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Wildlife for hire
March 18, 2010 7:01 AM   Subscribe

"When you see a wildlife photo or film that looks too good to be true, it probably is." Audubon Magazine's Ted Williams investigates game farms and the widespread use of captive animals in wildlife photography. (via)

Related: Wildlife photographer of the year stripped of his award, Photographer captures amazing images of lions after submerging himself in watering hole for three months.
posted by The Mouthchew (45 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
The wolf jumping the fence is still a great photo, staged or not. The best part was the animal behavioral experts dissecting the photo and proving it false.
posted by jsavimbi at 7:16 AM on March 18, 2010


Bummer about the wolf. I disagree jsavimbi, knowing it's staged makes it seem a little boring.
posted by molecicco at 7:20 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


There are so many digital composition tricks that photographers can use now, that I can't fault these ones for actually, at least, getting live animals for their shoots. If the complaint is that the they are somehow *cheating*, it could be much worse than it is.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 7:22 AM on March 18, 2010


Damn. Those watering hole shots are great... but I think I would have worn a drysuit or something, given the parasite risks.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:23 AM on March 18, 2010


Bummer about the wolf. I disagree jsavimbi, knowing it's staged makes it seem a little boring.

Yeah, part of what makes the photo amazing is the idea that the photographer managed to be there to witness and capture this moment. Otherwise it's kind of like, "Huh. I used to have a dog that jumped the fence all the time. So?"
posted by not that girl at 7:30 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


... I can't fault these ones for actually, at least, getting live animals for their shoots.

Yea but if you read the Audubon article, the ranches were those live animals are kept are unregulated and treat the animals pretty badly.
posted by octothorpe at 7:33 AM on March 18, 2010


If this sort of thing bothers you, don't ever watch the "making of" documentary on the "Winged Migration" DVD. Watching the movie itself is to be filled with all the awe and wonder of a 5-year-old at Christmas. Watching the "making of" doc is akin to turning ten and learning that Santa is a sham.
posted by Brodiggitty at 7:40 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


On the Out of Africa DVD they have a documentary about the movie with Pollack and Streep and Barry. The lions in the movie were tame from the United States. In the scene with Streep and Redford and the lioness twenty feet away from Streep, the lion handler was standing behind Streep the whole time. When you are watching the movie do you really think about stuff like that?
posted by bukvich at 7:42 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


The wolf jumping the fence is still a great photo, staged or not.

Photohopped.
posted by hal9k at 7:44 AM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


The stuff about White Wilderness never fails to amaze me. Was every single scene of that movie faked?

Also, why does that page keep reloading itself every 10 seconds?
posted by roll truck roll at 7:44 AM on March 18, 2010


On the Out of Africa DVD they have a documentary about the movie with Pollack and Streep and Barry. The lions in the movie were tame from the United States. In the scene with Streep and Redford and the lioness twenty feet away from Streep, the lion handler was standing behind Streep the whole time. When you are watching the movie do you really think about stuff like that?

No, but when I watch a documentary, I am constantly questioning why the shot is framed the way it was, why the interview is edited how it is. What's the sentence after the one where the scene cuts? Why did they dress this interviewee in that shirt? Place her in this room. In this recreation, how accurate is the placement of the participants.

So, yes, when someone says this is a wildlife photograph, I view it significantly differently than I view a photo of a tame animal, wrangled into a natural setting. You may still get a great picture, but your narrative is entirely different.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:48 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's my shot of a wolf in the wilds of Montana.

Disclaimer: "wilds of Montana" = the Zoo in Billings. But Billings is surrounded by "the wilds" so the description is technically true. Prize, please!
posted by The Deej at 7:48 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


'This worm was actually visible under the skin of my foot and would move at night. It became a game to find the worm in my foot each morning.'...

After a long stint sick in bed recovering, Mr du Toit was finally given the all clear following courses of powerful antibiotics, pesticides and by spraying liquid nitrogen on the parasites visible under his skin.


Hmm, thanks, I think I'll pass.
posted by Forktine at 7:51 AM on March 18, 2010


Wow, regarding the description in the Audubon article of what country singer Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry actually did. I'd heard that he illegally killed a bear, but had no idea that he did it to a tame bear, while the bear was caged. What a fucking tool!
posted by The Confessor at 7:57 AM on March 18, 2010


Now, if they implement this in the next version of Afrika for the PS3, I'm sold!

"Now with virtual tapeworms!" Hell you could even have a minigame where you watch them take the tapeworms out.
posted by symbioid at 7:58 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I give you Leopard Seal Adopts National Geographic Photographer.

