if the images we use are subject to artistic interpretation. The lines between what is considered “natural” and what is “manipulated” are blurred, and be it because of malice or ignorance, images of questionable journalistic validity end up being used as beacons of truth when in fact they are not. Needless to say, this can have detrimental effects on the overall credibility of conservation issues.

Because photographs seldom exist in a communications vacuum, the words and graphics used to amplify the message (i.e., captions) should also be accurate and credible. They should be used to offer additional information to the viewer so that we can properly explain the realities of our world.

When in the hands of ethical, well-informed photographers, the camera is capable of producing unprecedented, powerful and indisputable information about our planet and what is happening to it—the struggles and the successes. The camera is a piece of equipment that allows us to shed light on some of the darkest corners to expose greed, short-sightedness and ignorance; when used with honor, it can help us change human behavior.

Although photojournalism has lived through many dark moments and ethical breaches, it remains unquestionably a noble pursuit, rich with pride and professionalism. These are the values the authors aim to follow. In addition to the intrinsic values shared by most photographers—dedication, commitment and hard work—our concern with credibility and persuasion requires an irrefutable ethical philosophy that guides our actions and becomes a moral compass of unquestionable validity that cuts across all aspects of our work.

Given this, it has become important to the authors to define the very blurry edges of ethical conservation photography. This document is meant to offer some general points as to what is acceptable at informing the viewer.

It is well understood that as photographers, we like to experiment with our images and that oftentimes we need to allow ourselves creative freedom. However, we should also be clear that such images should not attempt to be journalistic documents but instead, aesthetic expressions.

Between Black and White

In the best journalistic tradition, a purely documentary image is one in which the photographer has not interfered at all. In nature this can be a challenge as the mere presence of the photographer can change animal behavior. The other extreme is an image in which the photographer manipulates the scene and then goes on to digitally manipulate the file. In this case, an image may have a high aesthetic value but lack journalistic accuracy.

At the core of the issue is the fact that when reality is altered, a photograph loses its journalistic value. Pure journalism demands that an image is made without intervention and allows the subjects to behave naturally. For more information see Despite all the clever explanations, however, there are many situations in which we find that the line between documentary photojournalism and artistic interpretation is particularly blurry. This article addresses several important shades of gray in between.

Captive Wildlife

Nature photography can be a lengthy, grueling and expensive pursuit. The most secretive, rare or difficult to approach animals are often more easily photographed when they are captive. Although the practicality of photographing captive wildlife is not in itself disputed, the conditions under which that wildlife is held should be taken into consideration. While an image of a captive animal can have great educational value and contribute to lessen the pressure on wild animals, the well-being of the captive animal needs to be of paramount importance. A serious consideration, however, is that an image made of a captive animal, regardless of the circumstances, should never be construed as having been made in the wild.

Most images of captive animals fall along the blurry line of what is photojournalistically acceptable and what is not. We all have enough common sense to acknowledge that an animal photographed in a zoo is captive, but do we consider as captive a small frog we have moved a few feet to photograph under more favorable conditions? How about the construction of a small terrarium where we may place our subject to better control the light?

Unquestionably, both situations are different degrees of captivity and the metadata or caption needs to reflect this fact.

More grave however, is the proliferation of facilities where wildlife is held specifically so that photographers and filmmakers can have easier access to wild animals. For a fee, any photographer can shoot the animal of his/her liking under circumstances that make the image appear as if it had been taken in a wild setting. These facilities, common in the United States and known as Game Farms, are places where wild animals are held captive for the specific purpose of exploiting them so that photographers might profit from their captivity. They are not overseen by any organization that might impose regulations to guarantee the well-being of the animals. Very seldom, if ever, are the profits invested back into safeguarding wild habitat for those animals. Some photographers will argue that the images made in such facilities can be used to educate the public. We argue that holding an animal captive for the specific purpose of profiting from it defeats the whole concept of conservation photography.

Image Manipulation

The other circumstance that generates confusion among viewers, especially with the proliferation of digital cameras and affordable software, is the manipulation of images. Although digital correction can greatly improve an image, it is easy to lessen or entirely destroy its journalistic value. It is not as easy to define the lines that separate an acceptable level of manipulation from the construction or deconstruction of information. We have heard many photography teachers preach that “any bad image can be salvaged with Photoshop” but no serious professional would ever subscribe to this creed. In conservation photography, there is no substitute for making a remarkable image by knowing and understanding how the camera works and then using the software only to make slight adjustments that do not compromise the journalistic integrity of the image.

Many international photo competitions are now requesting that photographers submit their images as RAW files to guarantee that there hasn’t been any manipulation of the image contents. Necessary fine-tuning remains acceptable – contrast, exposure, color correction, saturation and other adjustments of the RAW files to arrive at a final image that retains the integrity of its content and context. We would like to assume that, as professionals in this field, we all know what is right and what is wrong; but there is still much abuse that goes on and the vast majority of it goes unreported.

Cloning, deleting, patching, or any action that adds or removes information needs to be carefully considered. In the framework of conservation photography, these creative choices are simply not an option and should always be spelled out in the metadata in detail so as not to compromise the credibility of conservation efforts that may accidentally publish an illustration that has been passed as a photograph.

In the final analysis we each are responsible for our own actions. We all know there are boundaries that separate creative photography from photojournalism. Although there will always be circumstances under which a clever photographer might “beat the system” and produce an image that gets away with cheating, the repercussions for the credibility of the message we are trying to broadcast are serious and difficult to repair once damaged.

The question of ethics is one that lies at the core of photojournalism and each of us has to make a decision for how we want our work to portray reality. This article is not meant as a comprehensive set of rules or as a criticism of creative photographers who are more interested in making artistic interpretations than faithful renditions of reality. It is written as a sincere attempt to provide some rough suggestions for where we, as a community of concerned photographers working with a wide variety of subjects and an even wider set of circumstances, believe the moral compass lies.


High quality photojournalism must choose reality over all other considerations. A photographer who cares about using images as pictorial emissaries for the conservation community will strive to deliver powerful images in the most compelling and aesthetically pleasing way of situations that are not always pleasant.

Words and pictures should be presented with maturity, respect, judgment and thoughtfulness. The publication of images made in a vacuum of ethical standards trivializes the profound and glorifies the trivial. The minute our images stop responding to reality, they cease to represent the truth and they lose their strength.

Our images are our only currency and we better make sure they speak the truth.

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