Full Disclosure

Michael “Nick” Nichols is the Editor-at-Large for photography at National Geographic magazine and is a founding member of the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, VA. Photocrati welcomes Nick on his first post as a special VIP guest blogger.

This past October, I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards in London. My camera trap image of a black bear in the Redwoods of California had been given an award. Last year, my close friend and former assistant Steve Winter had won the big prize with a camera trap image of a snow leopard. We both have invested years in finding ways to make elusive, wild animals photograph themselves by crossing the path of an infrared beam, triggering a disguised camera nearby.

The awards are presented in the fantastic main hall of the British Natural History Museum, under the giant dinosaur; a fabulous setting with all the mood that a great award ceremony should have. This year the winning image was another camera trap image, an Iberian wolf. Iberian wolves have come back from the brink of extinction and this image had the added energy of the wolf jumping over a fence. I was stunned by the image and immediately asked to meet the photographer.


Jose Luis Rodriguez was gracious and told me he had made the image over many months and many failed attempts by making an arrangement with a sheep farmer. He relayed that he had put “bait” carcasses inside the vacant sheep paddock for many nights while he attempted to get the image he had dreamed of. It is a perfect image. The wolf is in mid-air at exactly the right point. This is very hard to do with camera traps because the beam and the speed of the animal give results that are not perfect. Remember, the photographer cannot be there to adjust anything and most wild animals do not come back and do the same thing twice.I have a well-known image of a wild tiger jumping from a cliff directly into the camera. I got one frame in three months. One.

Leaping Tiger

The jumping Iberian wolf image seemed impossible, but I accepted it because I was proud of the photographer for disclosing that he had “baited” the animal.

My stance on ethics has always been that there is an issue if you cannot stand up and tell the world what you did. The ethics line can blur, it is not black and white. Each situation is different. Full disclosure is always the best approach.

Today, a few months later, the image has been disqualified, the photographer banned, and a wonderful award has been tainted. The wolf was tame, the wall and fence was inside a Madrid wildlife park. After the award was announced, intense scrutiny came down from Spanish photographers who revealed proof that it was Ossian, an animal actor, and that the scene had a distinct tree line that existed in the wildlife park. A sad day.

I have often struggled with the methods wildlife photographers use to make images in contrast to my upbringing as a photojournalist. I once attended a heated ethics discussion in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The panel on the stage made up of wildlife documentary producers finally answered my question about disclosure with the edged: “they will turn off the tele” if we tell them what we do. I have personally tested this. The audience does want to believe what it sees. I was stunned to the point of tears by this exchange.

Remember, I’m not taking the ethical high ground as if I’m a magician and can speak to the animals. Great wild images are hard to make and I have the luxury of time paid by my patron. In Congo, I once put a dog inside a hastily constructed cage and left it in the forest as bait for a leopard. My hope was that the dog would not die and that I could get the very elusive leopard on film, the central character in the ecosystem I was trying to document. I did this with the idea that I would always tell my audience what I did. It turned out to be a very long, funny story but the dog escaped unscathed and we didn’t get the image. Next, I sprayed leopard urine from a zoo on a trail near some leopard dung and we got one frame of a male cat. That became a double page spread in the magazine.

One must be willing to declare the process of making their images; it is an act of essential self-awareness. I firmly believe that not revealing the process leads to darkness whether or not the truth is eventually exposed.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Well I was reading along quite happily until I got to the part where you said that you [i]hoped[/i] the dog didn’t die. Bait is one thing, LIVE bait is something totally different, especially when one only “hopes” the bait survives. That’s pretty sick.

  2. I agree that total disclosure does have merit, but using live bait to capture a photograph is irresponsible and unforgivable. This does not change even when the image is used in helping a species in crisis. And using an animal that is not even native to the area? I’m surprised a Nat. Geographic employee would use such measures. So sad.

  3. The other unfortunate aspect to this is that it is a phenomenal photograph. If only Mr. Rodriguez had not apparently contravened a specific rule he could have gained merit for an outstanding image, regardless of how he captured it. “Baiting” doesn’t happen only in wildlife photography. It is an accepted practice -even in photojournalism- as long as it is not a completely faked happening. There is a great deal of truth to the statement that people would switch off the telly, as sad as that it. Full disclosure is oftentimes more about educating and sharing techniques and tips to others with similar hopes of achieving a specific type of image. Yet it can have such a negative impact in the opinions of those viewing it from the perspective of viewing only. Which is too bad. And too bad for Jose Luis Rodriguez, his reputation may have been once cemented and is now firmly cemented in mud.

