Friday, December 01, 2006

Reflecting on the Blogging Experience

The blogging experience was, admittedly, an extremely foreign one for me. In the beginning, I was apprehensive about the medium and worried that the content of my writing would suffer because learning the technology would consume a great deal of time. But, it was a challenge and a fantastic learning experience. I feel compelled to continue updating the blog beyond the length of this course and on into my professional life. I decided to focus on the world of wildlife/adventure filmmaking and photography because of my passion for travel and my education in film. Ideally, I would like to use this blog as a corpus of material to present to employers in the field.

The first several posts encourage ethical discussions about the treatment of wildlife by photographers and filmmakers. Before delving into the practice of the profession, I found it essential to recognize the spectrum of ethical codes that exist when your job is to infiltrate the lives of wild creatures. There is a necessary level of sensitivity and knowledge that a photographer must have about their subject if they are to work ethically. Also, the controversy of digital manipulation is a crucial topic that is the most current debate in the field.

As I said before, I would like to use the blog to help begin my own career. For that reason, I decided to analyze the website for the National Geographic Society, a company for which I aspire to write and work as a photographer in the future. My navigation of their site was extremely enlightening and I have since begun to pursue an exploration grant that I discovered while researching the essay. I now visit their website on a regular basis constantly scouring for opportunities to get my foot in the door. For the final post I decided to suggest Art Wolfe for an honorary degree from the University of Southern California. It was a unique experience researching the life of someone who has followed a career arc that I am striving to acheive. It was encouraging to recognize that a person can build a comfortable and profitable life in an alternative career such as photography. It was also valuable to learn about an individual who is so dedicated to conservation and who realizes that his career depends on the natural balance without taking anything for granted.

Truthfully, there is a lot I would have liked to add to the blog but did not based on my own distaste for technology. I attempted to create my own gallery of photography which failed for unknown reasons. I also could have had more sidebar links for readers to explore. In the future I plan to include travelogue posts that are less academic in nature because I think my material is rather dry for a field that is so rich with life. I am, however, pleased at my trajectory from a broad discussion of ethics to more narrow research oriented pieces. I also feel like I was successful at acheiving an apropriate tone in my posts. That mood is supported by the imagery of the posts as well. All in all, I enjoyed the experience very much and hope to continue posting for years to come.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Art Wolfe: Honoring a Photographer and Philanthropist

Physician, philosopher, and philanthropist, Albert Schweitzer believed that “Each of us is a wave that exists as part of an ocean; a wellspring of idealism whose reserves are concealed like underground streams; a source of kindness whose roots are joined to those of others”(8). In his poetics, extracted from Mike Martin's book Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, Schweitzer propounds that at the foundation of humanity is a firm sense of inner-connectedness, governed by relationships rather than self-interest. Those who are willing to feed without promise of being fed strengthen those roots. If humanity can embrace this idea then all will eat and be satisfied. Although it is arguable that altruism suggests an impossibly divine sense of selflessness, it is an ideology worth striving for. In our modern age, we pay tribute to people of noble character in the form of honorary degrees, not as gifts but as thankful acknowledgements. James O. Freedman, in his book Liberal Education and the Public Interest, informs that "In bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most"(1). Our highest institutions, our universities, recognize these individuals for their service to the good of humankind in this manner. This award is all at once a tribute to an individual, a promotion of a university, and most importantly the acknowledgement of a common ideology that exists between the two. In this synthesis lies an example for morality, a suggestion to those who bear witness that life may be pursued idealistically.

The University of Southern California is a title that garners prestige, an institution of great scholars that strives to create humble and intelligent people in an effort to fulfill its mission. As quoted from a statement by the USC board of trustees, “The central mission of the University of Southern California is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit. The principal means by which our mission is accomplished are teaching, research, artistic creation, professional practice and selected forms of public service.” Therefore, a candidate for an honorary degree from USC should be one who pursues a parallel purpose. In the organic field of wildlife photography, Art Wolfe exemplifies the type of character deserving of such accolades based on these goals set forth by the university. In light of his relentless dedication to the natural world that has given him so much, despite his great financial gains and controversial practices, Wolfe is most deserving in his field to be awarded the honorary degree from the University of Southern California based on his commitment to an analogous mission of human development.

