Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ethical Photography Ramblings

Long ago in the dim and distant past I brought some framed work and notecards to a "Wildlife Art Show". Admittedly, my work was not very good, or presented very well. I have worked on that over the years to where I am comfortable with presenting my work again and I do pretty well at shows, but that is not the point. At this particular show there was a booth where each artist in the show could set up one of their pieces to be judged for best this or best that and best in show. At the time I was dabbling in photoshop and had entered a piece that was a photograph manipulated to look like a watercolor painting, and although the judges liked it, they had no idea what category to judge it in, so it received no ribbon.

I could live with that, I really didn't expect to get anything anyway, but again, I am drifting away from the point. The piece that won "Best in Show" was an excellent photograph of a mountain lion. It had great detail, great light, the entire cat's body was visible and in a great position, it had everything! I liked this photograph very much, but unfortunately for me I had the audacity of asking the photographer if it had not been shot on a game farm, which she admitted, it indeed had. She then became very defensive about it, which was quite unnecessary as I was not judging the photograph or her at the time, I was just curious as to the story behind getting the shot.

As I walked away from the now quite agitated woman I began to think about what my feelings were about game farms, and I didn't have to think very long before I realized that the idea of raising wild animals in captivity so that some game hunter could shoot it for a trophy absolutely repulsed me, but I digress. I began to then think about how this applied to photography and would I ever pay money to someone who raised wildlife in captivity so that I could get a shot of something that I would otherwise have to spend many hours, maybe days and months or a lifetime to be lucky enough to even catch a glimpse of, let alone photograph. Well, a game farm would certainly solve that problem… but I was certain I would never give money to someone who raised wild animals in captivity to exploit them for profit. Certainly now would be a good time to call me a hypocrite for taking my grand daughter to the zoo and to a petting farm.

And as I thought these thoughts I began to understand just why the woman had become so defensive. She understood in her heart that some people with a lot of gall, like myself, might question the fact that she had entered a photograph into a "Wildlife" contest which was not actually photographed in the wild. Not only had she entered it in a contest passing it off as something it wasn't, but she had walked away with a nice big, blue ribbon. Now, I never approached the judges which certainly would have been petty, and I really have no idea if they were aware the photo was from a game farm or not. In the great scheme of things it matters little, but I knew right then and there that I would never shoot wildlife on a game farm, but if I did, I would be sure it was clear to everyone viewing the shot that it was of an animal in captivity, and not a "wildlife" shot.

Now, perhaps things were better in those days, before digital photography really took off and everybody became a photographer, and we didn't have such wonderful social media networks such as Facebook, but unfortunately I find that I am now many years in the future from this event, and I still have nagging questions about what is ethical and what is not when photographing wildlife. Many experiences over the last few months of this winter have made me ponder "ethical wildlife photography" even further.

As you are probably aware, we have had a great year here on the seacoast of New Hampshire and Massachusetts to view and photograph a large influx of Snowy Owls. They arrive in December and usually leave in March. In a normal year they are driven here by a lack of food which consists mainly of rodents, particularly lemmings, which multiply in their native arctic tundra. If the rodents have a good year and multiply their numbers it lessens the chance that we will see the snowy's come south, so, the migration is mainly food driven. This is called an irruption and is defined as this: " to undergo a sudden upsurge in numbers especially when natural ecological balances and checks are disturbed."

Generally this is the case, but this year has seemed to be different in that there has been a large influx of young owls, which leads one to believe there was a particularly good year for rodents in the arctic which also translated to there being a particularly good year for snowy owl chicks, more of whom survived because there was plenty to feed them, and thence they came to spend their first or second winters here with us in New Hampshire. This is all well and good for photographers and birders alike who have flocked to the seacoast to get a glimpse, or possibly a photograph of these beautiful birds which most will never see in their native habitat of the arctic tundra. Which brings me back around to the point of what I am trying to convey.

Through the wonderful communication device which I spoke of before, known as Facebook, I became aware that the owls had arrived in early December, right on schedule. On my first foray to the shoreline where they tend to hang out I knew I had hit pay dirt when I saw a group of photographers with embarrassingly huge lenses pointed at a dune, where indeed, sat a snowy owl. I stepped out of the car, retrieved my embarrassingly tiny 300mm lens and affixed it to my embarrassingly tiny and inadequate camera body, and headed out to join them. The group was gathered with their tripods and cameras along the path and behaving pretty nicely, until the owl flew over to the next dune. Then, as one the entire group scooped up their equipment as though a Hollywood starlet had just passed by and literally chased it over to the next dune. As they stepped over the dune fence and completely ignored the sign that explained the fragility of the dunes and which kindly asked them to stay off, they set up shop again in close range to their quarry, the owl.