How did they coordinate with the seal to be there every day? Underwater sat phone? Amazing.
posted by jsavimbi at 8:00 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


If this sort of thing bothers you, don't ever watch the "making of" documentary on the "Winged Migration" DVD. Watching the movie itself is to be filled with all the awe and wonder of a 5-year-old at Christmas. Watching the "making of" doc is akin to turning ten and learning that Santa is a sham.

You'd probably be bothered too, by 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom'. A fair number of those episodes leave me feeling many things are staged, at least in part.

Example: a forest is on fire. The team just happens to come across a porcupine atop a sapling, hiding from the flames over yonder. One of the team just happens to have a pocket hand saw. He takes it out and they saw down the sapling, stuffing the porcupine into a handy canvas bag. They then traipse over to the nearby national park, where the park ranger just happens to be sitting on horseback. They hand him the bag, and the voiceover explains the ranger will set the porcupine free in the park.

Oh yes, this all just happened without planning.

Great show, though...

posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 8:12 AM on March 18, 2010


Disney used to do this stuff years ago. I remember seeing the 'lemmings throwing themselves over a cliff' in a Disney nature film as a kid. Only later was this exposed as a myth and discovered that the filmmakers were forcing the lemmings off the cliff.

I once saw a film showing a caribou running with a herd of zebra. I thought that was strange. What's a caribou doing hanging out with the zebra? Some kind of trans-specie issue? It turns out that it is quite common for caribou to hang out with zebra. But we were never shown this before because it was thought to ruin the pictures. They carefully staged the shots leaving out the caribou.

We are shown not what exists, but what we expect to see. Our view of nature is probably highly flawed in many ways because of this ongoing deception.
posted by eye of newt at 8:13 AM on March 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


actually I think it was wildebeest, not caribou
posted by eye of newt at 8:18 AM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Yeah, part of what makes the photo amazing is the idea that the photographer managed to be there to witness and capture this moment. Otherwise it's kind of like, "Huh. I used to have a dog that jumped the fence all the time. So?"


The only thing that makes this argument vaguely valid is that the picture was presented in a context that says 'nature photo' which immediately implies 'documentary'. If this photo was presented as a work of art or as just 'photography' it would be a gorgeous, impressive work of photography. Context is important. I still thing it's a great photo on its own merits, removed from any context. I mean, yeah, you had a dog that can jump...you ever take a picture of your dog jumping that would be worthy of a gallery show?
posted by spicynuts at 8:19 AM on March 18, 2010


Audubon Magazine's Ted Williams investigates game farms and the widespread use of captive animals in wildlife photography.

Am I the only one that finds it ironic that this article appears in a magazine named for John James Audubon*?

*who killed his subjects and then inserted wires into them to hold them in place while he sketched them
posted by Pollomacho at 8:23 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


That article left me with the deep desire to go to Nashville and hunt Troy Gentry. I plan on being just as fair to him as he was to the bear.

Stuff like this outrages and depresses me. I don't have a problem with people taking pictures of captive animals as long as they're clearly labeled - hell, I have sets and sets of zoo photos myself - but the conditions some of these animals are kept in is living hell and completely, utterly wrong. It is also wrong to throw lemmings off cliffs and tame lions off waterfalls - I hate you now, Marlon Perkins and I hope Mutual of Omaha goes bankrupt.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:42 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Where there’s no gray is in the need for honesty. In this regard there’s been dramatic progress in wildlife documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth series, the new Disney films, material on the Discovery Channel, and PBS’s Nature. These days there is little that I (or anyone) can positively identify as nature fakery or animal abuse.

Well that's good!
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:44 AM on March 18, 2010


So, yes, when someone says this is a wildlife photograph, I view it significantly differently than I view a photo of a tame animal, wrangled into a natural setting.

Wildlife = Wild + Life

Wild:

1 a : living in a state of nature and not ordinarily tame or domesticated
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 8:45 AM on March 18, 2010


Sound effects! Didja ever see a documentary about insects, and listen closely to the sound effects? They'll dub subtle footstep sounds to accompany a shot of a mantis picking its way down a branch, or violin-string plucky sounds to go with a troop of army ants walking over the jungle floor. But the worst is the crunching sounds: Notice that whenever they show a spider or other carnivorous insect eating its prey, you'll actually hear crunching noises, as if they had microphones there were sensitive enough to pick up spider mastication (crunching noises are also added to lions-feeding-on-antelopes scenes). Don't even get me started on the slug or snail that crosses a leaf, and you hear a very faint, slurp ... slurp ... slurp ...
posted by Faze at 8:47 AM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]



Disney used to do this stuff years ago. I remember seeing the 'lemmings throwing themselves over a cliff' in a Disney nature film as a kid. Only later was this exposed as a myth and discovered that the filmmakers were forcing the lemmings off the cliff.


