The on-line-by-subscription newsletter Undercurrent.org recently reported a conflict between winners of the super-macro photography category of the World ShootOut. One contestant alleged that the winner had cheated by herding two commensal shrimp into position on the back of a nudibranch. As a senior journalist on the newsletter, I was tasked with finding a qualified expert to give an opinion on the winning picture but could find none who would be prepared to be drawn on the matter. The judges of the World ShootOut insisted that it was impossible to tell by looking at a single photograph one way or another, yet suspicions remained. However this subject has spawned a bigger issue that may have become important with the massive growth in the popularity of macro photography underwater. There was a time when an underwater photographer may have been an unusual character on a dive boat. In the days of film, it was a difficult and often frustrating activity but nowadays, thanks to digital technology, anyone can go into the water equipped with a camera fitted with a high-powered macro lens and powerful light and record stunning images of the minutia of animal life we have only recently been made aware of.
This in turn has led to a growth within the diving industry of resorts that specialise in muck-diving. Large numbers of local people who, in the past might have made a living fishing, now work as dive guides and invertebrate-spotters. Every guest diver seems to be armed with a camera of some sort. The problem arises when in their enthusiasm to secure great images, people interfere with nature, moving animals from where they would naturally hide and exposing them to their lenses. Not only that, but they then tend to stay with those subjects for long periods in an attempt to catch the best moment, subjecting these animals to loss of cover in bright light and even damaged habitat.
Dr. Alex Tattersall, a leading exponent of super-macro photography, is campaigning for better ethics in underwater photography and asking divers to sign a petition, which, I assume, will be presented to those operating muck-diving resorts, magazine publishers and underwater photography competition organisers in the hope of changing behaviour among those using super-macro equipment. His petition (illustrated with one of his own pictures) reads: “We are seeing more and more manipulation of wildlife to attain award winning images in competitions. Such images are winning competitions and becoming role model for future UW photographers. The UW photography community needs to act responsibly and promote conservation effort. A cultural shift is necessary at all levels and those with influence such as competition organisers and dive magazines should promote more responsible UW photo behaviour.” (If you wish to sign this petition, go to www.change.org and search for “More Ethics in UW photography.”) Some people on social media have even responded to this by suggesting that these animals should be given the choice as to whether they are photographed or not. I suggest that were they capable of making such a choice, they would prefer to remain undisturbed and well-camouflaged where they live, going about their business un-noticed. Seeing a hairy frogfish surrounded by half-a-dozen photographers crowding it and firing their strobes (flashguns) repeatedly can give cause for concern but it is now a daily occurrence where these animals are to be found.
Pygmy seahorses, dug out by willing dive guides with pointer sticks from where they have been hiding unobserved for centuries within the fronds of a gorgonian fan, would probably prefer to maintain their anonymity and certainly prefer not to turn to face a perceived predator such as a big camera lens staring at them. The list goes on. Maybe there should be a rule that no photographer makes more than a few exposures of one subject in order to record its image. Maybe there should be a rule that no underwater photographer stays with one subject for more than a couple of minutes. Some dive centres once tried to ban the use of bright lights by underwater photographers but their loss of business to rival operations soon put an end to that. You may think that concern for the well-being of animals as small as hair lice (animals you would be happy to kill if you found them on the heads of your children) may be trivial in a world where so many bad things are happening. Divers are also concerned about the finning of thousands of sharks, the intentional destruction of reefs in the South China Sea for political reasons, the mass harvesting of sea cucumbers, the unintentional yet effective nevertheless destruction of coral reefs both directly by industry and indirectly by global warming, for example. However, sixty years ago it was thought OK for divers to ride turtles and manta rays and people even thought it was OK to slaughter sharks - as featured in films by Jacques Cousteau. The maestro of diving even said himself, “Sometimes, for reasons of conservation, it is necessary to use dynamite” which he frequently did. Attitudes change. The mass popularity of extreme macro equipment with today’s underwater photographers may give cause for concern. This is not so much about preserving the life of shrimps but the morality of mankind. I’d like to think that underwater photographers go into the water to record things as they are rather than as they would like them to be. The mass destruction of larger pelagic species by industrialised fishing has left the oceans palpably bereft of fish and those of us who have been divers over a period of thirty years or more can testify to that. Soon there may only be the tiny animals left for us to enjoy. Let’s not spoil it by over-zealous behaviour with our cameras.
I normally illustrate these blogs with examples of my own photographs but my long career as an underwater photo-journalist has left me with few examples of my own manipulation of small subjects, since I was always briefed to report of what actually happened rather than construct pictures to win competitions, although one could say that seducing a large shark to come close to one’s camera by offering a tidbit to eat is simply manipulation on a larger scale, but sharks can fight back! You may have a view on that.