    P.S. I cringed at the idea of using man’s best friend as bait, but kudos to you for admitting to it. Even if it was a low point.

  4. After reading this I was left with one question. Who is Wilder? Man or Animal

  5. With the dog incident. The whole point of full disclosure is that I am admitting something I did 20 years ago. I can could take the path that no one would know but me, my assistant, and the pygmies that convinced us that a leopards favorite food would be their pet.

    But I would know and I still know

    Just for clarity. Since one of the comments mentions National Geographic its not like I called in from Congo to ask permission. The yellow border only knew about this later when I disclosed. NGM has been made vulnerable several times by natural history photographers faking or manipulating and not being clear with all their methods . The editor must know so he does not publish and put the 125 year integrity at risk.

    Ultimately the Leopard image we published was captured with a camera trap waiting for months on a game trail.

  6. If the wolf in the disqualified photo is indeed a trained animal or ‘animal actor’ as I’ve heard it referenced, should we believe it was actually photographed with a camera trap? What is there to stop such an animal from leaping over a fence as many times as a photographer wanted? Just wondering.

  7. *sigh*

    The Wolf capture is still an excellent capture, but lying to the editor of one of the biggest magazines of all times isn’t smart. No money can buy back one’s credibility.

  8. Nick,

    Great article. I think one thing that’s hard to convey is just how HARD it is to get really high quality images of truly wild animals. As one who’s tried, and talked to a lot of Wildlife Conservation Society folks trying to camera trap animals in Sumatra, I have to say I have an intense degree of admiration for the amount of work that went into your tiger shot.

    One of the points I always like to hammer home is that in many genres of photography, your creative and technical mastery of the camera is just one small part of getting a good image. It’s like the tip of the iceberg – the final moment when you judge exposure, compose, and click. Beneath the water is a months-long or year-long process of planning, obtaining visas and permits from police/home affairs/parks departments, arranging local relationships/partnerships/guides, then international travel, slow and painful local travel, sometimes miserable conditions of heat/cold/bugs/wetness, then finding the spots, then waiting/waiting/waiting, failing, looking somewhere else, waiting/waiting, and finally … OPPORTUNITY.

    It’s only then that your creative and technical mastery comes into play. Most people simple do NOT have the amount of determination to get the image that it takes to get through all the other stuff.

    That brings us back to the wolf image. That’s why that image was so impressive to fellow photographers and judges – not just because it’s a nice image but because people understand just how much went into making it.

    And ultimately, that’s what is disappointing – that, actually, so much didn’t go in to making.

    Because it’s so hard to do it for real, there is an incredible temptation for wildlife photographers to blur the lines, shoot semi-tame or captive animals, and gloss over it. I think your point about maintaining absolutely clear boundaries and up front disclosure is right on.

    On another note, I appreciate your disclosure about the dog-as-bait. I know that was a long time ago. I see some sharp comment above. But I think that just drives the point home. Others may not like how you got the shot, but they should KNOW how you got it. It would be easier for you not to mention it, and no one would know the difference. To be up front about it is both courageous and the RIGHT thing to do.

    Great to have you on Photocrati!


  9. I think my English is very bad. I correct the above:
    Everybody lies when he wants: that’s the truth. Even the BBC in their films, they say they accurately reflect reality. Not true. I’m a naturalist in Spain and last year I was called agents of the BBC to film a sequence in which a bird (Clamator glandarius) eats ants in an anthill of Formica rufa. I was asked to take them to an anthill. The bird they had them (captive and domestic). What is a fraud!
    And then the BBC is allowed to disqualify a photographer with the word “allegedly”. To my knowledge, the author argues that it is NOT an animal model as discussed in disqualification. On its Web site. http://www.joseluisrodriguez-fotografo.com has many photographs taken by the comments of the capture infrared and does not seem false. I think that an image behind only author really knows what and as a photographer is required to make the photo more beautiful as possible.

  10. Since the dog bait seemed to cause more reaction than the wolf let me clarify. The dog was not harmed, we felt so guilty we went back and got her. No as in zero images were made from the situation. No one was lied to because it was just a bad momentary decision on my part.

    This is kind of fun but I’m not sure the world can handle full disclosure and that again is ulitmately why we end up with shaded truth.

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