The reason for my radical rep is that I believe in a principle called egalitarianism, which used to be a much stronger component of American democracy than it appears to have become more lately. The reason for that allegiance is simple, too: it's because I'm convinced by the sociological evidence indicating that excessive disparities in wealth, privilege, and status are a destabilizing influence on societies*. Inequality and unfairness are stressors that promote unhappiness and contribute to possible civil unrest.
I like civil rest.
In photography, too, I guess I'm a radical—somewhat less quietly, even.
Where the Audubon article I linked to in the previous post is concerned, I'd like to put forth a modest proposal: why not just play it straight? Why not just take things the way they are?
You probably learned in Philosophy 101 about Plato's Cave. Plato was bothered by the fact that we seem to have innate notions of essential forms—archetypes—that in some nagging sense seem more important to us than specific embodiments of them. In this view, the idea of "sailboat" (say) is more pure and perfect than any actual sailboat. In Plato's Cave, the reality we can see and experience are just shadows cast on a wall; the deeper truth is the archetype, the essence—the thing we can't see that casts the shadow.
People really like archetypes. For some people, the more pure and perfect the photograph—the more idealized the subject, the closer it gets to some universalized, Platonic ideal—the better. If a photograph is of a deer, say, they want a stand-in for the archetype "all deer"—not that specific deer, but rather the "idea" of deer.
Trouble is, photography is all about the shadows, in the Platonic sense. Photographs are instantly, effortlessly specific. People spend an inordinate amount of effort and time in the cunning application of trickery to make them less so. But what photographs want to do is show the individual thing in all its quirky, specific individuality.
Somewhere I have a photograph of a deer. She was a scruffy, mangy little thing I encountered on Skyline Drive atop the Blue Ridge. The deer there are frequently fed by sightseers and are half tame—this one allowed me to get within about fifteen feet of her. The closeup view was not terribly flattering. She had a tag in her ear and bare patches on her back. She looked like it had been a hard winter. The flies had her twitching. She had a certain angular look—she was probably hungry, which is why she let me come so close with my camera.
I can't find the picture now, but you'll have to take my word that she was very far from an ideal deer.
The idyll dies hard, though. The evidence is pretty dramatic that we're in the middle of an unprecedented period of our brief history—to put it briefly, we humans (a "weed species" like rats or dandelions or pigeons, sorry to say) are overrunning the earth. As a consequence, we're in the middle of the biggest extinction event since the one that did in the dinosaurs. All told, the best estimates suggest that Earth is most likely losing between 10,000 and 17,000 species a year. The population of lions is probably a fifth of what it was in 1910, the population of big ocean fish probably less than a tenth. Grand Banks cod are all but gone; within the span of another human three score and ten we might have lost half of the biodiversity of Earth—somewhere between one third and two thirds of the species known to us in 1900—and that's not all bugs and tiny plants that are almost just like other tiny plants; it will include, most likely, rhinos, most sharks, and orangutans. The list will go on and on, and it will include some of the elemental animal paragons that parade proudly though children's books today. Tigers. Polar bears.
That's a story that's very hard to tell in pictures.
I don't own photography, of course, and it's not up to me to tell anyone else what to do, and anyway my base position has always been that everybody should do whatever they want to as long as it's not hurting anyone. Full disclosure is good enough. If you photograph captive animals, just say so.But emotionally I find I have to go a bit further than that. What's the use of hunkering down in Plato's Cave and telling happy fibs about an idealized, romanticized ideal of wilderness that no longer exists? That's just not the story that matters. Here's another radical assertion: telling lies doesn't just promote the false; it also hides the truth. The only responsible wildlife photographers are scrupulous truth-tellers. No matter what or how they shoot. The rest have their heads in the sand. And they're asking you to put yours there, too.
P.S. If we could confine the comments to the photographic aspects of this post, that would be nice. (See what a hopeless idealist I am?)
*Note that word excessive. I'm not saying there shouldn't be rich and poor; I'm saying we don't need people who are paid $700 million a year and we shouldn't have families living in dumpsters. Also, like the proponents of any minority political view, I'm just saying we need a little more egalitarian influence, not that I want to magically transmogrify the entire United States into some misguided Harrison Bergeron dystopia of fairness taken to—er—excess.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Josh Wilson: "Interestingly enough, the 'Photo of the Day' over at PDN is a set by Joel Sartore of portraits of endangered species made in captivity. Of course, the fact that they are captive is disclosed right up front and actually is part of the premise behind the set—very staged, human-like portraits of species on the brink of extinction at the hand of humans."
Mike replies: People need to read about the shoot of the Dehli Sands Flower-Loving Fly! Great stuff.
Featured Comment by HD: "We have this conversation about climbing all the time. Rules. Ethics. I hear this guy pulled on gear. Someone said this girl previewed the route on rappel. It's clear that this guy chipped a hold to make it easier. Rumor is this team didn't make the summit but still claimed first ascent. There's only one rule, only one ethic: Say what you did. That's all. Then we can talk about whether it's a first ascent, or whether someone did it in better style, but since you said what you did, you get full credit and no slander. Say what you did. If you can't say out loud what you did, maybe you shouldn't be doing it. It seems that it works for photography also."
Featured Comment by Gilles: "Thank you for sharing; awesome post. As someone who spent months in the wilderness to find wolves and grizzlies as a graduate ecologist, I completely agree with the ethic of showing what's reality. Which is...they are very difficult to find outside of a few choice spots. Even using road kill as bait for camera traps, we rarely saw a grizzly, never a wolf. And after decades most never see a cougar.
"There's a reason so many people go to Yellowstone for wolves and Brooks Falls for bears. Without radio tracking, most are too rarely seen. And often they are mangy or have scars and wounds. And never behave like you see in captives. If you want to show a real sample of what's out there, you're going to be have to suffer hypothermia, frostbite, heatstroke, mosquitoes, deer flies, horse flies, black flies, exhausted muscles, blisters, sunburn, and so forth.
"But, on that very, very rare occasion you see something, then you are left with a true and profound sense of place. I'll never forget the first close encounter with a Coastal Brownie in Alaska, 10 feet away. Completely forgot to lift the camera. Mental image is still etched in my mind though."