It's difficult to denounce nature photography, especially when the shots look this good. The hours that Konsta Punkka has put into his photography are not to be sniffed at, but is it unfair if the animals are fed in order to achieve the look?
Punkka brings a wonderful blend of high quality nature photography, sublime proximity to untouchable wildlife, and stunning imagery. The somber and muted tones certainly create an appealing look, and his following on Instagram is a testament to that. However, does this style of photography cross the boundaries of ethics? Do the viewers understand what's really happening, and do they think that he's really a "Squirrel Whisperer?"
The most striking theme is how close Punkka gets to nervous foxes and bears. Taking a look at Suzi Eszterhas, who shares common themes with Punkka, we can see a clear difference in the shots. Esztherhas' photography comes across as more candid and imperfect, whereas in this case, the animals are fed in order to get the shot. It's a subtle but noticeable difference in style. The characters within the frame of Punkka's images are very deliberately photographed. It's not a moment; it's a stage. Can we call this type of photography "natural?" I'm positive we can; however, there needs to be honesty and fairness.
Where the Problems Lie
Faking wildlife photography is nothing new and controversy in the business is nothing new either. In 2010, José Luis Rodriguez had his Wildlife Photographer of the Year title stripped because the wolf in his image wasn't actually wild. It was a trained wolf from a nearby zoo in Madrid. Nancy Black was put on 3 years probation and fined $12,500 when found guilty of feeding Orcas while shooting in 2004. In these cases, the problem doesn't lie around animal welfare so much as it was dishonest of Rodriguez and Black. Black argued that the blubber fed to the Orcas was hunted by Orcas earlier and so didn't harm the ecosystem.
In other cases though, animal welfare does come into serious play. Conservation India describes how certain practices may benefit the photographer but not the wildlife. It's eye-opening to think about it from the other perspective, the subject's. Their list of don'ts are as follows:
- Crowding an animal
- Photographing a nest
- Playing back birdcalls in order to attract birds
- Photographing nocturnal animals with light
- Chasing animals until they're exhausted
- Handling animals
- Calling other photographers when an animal is found (crowding)
- Off-roading/speeding in sensitive habitats
Punkka baits the animals that he photographs. That's largely illegal in the hunting world, but not in the photography world. However, reservations hold codes of conducts, and in the UK, you even need a license to disturb certain habitats. This protects the photographer, who won't know exactly how an animal may react to their presence.
Of course, baiting is on the lower end of offenses and sits squarely in a grey area. There may well be instances in which Punkka isn't doing any harm, and he's feeding birds like many people would in parks. The issue is that we don't know the full story, and he may well be disturbing and stressing wildlife.
One practice that Nathaniel Smalley points out is using mice to attract birds. I would consider this to be the more harmful end of the scale and go beyond the realm of creating the shot.
One of the more common practices is to throw a mouse bought at a pet store (or a fake mouse tied to a fishing pole) into the snow in an open field to bring down an owl from a nearby tree where it is roosting.
At the end of the day, Punkka's stunning photos are incredible to see. He stresses that he spends hours seeking out the right photo, which is definitely reassuring. However, when wildlife photography has become clouded by ethics, it's easy to question whether his images aren't as authentic as the audience considers them to be. What are your thoughts?