Really? I'm sure i've read that somewhere.
posted by the cuban at 8:57 AM on March 18, 2010


Wow, thank you for linking to this article! I always suspect Photoshop- because I use that for a living and am jaded- but I had no idea about these game farms, the conditions, and the prevalence of their usage in "wildlife" photography.
posted by Eicats at 8:57 AM on March 18, 2010


So -- are the animal parts of Baraka staged?
posted by symbioid at 9:36 AM on March 18, 2010


Thanks, this is a fascinating article. I read natural history stuff pretty often and a lot of this was new to me.
Disney paid kids in Churchill, Manitoba, to catch lemmings, then transported them to non-habitat in Alberta where a turntable flung them off a cliff and into "the sea" by the dozens. White Wilderness, which won an Oscar, is still sold on DVD as a "true-life adventure."
There is something very weird going on in our civilization. People seem to hunger for the authentic, the wild, the unspoilt, while at the same time doing everything in their power to stamp it out it. They are not interested in making the political commitments (and sacrifices) required to keep deer or mountain lion habitat secure from mining or logging, but at the same time they will read National Geographic or Field and Stream and gaze reverently at what they see as authentic wilderness scenes.

If it were clear to readers that many of these shots are faked through animal cruelty or manipulation, the fantastic illusion would be lost, and I imagine these magazines would have many fewer readers and advertisers. Industrialized societies are structured on this sort of comforting, but totally untenable, illusion. We have to convince ourselves—whether through nature fakery in wildlife shots, or greenwashing campaigns by corps like Monsanto—that we're not really doing what we're doing. Our hamburgers aren't full of ammonia-soaked scraps of contaminated fat; building that new housing development won't uproot and destroy a vital wetland ecosystem.

To slow down, or stop, this ever-accelerating trainwreck would require that the magician disclose his tricks, which seems hopelessly unlikely. It appears that we have irreparably divorced ourselves from simple facts that earlier people would have taken for granted: wild creatures do not pose, food does not come from a 17x17cm cage, and bulldozing an ecosystem is akin to burning down the house we live in.
posted by cirripede at 9:44 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


actually I think it was wildebeest, not caribou

Was that in one of the Planet Earth episodes? Except I remember it the other way around, with a lone zebra in a herd of wildebeest. That shot is incredible. They are at a watering hole and the alligators (or crocodiles, I can never remember) are jumping out and snagging wildebeest by the neck, dragging them slowly underwater. They talk about this for quite a while in the episode, and then all of a sudden it does this shot where there is a totally bat shit freaked out zebra drinking right next to a poor, soon to be drowned wildebeest.
posted by Corduroy at 9:51 AM on March 18, 2010


How did they coordinate with the seal to be there every day? Underwater sat phone? Amazing.

I don't see why it's unreasonable to assume that the area where he was working was the seal's territory and it would be there regularly. But I don't know much about seals -- do they not have territories?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:07 AM on March 18, 2010


Faze: "Sound effects! Didja ever see a documentary about insects, and listen closely to the sound effects? They'll dub subtle footstep sounds to accompany a shot of a mantis picking its way down a branch, or violin-string plucky sounds to go with a troop of army ants walking over the jungle floor. But the worst is the crunching sounds: Notice that whenever they show a spider or other carnivorous insect eating its prey, you'll actually hear crunching noises, as if they had microphones there were sensitive enough to pick up spider mastication (crunching noises are also added to lions-feeding-on-antelopes scenes). Don't even get me started on the slug or snail that crosses a leaf, and you hear a very faint, slurp ... slurp ... slurp ..."

Just saw this video of ants eating a live crab. Someone said the sound was straight out of their nightmares, and someone said the same thing, basically... You just can't get that kind of sound with our tech. It's just added on.

Which is both sad and good. Because goddamn that's some creepy shit!

Also? Zerg Rush!
posted by symbioid at 10:13 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Food photographers have all kinds of tricks to get the food looking its best—ice cream made of dry ice, spray bottles on the side waiting to make those strawberries extra moist or that Coke bottle look like it just got pulled from a fridge… Travel photographers shoot with extra-wide angles standing in the corners of hotel rooms to make them look bigger. They also over-saturate every. single. shot. (but especially sunrises & sunsets) in post-production. Nature photographers do 90% of their shooting a half-an-hour before and a half-an-hour after sunrise and sunset. They use astronomy programs to guarantee the moon is exactly where they want it to be. They hide out in blinds for hours, days even, just for one or two keepers. Documentary photographers move items around so their shots have no distractions in them.

