Friday, December 22, 2006

The Context of Ethics

Hi Mike,

I haven't seen/read the article that NG has posted online yet, but I did look at some of the photos. Very stunning images. The reason for my interest in the photos started with a post on a photography forum that I'm a member of.

The post mentioned the article, and the photos, but the main point of the discussion was based on the disclosure in the back of the magazine that told how the images were taken.

The photographer captures wild these birds from the wild, takes them to his mobile photo studio inside his SUV, and released the birds next to some nectar filled flowers, and starts shooting.

As an avid nature/wildlife photographer I find this practice to be a little disturbing. I'm all for getting a great shot of a beautiful subject, but this practice seems to be taking things a little to far. Just wondering what your thoughts are on this subject.

Michael Smith

* * *

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the great question. I saw the disclosure referring to the technique employed by Dr. Luis Mazariegos, founder of the Hummingbird Conservancy, whose mission is to "Conserve the species of hummingbirds and their habitat through the integration of research, environmental education and the active participation of the community and the establishment of natural reserves." Let's step through the issue and compare it with bird banding, an endeavor I fully support and believe is ethical and valuable to the science of ornithology.

I assume Dr. Mazariegos possesses the necessary credentials and licenses for netting hummingbirds and holding them in brief captivity, just as any bander. Banders frequently photograph birds in the hand for documentation purposes, such as Powdermill Avian Research Center. So one difference may be is he places birds in a cage with food in order to capture a photograph. I've observed banders placing birds in pouches and tubes, but I don't know if they ever use cages to queue birds to be banded. [Katie Fitzmier, a colleague, birder and licensed bird bander, just informed me they do employ Potter traps.]

The disclosure in National Geographic also states that his intent is to "...photograph every known species - some 300 in all - of hummingbird." Is Dr. Mazariegos doing this strictly for his own personal pleasure or gain, or is he using his photographs to advance his conservation goals and efforts? His photographs adorn the Hummingbird Conservancy's website and they do have a banding/monitoring program. He has a book out as well.

Though not positive, my guess is he wouldn't waste a captured bird by not banding it once he has photographed it. I could be wrong - perhaps he releases them unbanded. There's no doubt that capturing a wild bird, under any circumstance, will cause it to stress. There are extensions to ABA's birding ethics specifically calling on nature photographers to minimize their impact on birds while photographing them. To my way of thinking, the boundaries of ethics are somewhat flexible under a banner of advancing our knowledge and appreciation of the world's hummingbird species, versus willy-nilly photographic listing of species. I don't think an equal set of ethical standards necessarily applies.

I think I can make that distinction, so in the case of Dr. Mazariegos, I believe his cause is noble and justifies his technique. Some of the hummingbird images he has captured are the only ones that exist for that species. I'd like to think my photographic goals are in some way similar to his, in that by showing the public the astonishing beauty of birds, people will discover an appreciation and learn to love and protect them - people will protect what they love. I'm not a scientific researcher and don't hold any credentials to net and capture birds. But if I did, would I (for photography)? I'm not sure - probably not, though. I think the context and intent of why such photographs are being taken must be considered. At least from his group's website, his message comes with a warning - the habitat these birds depend on is being degraded and lost at an alarming rate. He's showing the world some of what we risk losing.*

The question of whether or not you think the technique employed by Dr. Mazariegos is ethical probably hinges on whether or not you believe his intent justifies it. In this case, I think it does. This begs the obvious question where to draw the line. I'm not sure. It's pretty easy to come up with hypothetical situations a majority of nature photographers would be mortified by, but there are probably shades of gray where we'll continue to have disagreement.

* Also appearing in the January 2007 issue of National Geographic is a sobering article on the Amazon, including this interactive map showing the basin's continued decline.

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