Wolfe has been described by William Conway, the former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, as "the most prolific and sensitive recorder of a rapidly vanishing natural world.” His career has spanned over thirty years; setting foot on all 7 continents, he has captured the world with his lens. This would seem perfect in the eyes of USC which asserts that "We are a global institution in a global center, attracting more international students over the years than any other American university." However, the responsibilities of a wildlife photographer extend far beyond the acquired image. A give and take balance is essential between man and his subject. Despite displaying great talent for this tight-rope-walk, Wolfe has managed to remain humbly out of the celebrity spotlight unlike many of his adventurer counterparts. One of USC's goals in awarding honorary degrees is to "honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public." The temptation for publicity looms heavily when universities consider well-known figures for the honor. As Freedman puts it, "it is a practice rich in opportunity as well as ripe for abuse"(1). Wolfe is a hard-working candidate free of this potential tarnish to USC.

Wolfe’s commitment to his work is reflected in the new generations of photographers that he is working to educate. Based out of Seattle, Washington, Wolfe holds a variety of photography classes and seminars on topics ranging from composition to digital manipulation. In support of the new wave of digital technology, Wolfe teaches cutting edge photoshop techniques. In reference to the controversy over digital manipulation, Wolfe, in an article by Jon Marmor entitled "Call of the Wild", from the University of Washington Columns Magazine, says simply “If you don’t [utilize the technology], you will be left behind.” This attitude has been the hallmark for his success. If he is to teach a new generation of photographers he must look to the medium of the future. USC values teaching above all else saying, “We strive constantly for excellence in teaching knowledge and skills to our students, while at the same time helping them to acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others.” Boasting a lengthy tenure, Wolfe is most qualified in his field to impart that wisdom.

However, he does not do so without any personal gain. One may indeed question the self-serving nature of his teaching in that his four to five day classes cost his students from $900 up to $1,100. Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, agued that at the base of every man’s character is his own self-interest and that altruism is a futile pursuit. Martin, in reference to Smith, states that “moral ideals should essentially be relegated to private life, with professional life guided primarily by economic and self-interested values together with minimal moral restrictions”(3). Though Martin himself is in disagreement with Smith, the theory is that if one works toward personal financial gain, they will inadvertently promote the lives of those around them. In this light, it is necessary to consider the well being of Wolfe’s 14 employees whose lives depend on his work ethic and monetary gains. Similarly, universities are giant businesses that teach as well as employ a great number of people. Money is then recycled within the system to promote the welfare of the business and its body of individuals. Thanks to his earnings, Wolfe is able to travel nine months out of the year, snapping countless photographs while his business runs smoothly without his presence. Therefore, it is vital to look beyond his fattened pockets and recognize the true value of his teaching that is evident in the work of his pupils and employees. In order to prepare a new generation of photographers properly, Wolfe has done his research. His classrooms features 12 state-of-the-art workstations equipped with an impressive array of technology. Most importantly, Wolfe is teaching his own ideas and innovations rather than reiterating existing practices; he is a pioneer in his brand of research and teaching. This would seem in perfect harmony with USC’s mission which states, “USC is one of a very small number of premier academic institutions in which research and teaching are inextricably intertwined, and on which the nation depends for a steady stream of new knowledge, art, and technology.” Wolfe’s diligence allows him to remain at the forefront of new camera and editing equipment. In turn, knowledge is carried on in his students.

In fact, his enthusiasm for digital manipulation has threatened his reputation in the past, although he stalwartly defends himself. In 1994, the beginning of digital technology, Wolfe released his best known book Migrations to a great deal of controversy. Many professional photographers criticized him for manipulating 1/3 of the images including the famous cover of a zebra herd in which he filled in the gaps with digital clones of other zebras. Excerpted from the University of Washington Columns Magazine, Chair of the North American Nature Photography Association, Gary Braasch, showed his displeasure with Wolfe’s actions in saying that "Nature photography is one of the last bastions of pictures most people accept as real. Those who lie about the reality of their photos are taking advantage of everyone else and undercutting the basis of all our success." Wolfe defends his decision by explaining, “I embraced the technology that was available to me…This was not a moral issue… For years photographers have manipulated images by using different lenses, filters, films and in the darkroom.” He articulates that it was an art book, as stated in its forward, and that the only issue is that he neglected to label the altered photographs as such. It is a debate between tradition and innovation. Wolfe, much like USC, chooses to look to the future.

