By John E. Marriott
Wildlife photographers play a unique role in today’s social media-crazed world. A captivating picture of a bear cub can raise thousands of dollars for a wildlife organization; an engaging shot of a wild wolf can reach hundreds of thousands of online eyeballs, bringing attention to an environmental issue; and a photograph that twigs our emotions, be it of a whale or a weasel, can influence people in a way that simply wasn’t possible a decade or two ago outside of a few select magazines and newspapers.
Having a voice
As many of you are likely already aware, I use my standing in the Canadian and international wildlife photography community regularly to rant, rave and inform the general public and my followers (including many of you) of wildlife issues near and dear to my heart. One month I may choose to champion a fundraiser for the Northern Lights Shelter in Smithers, BC (the world’s only grizzly bear rehabilitation facility), the next it might be a rant about wolf poisoning in Alberta with an angle on how you can get involved.
I decided early in my career to not only try to make each and every wildlife photography encounter as perfect as I could (see Striving for Perfection in OPC issue #18 — Summer/Fall 2011), but to try to stick to an ethical standard for what I do in the field and in the office. For instance, I’ve never sold an image to a hunting magazine in my entire career, despite the fact I could barely pay my rent in the first two years I went pro. To me, the idea of taking a photograph of a protected elk in Banff only to see it potentially grace the cover of a big US hunting magazine just didn’t jive with my ideals. I’ve always supported hunting to put food on the table, but have never been able to wrap my head around hunting for the biggest trophy (which is what magazines want to portray).
Similarly, I’ve made conscious decisions in my career to end business arrangements with organizations or corporations that didn’t match my own feelings regarding wildlife. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in the US came out in 2013 with an extremely strong anti-wolf stance, so I countered immediately by ending my 17-year business relationship with them.
The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s ok to have ethics in wildlife photography. In fact, I would strongly encourage it and believe it’s part of our responsibility. In the field, you can help influence how others act and react around wildlife by setting an example. If I’m photographing a grizzly bear from my vehicle and I notice a crowd forming and people getting out and starting to crowd the bear, I’ll often speak up and ask people to get back in their vehicles (the trick, of course, is to do it politely, which I’ll readily admit I don’t always do). And sometimes the best thing I can do is to drive away, leaving the scene. There are always other bears to find.
As I mentioned in Striving for Perfection, you will make mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up about them; just learn from them as best you can. I still have gaffes in the field after 20 years in the business, but I always learn from them and try not to repeat those slip-ups.
Having a similar set of beliefs in the office and on the computer may have an even larger impact than your actions in the field. Few groups in society have as much influence on environmental issues as wildlife photographers do online, because we’re constantly posting pictures that people want to see, comment on and share. Even those of you just starting out on social media often quickly have hundreds of loyal followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, if not thousands. A gorgeous wildlife picture with a few choice words can have an enormous impression. A share here and a share there and next thing you know, your appeal to end grizzly bear hunting can get reposted by a Miley Cyrus-scale celebrity, bringing attention to not only your photography, but more importantly to the issue you care so deeply about.
The key, of course, is to pick and choose your battles, sprinkling your preachings in between a good smattering of pretty pictures with no message behind them. Interestingly, though, I’ve discovered that having an active voice online on behalf of the animals I photograph has grown my following ten-fold in the past few years. In other words, you can actually increase your following by being the squeaky, and informed, wheel.
Wildlife photography has always played a major role in conservation, but today I think our photographs influence environmental issues more than ever. That makes it a perfect time for those of you with ideals similar to mine to wear those ethics proudly on your sleeve and join the swiftly growing community of like-minded photographers nation-wide who are intent on making a difference. Collectively, we now have a very unique opportunity to get our messages (and images) out to a wider audience than ever before.