Alaska Wildlife Photography
A grizzly killed hiker Richard White, of San Diego, while on a solo backpack trip on the Toklat River in August 2012, the only bear-caused fatality in Denali Park’s now 100-year history. White, 49, apparently first saw the grizzly at a distance of about 75 yards and stopped hiking to take a picture of the unsuspecting bear. The last few images recovered from his camera show the bear closing in. Details of the ensuing tragedy are uncertain. Rangers killed the male bear and recovered White’s remains.
The fatal attack unsettled park staff and visitors alike. Some people blamed the victim for being a photographer who violated the park’s distance rules in order to take pictures. Some people seemed to suggest that the bear’s death was the greater loss. More thoughtful observers mourned the human tragedy. The park’s chief ranger pointed out that White was not a photographer but a backpacker who merely happened to encounter a grizzly, a commonplace event in summer. None of the rhetoric brought any relief or solace to the victim’s family or friends.
If possession of a device that takes pictures makes a person a photographer, nearly every visitor to the park qualifies. White made a simple mistake by not moving immediately away from the bear. But who really knows? Perhaps there was nothing he could have done to save himself once the bear spotted him. The day before, a former park ranger saw the bear fighting with another bear and thinks the bear was starving, suffering from a failed berry crop.
More than once I’ve described a camera as a dangerous weapon. “A camera can quickly get you into trouble in bear country,” I’ve told wannabe professionals. “Through the viewfinder you might get the picture but miss the big picture.” Regardless if a person is a tourist with an iPhone or a professional with a whizbang digital camera, this admonishment applies. It is just too easy to be sucked into the camera and not pay attention to the enfolding event or recognize the hazard.
In my half century as a wildlife photographer I’ve had three close calls with grizzlies, only one as a result of a deliberate attempt for photos. I learned many lessons from that naïve and stupid mistake and to this day avoid undue risk. Through experience and observation I’ve learned that a person is most at risk one-on-one with a bear, but safer with two people, and in groups of five or more, the hazard greatly reduced. Today, bear viewing in Alaska is a booming segment of tourism. Hundreds of people travel to watch bears, usually in guided groups of six to ten people. Countless bear photographs are taken each summer without incident of any kind.
Professional wildlife photographers, I believe, have a special responsibility to be honest and forthcoming in their narrative. All too often, photographers exaggerate their exploits afield, especially when it comes to bears. I recall one Alaskan photographer who boasted of being charged 37 times with one attack resulting in broken ribs. (Most people would’ve learned something after the first or second incident.) A few others routinely tell tall tales but few so ludicrous.
Attempts to emulate published photos have led people into harmful or hazardous situations. I often wonder how many incidents are attributable to novices emulating stories they’ve heard or in pursuit of photographs similar to what they’ve seen?
Wonderful imagery incites people to imitation but rarely do captions reveal the how behind the pictures. Many great close-ups of wildlife are made from vehicles, in zoos, or at wildlife parks such as the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, or today, created on a computer.
People have long desired to make contact with other species, as exemplified by cave art, ceremonial bear burials, and animal effigies. The joy in animal imagery is ages old, embedded deep within. Perhaps today we seek contact with dangerous predators, bears, wolves, and big cats because our earliest human awareness was as a predator, which shaped our view of wildlife and our place in the world. (Conversely, it can be argued that our earliest awareness was as prey.) Our ancestors depended on wildlife for their very survival. Perhaps these primordial roots drive people to make contact, be “up close and personal” no matter how unwise that may be. “I am one with the wolf…I am one with the bear…” A tragic few have become one in the bear.
We are addicted to animal pictures. Wildlife films and magazines tend to be visually powerful but weak in narrative. The urban notion of the nobility of wolves has more to do with beautiful photographs, many taken in captivity, than understanding of the food chain. The human relationship to animals irrevocably changed when we stopped living among them. Some people today exalt animals as equals, often far wiser and more peaceable than humans.
For some of us, photography has become the connecting medium. “Ultimately,” wrote philosopher Susan Sontag, “having an experience becomes identical with taking a picture of it.” Renown photographer Eliot Porter once wrote that his bird portraits were a method of “establishing illusory rapport with the secret lives of wholly unapproachable animals.”
The stereotypical image of a wildlife photographer is of a camouflaged Daniel Boone, possessed of great courage, patience, and exceptional knowledge of wildlife. In reality, few wildlife photographers, except for some bird photographers, wear camouflage or wait long periods for peak action. Most shooting is happenstance, done from the road or in areas where wildlife is habituated to people with no special camouflage or subterfuge necessary.
In fact, full camouflage can get a person into serious trouble. Why on earth would someone want to sneak up on an unsuspecting bear, possibly provoking a defensive attack? For example, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary each summer hosts the world’s largest concentration of brown bears. Back in the 1970’s, prior to the strict rules in place today, a man crawled through tall grass to close range of a mother and cub before popping up for a photo. The startled bear, fearing for her cub, charged. The man shot and killed her, one of only three bears killed in the sanctuary’s 50 year history.