I kept my distance and took some wide angle shots. I knew I could always crop in if there was something worthwhile and I did not need to approach any further. As the squeaky dog toys came out to attract the owl's attention and make sure he kept his eyes nice and wide open for the paparazzi, I backed off, knowing full well that I would have a better chance when the initial furor settled down and that wonderful communication device known as Facebook was flooded with fantastic close-up shots of the snowys that everyone was flocking to see and photograph. I waited a week or two before venturing back out, figuring things would calm down, but it wasn't to be. That wonderful communication device known as Facebook had spread the word like wildfire, and people were now arriving at the beaches in droves, using their smartphones to text and tweet the latest sighting locations to each other.

Ok, I get it. This is a life bird for many people. Many others who may not even be birders would like a chance to see something that is rare for this area of the world, and that they may not get the chance to see again. I was fine with this, enjoy them while they're here, but respect them as wild animals, and give them some space, Ok? Over the days and weeks I went further up the seacoast in search of them. I talked to one fellow also enjoying their visit as we were the only ones observing this particular owl who had gifted us with some excellent contrast as he landed in the wet, black rocks at shore-line. He told me he had been there the day before and had to stop some kids from throwing rocks at it. When he had questioned them as to why they would do that they told him they "wanted to see it fly."Ok, just some kids who didn't know any better, but it made me worry for the owls...

I returned further south and found that no matter where I tried to observe them, no matter what time of day or what day of the week, I found at least a few other photographers as well. I could live with this as long as they treated the owls with respect. I heard some talk of baiting the owls with mice from the pet store and I tried to explain that that was not a good idea, considered unethical and a sure way to change the habits of a wild animal. They needed to be patient if they wanted that type of shot, and they might get it. Admittedly, I do not have that much patience myself, but there certainly are those that do. I can live without getting that kind of shot, so I would never consider baiting an owl, but I am sure that many of the great owl photos that are to be found in the world used just that technique, the technique of baiting.

More time passed, and I managed a few decent shots here and there. I even brought a few friends to where I knew we would see, and hopefully be able to photograph them. On the first of these forays we managed to get a few distant shots of one while we stood with a small army of other photographers at a respectable distance. I was happy that I was at least able to find one and after a few more shots we ventured further along and were rewarded with one all to ourselves who had landed in a tree beside the road. We took a few more shots and moved on again. As we were leaving, we once again passed the hordes with their attention and cameras focused on a distant one when we noticed another we could pretty much have to ourselves perched on a light pole a short distance away.

We got as close as we felt comfortable with, trying to get some close ups. I told my friend I wanted to get a little closer, but was afraid it would be too much for the owl who would probably fly off. I said, "Be ready," and took one step towards the owl safely perched on the light pole. Sure enough, off he flew, my friend snapped the photo and left happy with a great shot. I was happy for him, and that I was able to help him get it. Next, two more friends made the trip to meet up with me and we headed out to find them. Sure enough, right where I expected we found one, though rather distant for good photography, and even with binoculars he was difficult to even pick out between the ice chunks where he was perched in the salt marsh. We drove around the area a bit in search of others, and again found one on a distant dune, only slightly better viewing than the first. I suggested we head up the coast a bit and they agreed.

We stopped and took a quick look where I had spotted the first one of the year in December, but found nothing. Despite the bright sun of the day, the bitter cold and biting wind were beginning to dampen our spirits and I was beginning to despair that I would have to send my friends home with little more than a distant glimpse of one, or was it a chunk of ice? I talked them into going up to a certain point and if we struck out there we would return to where we had started in hopes the owl had moved in closer. They were good with the idea, so off we went. When we turned into the turn around spot our hopes rose again as there were people gathering with tripods and cameras. I began to wonder at the fact that it was Monday morning, doesn't anybody work anymore?

As we approached the small throng it was curious to see that their attention was fixed on the roof of the public toilet. As we rounded the building, sure enough, there on the roof was a snowy, seemingly unconcerned about the gathering throng. As each of us got in as close as we thought was acceptable to get our shots, the snowy held her ground and continued to seem unfazed by our presence. Indeed, it was obviously her nap time and she was going to enjoy it despite the humans who ambled in as close as they could get to take her picture. While talking to some people in the crowd one woman spoke up that she had been there every day for a month or so. She pointed out some scattered ice chunks on the roof and told me that people had been throwing them there to get the snowy to open its eyes.