At the foundation of Wolfe’s research and teaching, however, is his profound sense of artistry. In fact, photography was never his intended field of work. After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a minor in art education from the University of Washington, Wolfe pursued a career as an art teacher and free-lance painter. Only through chance connections and influences did he stumble upon photography; soon after this cosmic gravitation of mind and medium he began selling his prints at street fairs. A background in painting gave him a creative edge in a field dominated by journalists. An artist biography at calls Wolfe “a master of composition, an image magician who creates visual symphonies for the eyes and heart.” An extensive corpus of work has garnered many accolades. His books include: Vanishing Act, Edge of the Earth/Corner of the Sky, The Living Wild, High Himalaya, Africa, and Hidden Northwest. Many awards have come of these compilations such as Winner of the 2001 Western US Book Design Awards, Winner of the National Outdoor Book Awards, and Winner of the PMA Benjamin Franklin 2004 Awards in his respective category, to name a few. On top of that, according to an article by Lexar Media, Inc., “Wolfe has been awarded with a coveted Alfred Eisenstaedt Magazine Photography Award as well as named Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photography Association.” His artistry is at the center of his conservation efforts and his photographs work to inspire an appreciation for the wild and the unknown. With an incredible mastery of light and movement Wolfe has set the standard for photographing wildlife and nature. Seattle science writer, Barbara Sleeper describes how "He talks to the animals, and he has such a presence. He seems to captivate them and look into their soul. You can feel the connection." With an acute sense of respect for his subjects, Wolfe is able to capture mesmerizing images.

In order for these images to reach the eyes of the world, Wolfe must take a multifaceted, professional approach to dissemination. To reiterate, he has built a business around his talent. Wolfe describes himself as “an octopus, branching arms out into a number of different areas where [his] images will sell.” By diversifying his income by way of book sales, matted prints, stock photos, DVDs, teaching workshops, and even brief jobs in television, Wolfe is able to support his travels and his employees. Within Martin's text, Adam Smith remarks metaphorically in Wealth of Nations that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”(3). Again, the argument for altruism may arise. However, the value of his work is intrinsic to its results of awareness and conservation. That it also wins monetary recognition is an acceptable reality based on what good comes of it.

While much of his success goes back into the proliferation of his business, beyond that, Wolfe supports a countless list of conservation organizations and other various philanthropic associations. While most deal with the environment, he also supports groups concerned with education, the arts, medicine, the disabled, and a great deal more. Freedman may find this to be a strong argument confessing "In choosing honorands, I emphasize intellectual distinction and public service"(3). With this in consideration, Smith's cry of self-interest is lost in the clamor of charity. In 1998, according to his website, “The National Audubon Society recognized Wolfe's work in support of the national wildlife refuge system with its first-ever Rachel Carson Award." Conservation is Wolfe’s photographic muse; in turn, his photography makes his philanthropic efforts possible. There is a cyclical pattern between work and passion that allows him to continue his support. Stephen L. Darwall, as quoted from Martin, recognizes the effect something like public service can have on the individual performing it asserting that “Something can give meaning to our lives only if we believe it to have intersubjective value…Values that give our lives meaning both inspire and root our lives. They give our spirits the very air they need to breathe”(21). From this angle, it is conceivable that Wolfe gains a great deal more from his services, his values, than he does from his business. Beyond the many organizations that he helps to fund, Wolfe is also on the board of advisors of the Wildlife Conservation Society and is a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The self-proclaimed “octopus” certainly keeps his hands occupied.

