The Camera Sometimes Lies

Three gaping bills thrust into the shallows of Lake Kerkini to trap their prey. From below, a snapshot reveals the fish-eye-view the moment before they are engulfed by the leathery pouches of the Dalmatian pelicans. This is the striking image created by Bence Máté in his photograph The Great Gape for this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition; ‘created’ being the operative word, the scene was staged for the cameras.

But shouldn’t wildlife photography be a truthful representation of its subject? Is it cheating or unethical to bait animals for photography competitions? Ultimately, is the product more important than the process?

Unable to capture the image he was looking for due to the poor visibility in the lake, Máté needed an alternative. “He built a large, floating, deep-water pool, designed a complicated water-filtering system and then set about devising a way to photograph the birds remotely,” reads the exhibition label for The Great Gape. “To control what was being taken under water and to check the images on a laptop, he devised a special remote-control system involving a lot of wire.” The scene captured in the final image took six weeks to achieve, and was rewarded with a commendation in the Underwater Worlds category of this years competition.

Whenever the ethics of staged wildlife footage are questioned, the reply is always the same; we are not showing the public anything that would not happen naturally. By manipulating the situation it is possible to create a more cinematic experience for the viewer, and so long as the animal’s behaviour portrayed is truthful, where is the issue?

A short trip across Exhibition Road and I find myself in a small gallery towards the back of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Next door, an exhibition on pearls bustles with school children but in this room it is quiet and calm. Across the walls hang staged photographs—scenes created for artistic purposes—as part of the Making It Up: Photographic Fictions exhibition. It explores the relationship between photography and fiction throughout history. The staged photograph has become a familiar form in contemporary art, but it is a technique as old as photography itself.

Long exposure times prohibited early photographers from recording split-second action, so anyone wishing to photograph anything other than portraits would have to be inventive with their staging. This is particularly evident for Roger Fenton, sent to the Crimean in 1855 to document the war. Fenton captured haunting landscapes of battlefields in the short aftermath of conflict. In Valley of the Shadow of Death, an example on display at the Making It Up exhibition, cannon balls are strewn across a now vacant battlefield. However, this is in fact one of two photographs of the same location, where the second features no cannon balls and there is speculation as to what extent Fenton staged Valley of the Shadow of Death for dramatic effect. Is Fenton lying? There is no doubt that the photograph is more evocative for their presence.

By taking control of the scene, photographers are able tell their own story as they intended, and the product is better for it. In wildlife documentary, the prime time Attenborough series’ are only able to produce their end-product because of the control and attention to detail they exert over each scene. In Making It Up, each artist could manipulate all of the elements in their photograph—including, in Fenton’s case, whether cannon balls feature in the battlefield—to elevate their photographs to works of art. So why shouldn’t wildlife photographers use the same production values?

Critics of the technique say that a staged photograph loses its instantaneousness—the magic quality that makes it feel alive—or that they are too contrived. But sometimes a photograph needs to feel still; a frozen moment, just as the photographer saw it in their mind’s eye.

As I leave the museum I reflect that, whether it is Watson and Crick self-consciously posing next to their DNA model or Neil Armstrong adding another to the holiday album, even photographs in science are staged. Rarely is a moment of scientific discovery captured at its inception. So why not use this fact to add a little artistic licence and create something so much more powerful? Making It Up draws on photography in its most controlled form, its most cinematic form. Can science photographers learn something from contemporary art? Sometimes, as with Fenton’s cannon balls, a white lie can say so much more.

This article was first published on Refractive Index (December 19th 2013).
Image Credit: Jack Hynes (via Flickr)

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