See? This is what I mean! where does the ethical treatment of these magnificent creatures come into play? Is it not enough to see this one so close up and be happy with it? No, people have to throw things at it or squeak toys at it so it will open its eyes for their shot. Sorry, I find it simply and plainly unethical. We got some great close up shots, and to be frank, I don't give a damn if the birds eyes were open or not. We left, and my friends were thrilled, and I was filled with a sense of thankfulness that we had had such a great sighting, and that they would not be going home with the nagging question of, "Did we really see one, or was it just a chunk of ice?"

Now, fast forward to the present and back to that wonderful communication device known as Facebook. There I sat on a gloomy, rainy day perusing a favorite wildlife photography site when I came across a great picture of a Northern Hawk Owl. It was for all purposes a well executed photograph, framed well, decent light, good detail. Only one problem as far as I could see, and that was that in its beak it held a white rat. It was glaringly obvious that this owl had been baited, and that small fact had produced quite an uproar, not only because it broke the rules of posting photos to this particular site which asked that no photos of baited animals be posted, but also because many felt, myself included, that altering this birds behavior by baiting it simply to get a photograph was unethical.

Why is this unethical you may ask? Well, I am sure there are many different points of view on why it would be unethical, but to me it is because it does a disservice to the real wildlife photographers who spend the time in the field to capture these types of behavior. And this doesn't even take into account that I found the photo ridiculous in that unless an owl had happened upon a goldmine of escaped white rats from some research center or pet store, you would never see this in the wild, making this photograph in my humble opinion, a farce. To make matters worse in my mind, the photo was posted by, get this, the President of the Ornithological Society of, let's just say, a southern state, who had travelled to Duluth, MN with an entourage of other birders to bait and photograph owls, not unlike those hunters on the game farms.

To say the least, I was a bit disturbed, as were others, that he felt this was an acceptable way to get his photograph, and unfortunately, I am sure he is not alone. Well, despite the photo breaking the "no baited animals" rule of the site, the moderator allowed the discussion about it to go on until, as it always does, some people's emotions took over and the intellectual discussion on the subject turned to infantile attacks on each others set of beliefs when the moderator finally stepped in and deleted the whole thread, which is almost always what happens when a controversial subject is breached. That was fine by me, it was easy enough to go to the man's own Facebook page where I voiced my concern about his method of obtaining photographs of owls by the bait system. His fancy pants, college educated reply to me was, "Yeah, I don't like hypocrites like you, neither." I guess I somehow expected a more intellectual reply from the president of an ornithological society who had his college credentials clearly stated on his Facebook page for all the world to see. Far be it for me, a lowly Disabled Veteran whose only degree comes from The School of Hard Knocks to question the methods of one so much greater than myself.

My reply was, "Gee, sorry you feel you have to defend yourself by resorting to name-calling. How exactly am I a hypocrite?"I got one reply before he left to go have a conniption. "I suppose you have never, or would never take a photo of a bird at a feeder?"Well, damn it, yes I have. He had me there, alright. I don't know, as hard as I try, I cannot equate buying a white rat at a pet store, staking it out in a field completely out of its element in the hopes that an owl will drop by to eat it while I snap away with my camera, with snapping pictures of the birds that drop by my feeders. I'm just stupid, I guess. So now, here I go thinking again. Am I baiting birds by feeding them? Is this unethical? Is my feeding the birds and then snapping their pictures as unethical as if I was to stake a pet store rat out on my deck in the hopes some raptor would swoop down and snatch it while I snapped away? Am I baiting the hummingbirds and butterflies that visit my garden as well?

How about when I go to the bone pile where I know the town dumps the road kill to photograph the birds? Have they been baited? Well, maybe not so much, because they would find the road kill whether it was dumped in one spot or left where it was. So, am I actually photographing wildlife doing what it does, or has their behavior been changed by human intervention? I went back and deleted my "conversation" with the president, not because he had instilled any doubt about my own methods and ethics in my mind, but because I knew my argument wasn't going to change his mind, and it wasn't worth my time. I guess my own definition of a hypocrite would be someone who was the head of an organization which I would suppose was about the protection of that which the organization was based upon who deemed that this sort of baiting was an Ok way to get some photographs to show off on that wonderful communication device known as Facebook. I guess I need to take a closer look at my own methods and ethics when I am in the field trying to get my own pictures to show off...