In understanding human motivation a balance must be struck. By contrasting the ideas of Adam Smith and Albert Schweitzer, Martin poses a question of morality and economy. While Smith argued that these two spheres of life are separate and in opposition to one another, Schweitzer collapsed the divide and allowed morality to influence and even rule over all spheres. Although Wolfe has earned a great deal of fiscal wealth, his moral values do not remain separate from his work. Therefore, it is conceivable that he would be in agreement with Martin’s commentary on Schweitzer when he says “we are not economic atoms; instead we are defined through our relationships with others within communities”(8). Wolfe has made his work his moral impetus. Art Wolfe is most deserving in the field of wildlife photography and conservation to be awarded an honorary degree from the University of Southern California based on his teaching, research, artistry, professional stature, and philanthropy, but most of all for allowing his ethical impulses to guide each of his many arms.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The National Geographic Society Website: A Wealth of Worldly Knowledge

In 1888 The National Geographic Society was established, immediately assuming the daunting challenge of connecting the world approximately one hundred years before the advent of the internet. The society began humbly as a means to increase the spread of geographic knowledge in a world composed of cultures that were relatively ignorant of one another. Flourishing, it has become one of the world's forerunners in non-profit education and scientific exploration. The society has endlessly reincarnated itself since its original birth onto the world stage, cleverly expanding to fulfill its mission. That mission, according to the official National Geographic webpage is "to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge while promoting the conservation of the world's cultural, historical, and natural resources.” In this way, as exemplified in their Webby Award-Winning website in the magazine category, the society has managed to establish itself as the world’s foremost purveyor of anthropological education and media. It is by way of their renowned website that the society is able to remain the international authority on world culture. Despite arguably minor blemishes, the National Geographic Society, with a firm understanding of its loyal audience and the importance of internet communication, has created a content rich, visually stunning website that successfully expresses its mission of cultural promotion and conservation.

Loyalty has been the backbone of National Geographic from the beginning. Ownership of the society has remained familial since its inception. Similarly, the society enjoys a stubborn form of loyalty from its audience. In a discussion with the American Press Institute, Karen Rice Gardiner, the society's director of creative services notes that "the average age of a National Geographic Magazine subscriber is 56 years...The average number of years they have been a subscriber is 15 years." Because of this reputation, the society must go to creative lengths to attract new readers. It is difficult to identify a concrete audience demographic in terms of gender or race because it is truly the world’s organization. In fact, there is a search bar featured at the bottom of their homepage that allows the viewer to choose a variety of national versions of the website depending on their place in the world as seen in the corresponding graphic. In sociocultural terms, the society makes no discriminations. However, there is an audience for whose attention they must work. The society has been struggling to appeal to audiences 18-34 years old, according to a circulation study by the American Press Institute. Gardiner discusses in the seminar how the society attempted to appeal to this demographic by creating their Adventure magazine. Mary Donahoe, NGS vice president/director of marketing services, acknowledges the success of the magazine by stating "the magazine has more than 1.2 million readers and it has grown 75% since its 2001 launch." So, despite their indiscriminate approach to their work, the society must remain innovative to maintain their status as a heritage brand, one that has been trusted by readers spanning generations. The society's goal is achieved in the staggering breadth and depth of the website which takes on the daunting task of addressing such a substantial audience. With the goal of information diffusion, a focus on the communication of ideas and knowledge takes precedent over any other aspect.

It is in the content of the website that National Geographic is able to disseminate its intended vision. Because of the immeasurable amount of text within this site, ease of navigation is linked to this text in a kindred fashion. The site is successful in itemizing its contents with sidebar links on the homepage which spell out exactly what is contained in the site as a whole. The Web Style Guide describes this technique as "chunking," or "discrete units of information [that] are more functional and easier to handle than long, undifferentiated tracts." Each category contains a wealth of knowledge in and of itself but they are simple to follow. These links are extremely useful if the viewer has a specific goal when browsing the site. For instance, if that reader is interested in photography, they can simply click the link on the sidebar and they are immediately immersed in that aspect of the society’s many branches. The site then takes on an appropriate photographic aesthetic and provides further links to areas of interest including: photos in the news, photo contests, and professional photographic tips. If the viewer’s focus is less determined, he or she can simply view photo galleries or read photographer bios. In this way, the society effectively appeals to both the casual browser as well as the professional. The site is structured in a way which avoids confusion; it is a simple and consistent model which prevents its reader from straying on undesirable tangents. In order to do so, the site maintains its homepage sidebar even after one has delved into a link of particular interest. At any time the viewer is able to jump tracks and follow a different path seamlessly without necessarily having to return to the homepage. It may be argued that the site as a whole is far too broad to be navigable, but the way in which it is structured lends itself extremely well to easy searching. A visitor to the site may simply start from the homepage, continue to “people and places,” then choose to focus on Algeria, for instance, and finally Algerian music without confusion. The links are explicit because content is the focal point of the site.