It's called controlling your shot, not "cheating." It's the same reason painters leave power lines out of their paintings.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:18 AM on March 18, 2010


Looking up Martin Perkins, wiki has this anecdote:
"Because Walt Disney had fabricated footage of a mass suicide of lemmings in its film White Wilderness, CBC (at that time) journalist Bob McKeown asked Marlin Perkins if he had done the same. Perkins, then in his eighties, "firmly asked for the camera to be turned off, then punched a shocked McKeown in the face.""
posted by symbioid at 10:19 AM on March 18, 2010 [8 favorites]


On the Out of Africa DVD they have a documentary about the movie with Pollack and Streep and Barry. The lions in the movie were tame from the United States. In the scene with Streep and Redford and the lioness twenty feet away from Streep, the lion handler was standing behind Streep the whole time. When you are watching the movie do you really think about stuff like that?

When I watch a movie, I expect that the characters are being portrayed by actors, who are reciting lines from a screenplay, at the direction of a director. When I watch historic footage of John F. Kennedy, I would be a little miffed if I learned that that was actually not Kennedy at all, but an actor reciting lines from a screenplay, at the direction of a director. How would you feel if it turned out that every picture you have seen of the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake was actually an elaborately set-up shot, with fake injuries, actors, and sets, assuming for the sake of argument that the earthquake and its aftermath are real, but the photos are staged in some other location?
posted by The World Famous at 10:25 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm quite disappointed to see Marty Stouffer's name come up in the article. My whole family loved his show. Truly, there are no heroes left *sniffle*
posted by Calzephyr at 10:47 AM on March 18, 2010


Why isn't the crab moving in that video? Did they use a dead crab for the 2nd half? I mean I think it would start freaking out when something starts eating it's leg joins and mouth.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:58 AM on March 18, 2010


Perkins, then in his eighties, "firmly asked for the camera to be turned off, then punched a shocked McKeown in the face.""

When I was a kid, there was an animal TV show where on one episode, the team went underwater with scuba gear, in a shark cage, and shot sharks with spear guns.

Was that Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom?

My memory says 'yes' but so far I've been unable to confirm on Google.

posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 11:00 AM on March 18, 2010


Many people seem to be drawing what I think is an invalid analogy between "controlling your shot" and fraudulently presenting a captive animal as wildlife.

Spraying glycerin on a hamburger to make it look juicy throughout a 4-hour photo session is simple marketing, and necessary.

Shoving lemmings off a turntable, or submitting trained Wolfie jumping over a fence to a wildlife competition in direct violation of the contest rules, are completely different things.


Damn. Those watering hole shots are great... but I think I would have worn a drysuit or something, given the parasite risks.

Agreed, caution live frogs. The photog is an idiot. If it's too hot for a drysuit, waders, polyethylene bag, etc...


And, symbiod, thank you so much for that Marlin Perkins story. Enjoy a month of Metafilter free on me! :-)
posted by IAmBroom at 12:24 PM on March 18, 2010


I'm just glad they've learned how to fake footage of wild animals in their natural environment. This is good practice for 50 years from now, when it will be the only way to get such images.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:46 PM on March 18, 2010


symbioid: "Looking up Martin Perkins, wiki has this anecdote"

I thought you were yanking my chain, symboid, but here's a link to the reference cited in the Wikipedia article.

My jaded, world-weary reaction is that these guys are filmmakers (photographers, whatever) who will do whatever needs to be done to get the shots to make their narrative work. So it's not surprising, but it certainly seems deceitful and wrong.

I do take issue with the article's point that seeing lots of pictures of rare and endangered animals makes us somehow think that they are plentiful. Seems like a weird position. I mean, we see all kinds of picture of the Kardashian sisters, and we all know there are only 12 of them. Or is that 12 sets of triplets?
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 1:45 PM on March 18, 2010


I mean, we see all kinds of picture of the Kardashian sisters

Engangered species are not quite so easily convinced to pose for the cameras.
posted by The World Famous at 2:23 PM on March 18, 2010


Maybe 8 years ago I did some work with a wildlife photographer who told me that virtually everything you see on TV nature shows and in magazines is staged. He told me that on one of his first jobs the director wanted footage of a bear feeding on a deer. So they shot a deer and got a zoo bear and brought it out to eat the deer. But the bear was not interested. Finally they bought five pounds of M&Ms candy, cut open the deer's gut, and stuffed the candy inside. The bear feasted and the director got his shot.
posted by LarryC at 1:36 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if 1982 Marlin Perkins could take 2002 Buzz Aldrin in a fight?
posted by Pollomacho at 7:46 AM on March 19, 2010


Finally they bought five pounds of M&Ms candy, cut open the deer's gut, and stuffed the candy inside. The bear feasted and the director got his shot.

I think this is the same technique that Hollywood directors used to get Marlon Brando to act.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:38 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


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