Sunday, May 5, 2013



Though all we may see is chaos, for myself, I choose to believe that through some miracle the universe remains in balance. If we clear the smoke and ruin we can still find the beauty and joy. It seems the cruelest of realities that with great joy and happiness must also come great sorrow and despair. We are the fulcrum, the point at which the balance is achieved. In our right hand we hold all that is precious and dear, and in our left we hold the pain and madness that awaits when the balance is tipped. Throughout our lives we tread this knife edge.

Yesterday, as the sun was sinking low and the day was ending, that which brought us such great happiness and joy came to the inevitable end that all things on earth must eventually meet. The balance was tipped, and we were plunged from light into darkness. In our hearts we know that it will pass, the sun will rise and chase the darkness until the scale is tipped again. It is the pattern of our world, and our lives, but right now there is emptiness and despair where once there was hope and light.

Somedays we have to pull ourselves back along the knife edge, claw our way back to the point where there is balance. It is a hard fought battle, if we slip or let go for even a moment the emptiness can consume us. Right now I slide along that knife edge. Behind me I drag the joy and happiness that I know I must never let go of, above me darkness and despair stomps on my fingers as I reach to pull myself up. The cruel blade cuts me deeply. Knowing that each soul here on earth has been through exactly what I am going through does not make the task any easier. It makes my heart bleed to know that the race of men is burdened with such a cruel fate.

We have all loved and lost, each in our own way, some more than others. I feel old now. I have buried my parents, a burden I thought I could not bear. I have buried a child, a stabbing pain in my heart I will take to the grave. I have buried a pet before, but never one I have loved such as this. When my world turned black and the darkness had consumed me she was there, my light, my hope, something beyond myself that gave me reason to go on. Now she is gone, and I struggle to find that reason, but I know I must.

The dawn has come. My eyes are crusted with the salt of tears shed in the darkness. My heart  feels heavy as melted lead. I realize this was reality and not some cruel dream, some cruel trick of the darkness. Despair wells up in me once again and I try to choke it down like some bitter pill. I look out on the pond. It is shrouded in mist, as is my mind. The sun rises above the horizon, bright and beautiful, and begins to burn through the mist. The memory of a morning like this comes to mind. A memory of my Emma, on the dock with me, watching the sun rise above a mist-shrouded pond. A smile comes to the corner of my mouth, as a bitter tear falls. It is balance.

The sun has risen now, the fog has burned away revealing the day in all her glory, but in my mind the darkness lingers. I do not know how to go on without her. When I buried my son she was there, bright and cheerful, and ready to love me no matter what. While I cared for my mother, long hours and days of not knowing what was next, she was there beside me, a warm fuzzball. I do not know how I became so fortunate to become such great friends with her.

I do not know how it came about that when I needed it most I was able to walk away from the working world. I had done thirty plus years, I raised my children, I cared for my father in his long illness, I helped my mother all I could. First Judy came to me, then Emma came to Judy. She was always Judy's dog, the bonds of love made them inseparable, but when I came home and didn't need to work anymore we became the greatest of friends. She would go everywhere with me, and I began to understand what it was that she and Judy shared.

I began again to find the love that I had hidden so deeply away. She was there for me in the moments of despair while I watched my mother whither like the flowers when their season has passed. She loved me unconditionally, and she taught me that this is how love must be. I loved my mom and my dad, I loved a woman or two, I loved my children, but this was deeper, purer, it was love unconditional, love that I had never understood to this point in my life, and she was there to teach it to me, though I was not worthy.

Though I had been through much in this world, there was much I had not yet learned until this little dog  taught these things to me. She taught me that each day is an adventure, to be lived to its fullest. To take everything in stride, and accept gladly what each day brings. To love unconditionally those who are in our lives, to love them as though they may be gone in an instant and we may never have the chance again. To love this world and to love my life just the way that she did.

In the last few weeks we knew that things were changing. She was not herself. A trip to the vet revealed that she had a heart murmur, and she was put on medication. The vet assured us it was not unusual, and that her arthritis was more of a health issue than her minor heart murmur. We took things easy with her, and we hoped that with the medication she would respond. In our hope I now realize there were signs we should have seen. A walk in the mountains with family did not go well for her, maybe she was just adjusting to the medication. We waited, she seemed steady, not better, not worse.

The strength we had always seen in her was there, though it was now overcast with a shadow. I knew in my heart the time was drawing near. In desperate hope we took her to the mountains again, inwardly praying that this was the right thing to do. Yesterday morning she hopped out of the car and bounded along the trail, an old dog, but a happy dog, glad to be on the trail with her favorite people and her brother Blue. We came to the low summit of Piper Mountain in the Belknaps. There were people and lots of dogs. She was her usual self in the mountains, eating kibble like she had never eaten before, or never would again.