The bulk of this content tends to take an ethos driven rhetorical tone in order to further cement the authority of the society. The tag line below the homepage search bar reads bluntly, "National Geographic owns one of the most comprehensive collections of photographs in the world." Although our world’s stories are saturated with emotion, it is the duty of the society to spread knowledge and promote conservation by way of their credibility. There is no dramatization. In fact, the site is rather uplifting and practical in its outlook. For instance, after following the link entitled “About the Society” one is bombarded with a variety of research and student grant opportunities for conservation and exploration. It is a society that looks to a potentially bright future for the world they have watched grow. Their reliability is evident not only in their history but also in their confidence of footing in the 21st century. Gardiner has an optimistic outlook on the state of the company explaining that "To help manage its brand, NGS established a brand/design steering committee with two rotating co-chairs and representatives from each of its divisions." The Society also created a brand management Web site for internal use. It is clear that they are not afraid of keeping up with new technologies despite old age. Impressively, the site is able to appeal to audiences in a very professional way without completely forgetting about their youth audience. However, in light of their approach to the future, there should be a more complete children’s section linked to the homepage and more promotion of the Kid's Magazine. But alas, the site has its intentions and they are far from childish so their inclusion of children’s material in any capacity is notable.

In keeping with the professional tone of the content, the site takes on a clean-cut but strikingly beautiful aesthetic. The society has taken great care to design a website which enraptures the viewer’s eye without distracting them from their ultimate search goals. The WebStyle Guide explains that "Graphic design creates visual logic and seeks an optimal balance between visual sensation and graphic information. Without the visual impact of shape, color, and contrast, pages are graphically uninteresting and will not motivate the viewer." National Geographic's aesthetic is discreet and tasteful with moments of visual profundity. This may come as a result of the society’s rich history of photography. The site manages to allow the audience to explore the society's extensive travels and see sights they otherwise would not. what they see on their extensive travels. People are able to live vicariously through the images. This visual design works to stimulate a reader’s interest in the subject matter. In this way the audience is led ultimately back to the content. For instance, upon entering the link to National Geographic Magazine, the audience finds a remarkably photographic layout; however, contained within each of the photographs are textual links to preservation efforts, national parks, information on pollutants and other important content. Furthermore there is an enormous stock of video footage as well as world music (which is a link on the main sidebar) that one can watch or listen to with great ease. The site’s links as well as its interactive media load quickly making the experience free of frustration. To qualify however, much of the interaction with the website is spectator based and struggles to directly engage the viewer in participation. It is arguable that this is a result of the society’s goal which is not to provide games for its audience but to catalyze the spread of knowledge.

The National Geographic Society’s mission is fulfilled in its award-winning website by virtue of a rare synergy of content and design made fluid by effortless navigation. It is the experience of traveling through this website that makes it truly effective. The site can be whatever one wants it to be. If one seeks quick, credible information it is there, and yet the experience can be fun and whimsical where the reader can simply explore and learn freely. Despite the freedom of the site, an ethos-driven focus is appropriate for a society so historically reputable. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the National Geographic Society and its award-winning website will be the primary source of anthropological information for the new century.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Question of Authority: Who are the Experts and Who are the Sideshows?

