Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Message of Nature and Photographers

In my last blog entry, I outlined my views on reality in photography, but why is it so important to portray reality in nature photography? You can argue about photography only showing what the photographer wants the viewer to see, but that is slightly different to manipulating the image as seen. Sometimes manipulating the viewer is wrong, but sometimes it is needed to put a message across, it's no different than a newspaper article putting a slant on a story. Photography is also telling a story, if you are making a documentary point, then it requires different ethics to an image that is simply an artistic creation. For example, near where I live, I could photograph an idyllic rural scene, with a country pub next to the canal. This would paint a picture of a quiet drink next to the canal, but in reality, right above my head would be the M5. If I was simply making an artistic photograph, there would be nothing wrong in this, but if I was photographing the pub for an estate agent and then sold that quiet scene, it would be unethical. The same would be true if I was trying to portray an animal in a similar manner. The key is to declare any concepts and manipulation.
If we as photographers portray a false impression, then it is harder for the public to trust what we tell them. It is already difficult, with people having the assumption that anything can be done (or rescued) with Photoshop and other editing software. But again, why is it so important? Does it really matter what people think? It depends on the purpose, for an artistic creation, it doesn't matter at all, but if we want to inform the public of a particular problem, then they need to trust and believe in what we are saying. For example, a few weeks ago, I came across an article (from last year I think), calling for the culling of otters, as they are decimating the stocks in fisheries. It's only 15 years, since we came very close to losing the otter entirely in England and Wales, yet already there are calls for controlling numbers. In 2003, it was estimated that there were around 4,000 otters in the country, which is barely enough to maintain a healthy population, let alone increase numbers. Further, more recent evidence comes from here in Somerset. The 2008 annual survey for the county estimates around 65 otters FOR THE WHOLE COUNTY, with a significant proportion of these otters on Exmoor, which isn't considered to be a highly productive area, due to low prey density. If you add to that, the death rate was high at 27 for part of the year (with a high proportion being cubs) and it starts looking more and more bleak. The report for the survey (written by James Williams) suggests that the known births, assuming survival, is only enough to maintain the population and not expand it. Many of these deaths were road deaths, but as part of a study, post mortem investigations were carried out, which showed a high level of a bile fluke, caught from imported oriental fish, another threat to health and survival. The dangers from pollution aren't averted either. Just last month, the South Drain that runs through the nature reserves of Ham Wall, Shapwick Heath and Catcott Heath was contaminated from an industrial plant in Glastonbury. Several dead fish were found as a direct result, plus a dead swan was found, but the cause of death will remain unknown, as there seems to be a reluctance to investigate properly. Considering the effects of pollution and the resulting decline in the otter population since the 1960's, this makes alarming reading. Just because the toxins implicated in the decline are now banned, doesn't mean that an environmental catastrophe can't be caused by a new agent. If pollution can happen in a nature reserve, without too much noise being made, what hope is there in the countryside at large? You only have to look at the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, which quite frankly, is in an appalling state, yet it is home to otters. Gross pollution with everday waste, such as bottles, cans and even shopping trolleys, is obvious, but there are also signs of chemical pollutants, judging by some of the scum.
The Somerset Levels, with all their waterways represent an important area for otters and their survival, but they are also prone to pollution from the runoff of agricultural pollutants, the source of the original toxins that caused all the problems up until the banning in the early 1980's.
The public needs to heed the messages hidden within the recent and past events, but for nature photographers to help get that message across, they have to be trustworthy, otherwise it will do more harm than good.

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