In today’s world, television is our chief way of experiencing nature. Wildlife films in particular suffer from the curse of television: time constraints. Nature does not reveal itself in half-hour or hour blocks, conveniently paused for snack breaks. Real knowledge comes from hours of study and field work. Instead, what is presented on television is often scripted and predictable, with manufactured drama and happy endings. As an example of television’s power, Steep Creek, near Mendenhall Glacier, has become a de-facto black bear viewing site, drawing hordes of tourists. Last summer a small bear drew a crowd accompanied by a Forest Service interpretive ranger. “Hey everyone, look!” she yelled. “A little slice of Disneyland right here near Juneau.” (My God, have we fallen that far? Disneyland emulates nature, not the reverse.)
Even on a casual visit to a national park, or other wildlife reserve, we see people chasing after elk, approaching bison or bears, throwing junk food to lure animals, or attempting to touch or hold small animals or reptiles. (The “selfie” craze has led to dazzlingly stupid behaviors.)
I blame a lot of irresponsible behavior on so-called documentaries and “interactive” reality shows that feature people supposedly working for the conservation of wildlife, but stepping over the line into the lamentable realm of celebrity. The immense popularity of Steve Irwin, “the Crocodile Hunter,” accelerated that trend. Maybe larger-than-life figures are needed to reach a burgeoning human population with zero interest in wildlife, but in almost every episode of Irwin’s program that I saw, in my opinion, he needlessly caught, chased, or handled dangerous animals, merely for the sake of drama. (Notice how it was always Irwin doing the chasing? The animals were just trying to get away.) Many wildlife professionals viewed much of his behavior as outright wildlife harassment.
A stingray killed Irwin in 2006 on a dive over the Great Barrier Reef. “I have no fear of losing my life,” he once said. “If I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.” Sounds a lot like something Timothy Treadwell once said.
As time passes, producers of wildlife “documentaries” —“the pet-and-pester approach”—continue to push the boundaries. Jaded viewers demand ever more unique action. I’ve worked as a consultant and guide on a few films and seen firsthand the pressure the production teams work under to achieve spectacular results. Not long ago I took a call from a producer in London. After outlining plans for a wildlife special to be shot on location in Denali and elsewhere, the producer then asked her key question: “How can we put some sizzle into the program?” When I asked what she meant by “sizzle,” she listed several audacious stagings. After each one, I replied: “Can’t be done, it’s not legal.” After a long pause, she asked: “Well, where can we do these things?” The answer, of course, was nowhere. Federal laws against wildlife harassment apply nationwide. The producer never called back.
On another occasion, at the behest of the park service, I guided a film crew into Denali for the making of an episode of a television series starring a well-known “wildlife expert.” At one point, our shooting along the park road was interrupted by a passing tour bus. I saw recognition cross the faces of many of the passengers and they began to smile and wave to our “star.” He weakly waved back and sotto voce said, “Get a life you #%&*!*. Yes it’s me…now make my day and get lost, you #%&*!* losers.”
Later, we set up at another location. The light rain had stopped and the crew had doffed their raingear. The shot called for the “star” to walk 40 feet out onto the tundra, here covered in short, inches-tall shrubs, and pose as if in the midst of the great alone. After conferring with the producer, and with camera rolling, the “star” strode into the scene. Twenty steps out he suddenly froze and looked down as if he’d stepped on a poisonous snake. “My pant legs are wet,” he flared. “I’ve stayed dry all day. I’m wet now. I can’t work in these conditions.” He stormed passed the crew and back into the van. No one said a word, everyone aware that only his cuffs were damp. After a few awkward moments, the producer climbed into the van for a long chat. Somehow he managed to coax the “star” out for another take, which lasted five minutes.
There is something almost pornographic about the animal “reality” shows and staged “documentaries” on cable. One mercifully short-lived show featured a thirty-something with long hair, tattoos and piercings, dressed much like an extra in a Mad Max film, artlessly harassing wildlife with a camera. Cut-in scenes of animals fighting were featured in at least two episodes. The film makers, for whom the rewards, and costs, are the greatest, had nearly obliterated the ethical line between artifice and cruelty. (The woeful days of Frank Buck should be far behind us.) I have given up hope of finding programs that teach people how to live in harmony with wildlife.
Still photography also has suffered as a result of the demand for high drama and action. Editors demand impact, the ethics behind the imagery of little or no importance. I know a photographer who carries a bag of stones with him to throw if an animal looks drowsy. He’s made a small fortune from pictures of running and jumping deer.
The pioneers of wildlife photography were not purists. In the 1950’s, largely attributable to the limitations of equipment and film, professionals employed baits, decoys, and recorded calls, to lure subjects within camera range. They photographed in zoos and took pictures of captive animals, or family pets, and often published them with fanciful captions. I knew two very successful professionals that placed taxidermied animals in natural settings. One couple situated a stuffed bear in a stream and took turns tossing rocks in front of it to simulate splashing fish.
These practitioners were not solely tricksters but widely traveled photographers with vast libraries of the world’s wildlife. They used these tricks often at the blatant, or tacit, encouragement of editors and art buyers. In their part of the bargain, editors often wrote deceptive captions to accompany the photographs. (Even now some editors have vivid imaginations. Not long ago, Alaska Magazine published a bear picture that I had taken in a zoo twenty years ago and captioned it as taken in “the Kodiak Zoological Park.” Kodiak has no such animal park, the caption a total embarrassment.)