In the world of nature documentary it is essential to be a discriminate observer, always questioning the expertise of whoever is presenting the material. I have commented on two blogs that, in different ways, address this issue of authority in the medium. The first is a piece about the Discovery Channel's irresponsible treatment of dangerous situations for shock value. With the recent death of Steve Irwin I found this post to be extremely poignant. The author fears that there may be no end to this adrenaline driven culture that obsesses over near death experiences. In this case, there is a question of expertise and responsibility on the part of the Discovery Channel. The second post that grabbed my attention addresses the film Grizzly Man and the misinformed actions of Timothy Treadwell. Good intentions are simply not sufficient when a person sets out to capture the nature of an animal as dangerous as a grizzly bear. Treadwell, much like Discovery, acted irresponsibly and without proper authority on the subject. Without an expert understanding of the wildlife he was amidst, he may have done more harm than good. The idea of authority is paramount in the discussion of ethics in nature documentary and photography.

*Due to some minor technical difficulties I was unable to post my comments directly to the blog posts that I am examining. Below are the comments and the URLs at which they can be located. Thank you.

I agree with the opinions presented in your post, but I question the scope of your argument; why is it that you attack only the Discovery Channel for this televisual recklessness? Certainly there are other venues for this kind of radical and dangerous behavior that is rooted in exploitation. However, I agree that Discovery may be the irresponsible leader in this game of ratings. It is a question of integrity and ethics. Or, perhaps it is a lack of appreciation for the material that they are presenting. This is what polarizes Discovery with a company such as National Geographic. It is the level of expertise that each brings to the table. The National Geographic Society was established in 1888, its second president was Alexander Graham Bell. The society has given over 9,000 scientific grants. On the contrary, the Discovery Channel is firstly a medium for entertainment whose ultimate goal is to gain viewers. The best way to do that is to put a misinformed adrenaline junky in a perilous situation. Yes, it is unethical to put an inexperienced scuba diver in the water with great white sharks or to allow Steve Irwin to hold his baby while he feeds a crocodile. However, as long as there is a willing guinea pig there will be no end to the manipulation and exploitation from a company with such a goal. Finally, it is important to place blame discriminately. Absolutely, some of these danger seekers do it for the fame and the money but it is typically these individuals, such as Irwin, that are the leaders in conservation. They are simply using the medium of television to maximize exposure. Ultimately it is the companies that are reaping the greatest wealth from their exploits.

It seemed to me that Timothy Treadwell could convince himself of just about anything. He was sure the bears were his friends, he was sure that his presence in their habitat was helpful, but most dangerously, Treadwell convinced himself that he was an expert. Perhaps it was his apparent failure in life, with his lack of a career and his troubles with women and alcohol that drove him to accept himself as an authority on the topic of grizzly bears. Perhaps he needed to believe that he was good at something. His bipolar nature that you mentioned presents two sides of one man, both of which have a one track mind. There is the Treadwell who is, in his mind, an accepted friend of the bears and foxes. Then, there is the vehemently anti-establisment Treadwell who screams at his camera out of contempt for the mainstream that did not accept him. Psychoanalysis aside, this is a dangerous concoction to mix into a wild, unscripted setting such as Katmai National Park. It is not my intention to discredit the work that Treadwell’s organization, Grizzly People, has done in the world of conservation. Rather, it is essential to address how irresponsibly he acted under the guise of expertise. Bears are not looking for a friend; they are looking for their next meal. If Treadwell were a professional he would have understood that concept and gone about his filmmaking much differently. He lost his life and very well could have inadvertently harmed a great deal of wildlife with his presence.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Digital Footprints: a look at the ongoing and current ethical issues in nature photography

Mother nature has a coy way of surprising its viewers with the most spectacular, breathtaking moments when she feels untrampled, when the human presence goes unnoticed. A photographer who finds a balance of respect and admiration with his or her subject indeed gets the best photographs. There is a great deal of debate surrounding the ethical treatment of wildlife by photographers. Likewise, as of late, photographers have begun discussions on the legitimacy of digital manipulation in a medium geared toward the rendering of reality. So where does a photographer draw his lines between himself and his subject as well as himself and other photographers?

