There’s been a lot of talk lately regarding “honesty” in photography, particularly with mobile photo editing on the rise. Internationally renowned war photographer Don McCullin recently spoke to The Guardian on his observation that the craft has been “hijacked” because “digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience, you can move anything you want … the whole thing can’t be trusted really.”
Contrary to McCullin, who posits that it is digital alterations that render a photograph untrustworthy, Dutch nature photographer Marsel van Oosten, a former ad-man who swapped the stability of his fast-paced office job for the “precarious life of a nature photographer” several years ago, suggests that editing isn’t always the culprit.
Even an unaltered photograph, like for example of a lion yawning — captured at a specific moment — can falsely perpetuate the unfair and reductive impression that lions are overly violent. In a recent blog post, he digressed on the potential ramifications:
Quite often when you see a photograph of a yawning lion, the photographer will try to make you believe that it was snarling. When a lion starts yawning, the first part of the yawn will clearly look like a yawn, but at the very end of it, the expression on the face of the lion will indeed look like a growl or a snarl. To make people believe that a lion is snarling when it is actually yawning will spread the wrong idea about these cats, and will unnecessarily portray them as monsters. Humans like to monsterize predators, and that’s why we get Predator Week, Shark Week, The Deadliest This and The Deadliest That on television. It’s a shame, because these beautiful animals are so much more than just killing machines.
In a recent interview with PicsArt, van Oosten went on,
It’s the 21st century, people should know by now that things are not always what they seem, and that even an “unmanipulated” photograph, whatever that is, is already greatly manipulated by the photographer because he has decided what to show you and what not to show you. People sometimes complain about photography in the digital era and how ‘everything is photoshopped’. Those people never worry about the photographs they see in their newspapers, because they assume they tell ‘the truth’… Yet either the photographer or the editor has decided to show you their truth, in an effort to further their political agenda.
So if — edited or not — a photograph is subjective, are there times when photographers have an ethical responsibility to their audiences to communicate “the truth?” What is the truth, anyway? And who is it really hurting if they don’t adhere to it?
On one hand, van Oosten believes that, while in journalism those kinds of responsibilities apply, the art world has a completely different agenda — one where there is no “absolute truth.” He told us,
Had I been a journalist, the story behind my images would have been much more important… All you see in my work is my personal, artistic view of the natural world. You can interpret that any way you want… Some images are meant to do nothing else but to be pretty.
At the same time, he has been extremely articulate on the delicate environmental circumstances in which we are living today and, despite his ambivalence about his viewers’ interpretations of his images, it is important to him that his work raise some level of awareness about the current ecological crisis. He said in an interview with Travel Photographer of the Year (a publication for which he has won two first prizes): “We are currently in the midst of our planet’s sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half billion years. It’s the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times that background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.”
In my work I show my personal, aesthetic view on the natural world. I love nature, I love animals, and I feel passionate about treating it with respect and about conservation. I hope that my images will make people realize that our natural world is incredibly beautiful and precious, and that we need to make sure that we don’t screw it up any more than we have already done. We are losing a wild tiger every two to three days, and there are only some 2,000 left in the wild — do the math. This is why I am now working on a book on tigers, in an effort to create more awareness and more funding to save the wild tiger. But there are many species that are still abundant, and I enjoy photographing them just as much.
Many others feel similarly to van Oosten — that it’s not just editing photos that makes them less trustworthy — and have taken to social media to say their piece (one notable approach being in the work of Thai photographer Chomboo Baritone, whose Instagram series, #slowlife, demonstrates how cropping and filtering can make mundane situations seem extraordinary). While misleading circumstances like those portrayed in Baritone’s project may seem pretty harmless (a deceptively clean room never hurt nobody!), van Oosten’s work suggests that when it comes to wildlife photography, the consequences may be much more dire. And the fates of these animals can at times depend on it.
At the end of the day, it’s van Oosten’s hope that his pictures will eventually create more awareness for conservation, which seems particularly appropriate today, on International Wildlife Day, the theme of which is “The future of wildlife is in our hands.” At least for Van Oosten, who communicates through his camera, it really is.
Do you have a story about wildlife you’d like to tell through one of your images? Share it on PicsArt with the hashtag #Wildlife.
Marsel and his wife, Daniella, run specialized nature photography tours for small groups of all experience levels to spectacular destinations worldwide. Visit their website to learn more.