The private life of animals pt.3: anthropomorphism and speciesism
18 December 2015 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer
In our final post about the ethics of photographing animals in 'private' spaces, Dr Brett Mills, author and senior lecturer in film and television studies at the University of East Anglia, explains why he thinks wildlife photographers should think more about animal privacy.
Animals may not know or care that they're being photographed, but we are still required to make those decisions by proxy on behalf of other species, just as we are required to decide about the privacy of human babies, or people who are in a coma, even if that decision is to intrude.
I know that wildlife photographers are highly ethical people. They love animals, and they live away from home for months on end in order to share their wonder. I don't in any way doubt their genuine sincerity and good intentions. The justification is that photography is alright because it does not disturb the animals, yet the question of whether it is appropriate to photograph animals in this way in the first place is not raised.
Getting up-close to nature can teach us about animal behaviour. Female American dippers build their nests above fast-flowing streams, high enough to be safe from flooding and predators, but low enough to stay moist by the spray. But Dr Brett Mills questions whether it is appropriate to photograph animals in this way.
Wildlife photography can be educational, and I accept that there will be genuine good that comes from that. But I don't accept that if something is educational, that's enough to justify it. Ethics is often about limiting what we can do in the name of education. That was the legitimisation for going to look at people in mental hospitals, for having humans freak shows, and for Victorian travelling menageries. It depends what you are doing in order to achieve that education. I also worry that we are making animals into objects of study rather than beings we share the planet with, that we have a shared kinship with.
Wildlife photos are often aesthetically beautiful, a real testament to the brilliant work of the people who take them. They are the way in which many people 'encounter' a range of species, and contribute to how they think about other species. But this is partial education. How is that supposed to engage me in an active engagement with wildlife that is within my grasp on an everyday basis? I think that it's symbolic in itself that we are so detached from what we call the 'natural world' that we have to photograph it in order to feel we're being inspired by it. Our understanding of nature has moved away from an embodied, physical, living everyday thing and become something that's presented to us by media.
This sleeping bearded seal took one brief peek at the photographer before nodding off again. But is photographing a sleeping animal an invasion of privacy? Brett says yes.
Wildlife photography can play a vital role in engaging people in environmental debates. But it's important to acknowledge that in order to 'do good' it must often intrude upon the privacy of animals. It's an important debate, because within the contemporary environmental context, the global effects of human behaviour are rightly under scrutiny. The environmental and educational aspects of wildlife images are assumed to trump ethical concerns about animals' privacy. The environmental plight is due to much larger issues about the way global society is structured than any photograph or exhibition can ever convey.
A lot of award winning conservation photography, like this image by Marcus Westberg, requires photographing animals at their most vulnerable. But should we think twice about this approach? Read the story behind this image here
Animals present us with a whole load of biology and behaviour that is similar but not identical to humans. But we behave as though something that a little bit different is entirely different. So that makes is OK to photograph animals unless they carry out some behaviour that says 'no'. And yet choosing any stance is in itself an ethical decision - the photographer has decided that it's OK to invade an animal's privacy because there's no evidence to suggest they shouldn't.
Of course, this is impossible to prove either way. My question is, why is the default position that we have to prove similarity? Why not take the alternative default position, which requires us to prove difference?
It comes down to straightforward speciesist assumptions that animals are different until they're shown to be otherwise, and that underpins everything about the way society constructs the differences between humans and animals, which has been at the heart of debates over the ethical treatment of animals (and other humans) for millennia.
I'm not saying it's easy! But if we ignore questions like this, we reinforce the stability of the 'them' and 'us' categories that maintains the power hierarchy and enables us as humans to decide whatever we like on behalf of other species. That includes the decisions that individual photographers make in terms of how to behave. Perhaps there is an argument for some species, in some circumstances, not to be photographed.
ABOUT BRETT MILLS
Brett Mills is senior lecturer in film and television studies at the University of East Anglia. His has published on animals in media in Environmental Communication, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Continuum, and Screen. His book Dumb Animals: Animals on Television will be published in 2016.