The truth is, nature is far more beautiful when no one is around to see Her. So, if you want to get the best shots, She should not know that you are there. There are many different environmental organizations that propose a variety of codes by which they believe nature photographers should navigate their actions. Some examples would be the NANPA or Nature Photographer Magazine. Among photographers and environmental organizations, there is a wide range of opinions concerning the ethical behavior of nature photographers. Some say a photographer should "take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints," while others believe a photographer should have superior knowledge of their subject so as not to cause unknowing stress damage to the animal. The former is typically a weekend photographer while the latter tends to be a professional and an ecologist. However you intend on proceeding in terms of your ethical treatment of nature photography, respect must be at the root of your intentions. The wildlife should be more than a means for fiancial gain; it should be appreciated. Despite this common ground of respect for their subjects, photographers have been struggling in the last several years to respect one another.

The most recent debate in outdoor photography owes itself to the advent of the digital age. Many photographers who choose a more traditionalist approach to the medium find the use of digital enhancement and image manipulation to be completely unethical. Much of the resentment that comes from the traditionalists is in the difference in the process of digital photography. They argue that the choices are made for you; things like light meters and shutter speeds are relatively automatic with digital equipment. Then, there is the chemical process in the darkroom that is completely avoided by the aid of digital equipment. Despite the undeniable advantages to the new technology, in the end it comes down to the individual's personal motives for creating a piece of art. Perhaps that individual's talent lies in the manipulation process and the art is based on stylized enhancements. As artists and poets we cannot become slaves to old conventions, despite their romantic qualities. By all means, it is imperative to cherrish the medium of true film photography. However, by shying away from changing conventions, do you not create a smaller cage for your artistic potential? In truth, many photographers, both professional and amateur, are beginning to embrace the digital technology and its many advantages. Despite any common grounds that may have been reached, photographers are now beginning to ask "how much is too much," concerning digital enhancements. It is a choice that can be made by no one other than the individual photographer; the bottom line is that whether or not it seems ethical, digital media is the new way despite any lingering resentment.

It is then, in the discussion of ethics, where we find the complexities of the field of nature photography. The debates run the gamut from the photographer behind the lens to its subject in front creating a field ripe with artistry, tradition and innovation.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Grizzly Man: A Debate in Film Ethics

Adventure filmmaking is a field which studies the “out-of-bounds,” where raw instincts are more vital than rationality. To try to reason with nature is a futile pursuit once she has made a decision about your fate. However, it is not a field devoid of policy and convention despite how reckless it may at times seem. There is, in theory, an unwritten but often discussed code of ethics that must be followed by any filmmaker. Once you consider the unpredictable temperament of the wild, it is simple to understand that this code becomes more specific and rigid.

Lately, the debate about ethics in adventure film, moreover documentary film, has been heated; the current discussion is swirling around the 2005 Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man. Herzog’s film centers itself around a young and troubled filmmaker and environmentalist named Timothy Treadwell who lived with and documented Alaskan grizzly bears for 13 summers. These same bears would eventually bring an end to Treadwell and his footage would be left unedited, the message lost forever. So, the ethical argument surrounding this film is by no means cut and dry. Rather, it is deeply entwined with issues involving both adventure film as well as documentary film.

Most often, ethical debates involving adventure filmmaking are in regards to the preservation of the subject, the wildlife. In the case of Grizzly Man, it is about the preservation of a man’s life and work versus the exploitation of a man and his demise. On one hand it is easy to make the case that Herzog arranged a snuff film in which the emotional crutch is the actual death of his subject. In light of this idea, it would seem glaringly immoral to make such a film that relies on the spectacle of death. However, it is essential to look at the end product as a whole and assess it's topical importance. Afterall, Herzog did not compose a piece of film with the intention of killing someone. Instead he picked up treadwell's fallen story and created somewhat of an homage to his life and his struggles with inner and outer deamons. It would seem that a person with as much passion as Treadwell would certainly not want his 13 summers of footage and his message of preservation to be lost, essentially, in the belly of the beasts he loved so well. Upon reading the last letter that Treadwell wrote before his death to a friend and financial supporter, Roland Dixon, it is clear that he desired for his story to be told. It is a filmmaker's primary duty to tell a story and it is impossible to deny how dynamic the story of Treadwell is.