Do you pass off captive animals as wild?

Nick’s take was created from interviews made in 2000.

No. If it’s a picture of a captive animal, I’m going to tell you so.

See, you can’t get a picture of a wild animal at a zoo. A leopard in a zoo is unfortunately not really a leopard. He looks the same, but he’s a facsimile, because he doesn’t have the hunting instincts, he doesn’t have the wildness. Zoo gorillas are fat; they’ve got a lot of skin that’s worn off, the hair doesn’t look as good, they don’t look like wild gorillas. They don’t have that mojo. They just don’t have it. You can’t tell a story about a leopard or a gorilla for National Geographic unless they are truly wild. Because you can’t capture that essence.

I shot 2000 rolls of film at zoos, but I was shooting a story about zoos and what they were doing, so it wasn’t about trying to make the animals look like they weren’t in zoos.

There’s a huge amount of fooling around in wildlife photography because it’s so hard to do. People fake it all the time. They build enclosures, they use trained Hollywood animals. Even in the best wildlife film, the scene that you see of the gorilla charging the other gorillas and the elephants coming in and breaking up the fight, it’s made up of probably forty different days of filming. Rarely is it truly what happened at that moment. Because I’ve the luxury of having time, because of who I work for, I don’t fake anything. And if I did do anything around them, I’m going to tell you about it.

It’s much, much worse in wildlife cinematography. They’ll do whatever it takes to make the story work– the story they decided they were going to tell before they even went out into the field. I started crying at the ethical conference in Jackson Hole, telling them to preface the show with something that says, by the way, the tiger scene was shot in captivity, but we’ve done everything we could to try to represent the way they really behave. And they said, but they’ll turn off the television set if we tell them the truth! And I was like, wait a minute, if it bugs people so much that they’re going to turn off the set, then they’re mad at being misled by you. And I know I’m in a privileged position because I don’t have to put scenes together. All I’m saying is why don’t you tell everybody?

What I want to make clear to wildlife photographers is that if you do take pictures of captive animals, make sure you don’t pass them off as wild. Because you can give a very misleading picture of what’s wild. A couple of years ago, I had a real agenda about it. I feel much more relaxed about it right now. I understand it a little better. I think I was too rough on my colleagues, because I’m in a privileged position and they’re trying to make a living. So the truth is that the wild can’t stand a thousand zillion photographers beating down on it.