The private life of animals pt.2: awareness and research

11 December 2015 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

No. of comments: 1

In the second of our 3-part series exploring the animal privacy debate, wildlife photographer, Will Burrard-Lucas - who has pioneered technologies such as remote-control cameras and camera traps - shares his thoughts.

Will Burrard-Lucas is a pioneer of remote-control camera technology, including BeetleCam, that he has used to photograph these African wild dogs in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe


If a human knows their privacy is being violated, then they feel adversely affected. An animal doesn't. If an animal genuinely has no concept of it, is it something we need to worry about? It's saying that because we have a sense of privacy, we ought to worry about whether animals do. But aren't we just attributing human emotions and feelings to animals that don't have a sense of this and don't care either way?

I think it is acceptable to film and photograph animals in these personal spaces as long as they aren't stressed as a result. If a photographer is putting a camera in a burrow, it's his or her responsibility to work with someone who really does know what they're doing, such as a researcher or conservationist. If I'm photographing wild dogs at the den, for example, I always work really closely with someone who can spot the warning signs so I don't cause any disturbance.

Will's project documenting the work of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP) was undertaken in collaboration with conservation experts


From a research point of view, being able to get a look inside what happens in those situations, means you can learn a lot, which can then inform conservation decisions, whether it's protecting suitable nesting sites, or prey species and so on. From that point of view, there's merit in being able to photograph in these places.

Often showing animals in these situations, where people aren't used to seeing them, can create a connection or impact on the viewer or be used to raise awareness and get people passionate about a species in a way that wouldn't be possible if you weren't seeing the animals' private lives. There are certainly times when showing people images they haven't seen before has value in itself.

"If a photographer is putting a camera in a burrow, it's his or her responsibility to work with someone who really does know what they're doing, such as a researcher or conservationist."


I photographed Ethiopian wolf pups as they first emerged from their den and got a whole series of compelling images that were then widely shared, inspiring people to care more and to want to conserve this unique species. A large percentage of the proceeds from the resulting book also went straight to Ethiopian wolf conservation. If we'd just had photos of adults out in the landscape, I am certain that the project wouldn't have been as successful. Yes, it was a look into their private lives, but those photos had a direct conservation benefit through raising funds and awareness. If the images aren't put to any use and just sit in someone's private collection, then maybe there's less of a justification. Photographing them is balanced against the benefit of those images being put to good use.

Showing the public something new and therefore inspiring conservation action is one reason photographers should get closer to wildlife, says Will


In order to make informed decisions, there has to be some sort of evidence. If you don't have science to guide you, you get into situations where humans do things based simply on belief, such as believing that rhino horn has health benefits. If people are advocating behaving in particular ways with no evidence, then you could end up doing something that actually is to their detriment.

If scientists can show that animals are exhibiting a sense of privacy, then that very much does change the way we behave as photographers.  It doesn't even necessarily have to be conclusive evidence, but if there is some evidence to show that, then it would make me think twice about photographing an animal in its private space. Note that I am talking about privacy here, not the techniques used to obtain the shots - it is a given that the presence of a photographer or camera should not stress the animal.

How resulting images are used should have a bearing on photographers' actions in the field, says Will


It comes down to the rights animals have in comparison to humans. And there are so many examples of where we treat animals differently, such as putting them in zoos. I think denying animals their freedom comes way before talking about privacy. It's all about where you draw a line. This debate is more about animal rights than about wildlife photography and the methods we use as photographers.

I can see that this debate is potentially a minefield, and the further you go into it, the more questions it raises. It's certainly given me a lot to think about.




Photographer Will Burrard-Lucas is known for using innovative techniques to film and photograph wildlife in fresh ways. In 2009, he created BeetleCam, a remote-control camera buggy, in order to take ground-level photographs of African wildlife. He has also designed a range of devices to make camera trap photography easier and more accessible. In 2013, he founded Camtraptions, to bring these products to market, and to provide free training resources for remote and camera trap photography. You can view Will's work on his website, Burrard-Lucas Wildlife Photography, or by following him on Facebook and Instagram.


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