The Prickly Problem of Unnatural Photography


Unnatural photography is photos of zoo animals where the photographer let’s the reader assume, or even claims, the photos are of wild animals.

Captive Porcupine, Alaska Wildlife ConservationCenter

Captive Porcupine, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

A decent photo of  a quill pig. But the problem is that it is a captive animal at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, near Girdwood. It’s not a wild animal; it’s a captive animal with the photo carefully composed to exclude any sign that the critter is in a cage. The combination of even moderate photo skills and natural cages make it laughably easy to create the appearance of a wild animal shot that’s a lie.

Captive Black Bear, Alaska Wildlife ConservationCenter

Captive Black Bear, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

The Black Bear enclosure at AWCC makes it easy to get a shot that “looks” wild but isn’t.

The problem is a serious challenge for natural photography contests. In 2010, the British Natural History Museum stripped the winning photographer of his prize, because it was, in fact, unnatural, and taken at an animal park in Spain.

Sometimes it is nearly impossible to tell if a photo is of a wild or captive animal. Take this grizzly, for example:

Captive Grizzly Bear, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Captive Grizzly Bear, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Unless you recognize the scarred right ear, there’s nothing in this photo that suggests it isn’t a wild bear, unhappy at being disturbed while grazing.

WC isn’t criticizing zoo shots. They are fun, good practice and can capture moments that most folks can’t possibly afford to get in the wild. But WC does object to folks who try to pass them off as shots of wild animals, as natural photography.

Maybe it only matters to nature photographers. Maybe cleverly composed lies are just fine in this internet age, where accuracy, honesty and fact are just another set of commodities. But WC thinks that integrity matters, that representing a captive animal as wild, even by simple omission, is a lie. WC’s photos will always tell you if the animal is captive or not; you can do your part by looking at seemingly spectacular wild animal shots with a skeptical eye.

Captive Andean Condor, Boise Zoo, Idaho

Captive Andean Condor, Boise Zoo, Idaho

Because a portrait of an Andean Condor is almost certainly unnatural photography.

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