If you’re a nature enthusiast, chances are that somewhere in your home you display at least one image of a wild animal in its natural habitat: a framed photo hanging on your wall of a black wolf peeking through the leaves, a calendar on your desk with 12 glossy shots of snow leopards in rocky places or several conservation magazines — whose covers depict eagles or hummingbirds in flight — stacked on your coffee table.
What may surprise you is that many — if not most — of those images may not be of wild animals on their home turf, but photos of captive “game farm” animals rented out to the photographer and trucked to a scenic location.
It takes strength of mind and character.
One of the requirements for becoming a wildlife photographer is to possess a ton of patience. You also need to have the fortitude and physical strength to sit in freezing snowstorms, blistering heat and pounding downpours for hours at a time, waiting for the opportunity to get that “perfect shot.” Sometimes, that moment never comes. Nature doesn’t always cooperate with a photographer’s pressing deadline.
When that happens, some photographers (and magazine editors, catalog company executives and calendar producers) will hire wildlife from a game farm. Owners of game farms will bring “model” animals to photographers at the setting of their choice so they can get the shot — and the paycheck.
Using captive, “tame” animals as substitutes for authentic wildlife isn’t new. Even the early Walt Disney films of the 1950s and 1960s — which, for decades, set the standard for nature films — went this route. In White Wilderness, Part II (1958), for example, lemmings, caught by children in Churchill, Manitoba, were put on a turntable and flung over a cliff into the sea to simulate their “suicide runs.” Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (which premiered in 1963) often staged animal scenes.
While today’s nature productions have come a long way in authenticity, such as the BBC’s Planet Earth series (2006), Disneynature’s Earth film (2009) and the current PBS Nature TV program, stock photo agencies, such as Getty Images, routinely sell “wildlife” photos that were actually accomplished with the aid of a game farm. Some are labeled as such; some are not.
A little shampoo works wonders.
I talked with well-known nature photographer Patrick J. Endres of AlaskaPhotographics.com — whose images have appeared on the covers of magazines such as National Wildlife, Defenders and Backpacker — for his take on this issue.
“I consider myself first and foremost intrigued and lured by the creative element of photography, so I don’t approach it with the premise that an image be represented exactly as it was seen,” Endres said. “This is not problematic, generally, in the artistic and commercial realms. However, when it comes to the editorial photography marketplace, or nature and wildlife prints, I think that image manipulation, digital alteration or captive animal status is something that should be disclosed.
“I have never photographed at a game farm, and generally would not find satisfaction in getting imagery at such a location. However, if I were doing an assignment for a commercial client that required the use of tamed animals, I would consider it a reasonable option. For nature prints, and images I sell for editorial use, I do not alter them beyond the standard image processing attributes. If an image has been digitally altered, or includes a captive or tame animal, I believe it should be disclosed.”
If an image on Endres’ Web site has been digitally altered, he includes the words “DIGITALLY MODIFIED IMAGE” in capital letters in the first line of the caption. However, not all nature-image sellers adhere to this same standard of disclosure — either because they don’t know if a photograph depicts game farm animals, or they don’t bother to ask.
To be honest, animals in the wild often aren’t as good-looking as their game farm counterparts. Out there, wolves get diseases, leopards starve and eagles receive wounds. Leaves and dirt adhere to their fur and feathers. Would you buy a photo of a wild animal that looked dirty or sick? Now that photos of shampooed and well-fed wildlife have flooded the marketplace, do you expect anything less?
Should it be required that shots of captive, game farm animals be labeled as such, or not? Would you feel differently about your black wolf photograph if you knew it was actually of a game farm animal? Let me know your thoughts.
Feature photo: ©Patrick J. Endres, alaskaphotographics.com.