We headed off to the higher peak of Belknap. On the less crowded summit she shared more food with her brother Blue, everything seemed fine. We headed on towards Gunstock where we would skip the summit and head down the White Trail to where our car was. As we headed up from the col it was apparent that Emma was getting tired, but still willing to move as long as we were with her. At the picnic tables below the summit we took the unmarked leg of the White Trail back down. Emma kept pace, but would occasionally stop to look around.

Back down at the road we climbed down the embankment and let the dogs cool off in the cold mountain stream, she seemed to relish this as she always had. We made the short walk up the road to the car and we all piled in. On the ride home she could not settle, it was the first time either of us had thought maybe we had asked too much, that maybe there was something wrong. When we got home she still could not settle, and we began to worry. Before long Judy decided it was time to take her to the emergency vet.

The vet immediately recognized that she was in congestive heart failure. Not much time passed and she was gone, we were too late. There was not enough time to save her. I understand enough about how things play out in this world to not stress about the what ifs, but it is always difficult to get by these. In retrospect we had seen it coming for awhile, but chose not to dwell on it, choosing rather to look the other way and letting things unfold as they were meant to. On the night she came to us we did not know she was coming, and on the night she left us we did not know she was leaving.

In between there were thirteen and a half wonderful years of companionship. How we will pick up the pieces and go on I do not yet know. Where in our lives we will store her memory is hard to say right now. She will always, always be a part of us. Her spirit led us where we would never have gone ourselves. There was no mountain too high, no trail too long for Emma. As long as we were all together, that was all that mattered. This we learned from her precious, gentle spirit, and will carry with us until the end of our days.

All her life Judy had wanted a dog, but in a small house with a large family it just couldn't be. When we were married Judy had a cat, and I had a dog, Sheba and Sky. In their old age they managed to work out a living arrangement, but as time passed they fell to the ravages of old age. With much love and care they passed on, hopefully to a better place where there is no sickness or pain. Soon after this Judy's father fell ill. Then, in a dream, Emma came to Judy. In the dream she held her father's hand as he walked across the floor. There he fell, but when she bent to help him he was gone, and in his place was a small, black dog. In reality her father had passed away.

A few weeks later we were at a place we had never been before. There on the floor of the Knights of Columbus in Lawrence, Massachusetts was a little black dog, barely old enough to be weaned, begging for food as though she hadn't eaten in a month. Nobody knew where she had come from, or where she belonged. She had found us, the dog that Judy could never have, a gift from her deceased father. She came home with us, and the rest is history.

So, from the dirty, dangerous streets of an old mill town, she found her way to the peaks of the highest mountains in New England. Not only did she hike them all and more, but many she hiked so many times we lost count. She hiked Mount Washington at least a dozen times, even taking the treacherous path up Huntington Ravine on two occasions. Of the forty eight four thousand footers in New Hampshire she hiked them all at least twice, some as many as nine times, and forty of them, including Washington and Jefferson, she hiked in winter, including Lafayette this past winter, her thirteenth.

There was no stopping her, except by that which eventually stops us all, time. Time ran out on her tiny little body, though her spirit is as big as any who ever tread this earth. On the trails, in the middle of nowhere, complete strangers would come up and ask us, "Is that Emma?!" Through pictures of her on the internet hiking forums a world of friends and fans had taken shape, and she had become a small legend among the hikers and mountain lovers of New England. Hopefully her memory will live on among the White Hills where she was quite at home.

When our pets and loved ones take the road that we cannot yet follow we often try to comfort ourselves with thoughts like, "The joy of our times together will always live on in our hearts", but right now our hearts are so empty that I don't know if the memories will ever fill the void. It will be long before we can comfort ourselves with these thoughts. When we reach for a loved one that is no longer there and the emptiness wells up inside us, I do not promise there will ever be comfort again. It has always been said that, "Time heals all wounds", but right now it is hard to believe.

So, our little girl is gone. You may say, "Do not mourn her passing, think of the wonderful life you had together!" but the emptiness in our hearts is overwhelming right now. I do not know if we will ever fully recover from this cruel blow, inevitable as it may have seemed. If there is a way to prepare yourself for letting go of the things you deeply love, I surely do not know it. Last night in the darkness Judy lit three candles. Fittingly, the one in the middle flickered out first.