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To kill, or not to kill: the insect photographer’s question (part 2)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Earlier, I posed a series of ethical scenarios in which an insect dies as part of a photographic project. I did not mention why I’d written that post, but the piece does have a backstory.

I teach several photography workshops every year. These events attract two rather different sorts of people: entomologists who are learning photography, and photographers who are learning entomology. The former pass their days cramming insects in preservative for science; they think little of killing an insect if they have academic reasons to do so. The latter come from the tread-lightly school of wildlife photography and are more hesitant to inflict harm on their subjects.

As I hail from the entomological side of the tracks, I was at first surprised by some of the ethics discussions that emerged at our events. As someone who has slaughtered tens of thousands of ants in the name of taxonomic research (for example: here), I found the opposing view alien. Still, my interactions with the tread-lightly group has given me cause to consider ethical aspects of insect photography. Hence, last week’s post.

Here is how I address- or have addressed- the insect death scenarios:

1. The insect is a mosquito, and you are photographing her as she feeds from your arm. After snagging  a decent shot, do you squish the mosquito? If not, do you typically avoid swatting mosquitoes?

Anopheles punctipennis - this one flew away.

This scenario raises several questions. First, why should photographing an insect change our ethical relationship to a subject? If we kill mosquitoes anyway, what’s one more dead mosquito?

Second, do we have an ethical obligation to kill mosquitoes regardless of photography, given their pest status?

I admit I’m something of a softy when it comes to animals that I have observed closely. I think nothing of swatting mosquitoes, but after watching one at work I just don’t like squishing it. It’s like I owe the animal a favor. Plus, the mosquito is not going to bite me again, so it won’t pose an additional risk to me personally. Is this position logically squishy, so to speak? Of course. But that’s how I feel.


2. Your insect is so active it makes Speedy Gonzalez look like a Sunday driver. Yet, your project requires a close-in face portrait. Do you kill the insect to arrange in a lifelike manner so the resulting image appears alive? Would your answer change if you were being paid for the image?

A very dead bee.

Of all the scenarios, this is surely the one bug photographers face most often. I get asked whether I chill or kill subjects at just about every workshop. A lot of people resort to artificially slowing their insects, and the internet is full of dead insects posed in lifelike positions.

I don’t often work with dead or chilled subjects. But this is not an ethical decision so much as an aesthetic one. Chilled insects don’t act naturally. They contort their appendages in odd positions. Water often condenses on their bodies. Dead insects show the same symptoms, but worse. Their eyes change color, their membranes shrink, the color fades. Dead photos just don’t capture what I wish to show.

The exception, for me, is high-magnification images using a technique called focus-stacking. An example is the honey bee, above. These require a subject to remain motionless for up to several minutes while the camera slides through the focal plane. I killed the bee explicitly for this photograph. I suspect most entomologists are fine with my actions, especially since many of them create focus-stacked images on the job, while many nature photographers find this practice unacceptable. See, for example, Nicky Bay’s Ethics Statement.


3. You receive an inquiry from a pesticide company’s marketing department requiring a photograph of their product killing a pest, so the point of the photo is to show the death of the insect. Do you accept the assignment?

I’ve never been faced with this situation, but as a professional photographer I would accept the assignment as a matter of business.


4. The insect is a species you have never seen before. Do you kill it to take a specimen for easier identification? After all, specimens are usually preferable to photographs for identification.

5. The insect is a species you recognize, but you suspect it might not have been recorded from that particular location before. Do you take a specimen as a physical record of the observation, even if you already logged the coordinates of the photograph?

6. The insect is a species you recognize, the location is new, but you also know this species is especially long-lived and may take three or more years to reach maturity. Does the biology of the animal affect your decision?

7. You know enough about your subject to suspect it may be a new, undescribed species. Do you kill the specimen for taxonomic research?

The one that got away: the only live photograph of Loboscelidia, a rare wasp, and I didn't collect a voucher specimen. Queensland, Australia.

As these questions are variations on the issue of scientific importance, I give my answers in one go.

To the extent I have trouble with preserving the insects I photograph, it’s that I do not do so often enough. Consider the case of the mystery wasp, an insect I did not recognize in the field and misidentified when I looked at my photo. Turns out, my photographs were the first ever taken of a living example of a rarely seen wasp, and a specimen would have been quite useful in advancing research on this group.

With the exception of the large, slow-developing insects (scenario 6), I think nature photographers should be collecting specimens more often than they do. Often, a photograph is not sufficient to identify a subject to species, and if the photo shows some unusual or undocumented behavior, a physical specimen is essential as a record.

My next workshop is later this month, and as usual our roster has both entomologists and nature photographers. I’m looking forward to seeing where the discussion leads this time.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. dalantech 4:35 pm 09/10/2013

    It’s funny: I won’t hesitate to use insect repellent, but I won’t harm a critter just for a photo (and I shoot active subjects at up to five times life size). Examples: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalantech/9384382036/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalantech/5649283711/ and in this shot the bee is on my finger: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalantech/9562438302/

    Link to this
  2. 2. 14009481UniversityofPretoria 4:41 pm 05/1/2014

    Another important issue that I feel was left out in this blog is the number of insects killed by cars and poisons during a year.
    Whenever you look at the grill of a car, or even the windscreen, you will be sure to find hundreds of dead insects. If this is in order (which I assume it is, because nobody ever worries about that), then would I be safe to say that an extra few insects being killed by photographers, who actually serve a decent purpose, will not make a major difference?
    Photographs can be of scientific value, and considering the rate at which most insects breed, I believe that it should not be frowned upon to kill insects for this purpose. Of course this is said within limits, because photographers should not just be killing insects because they can. The difference in something being ethical or unethical while doing the same thing, is simply how you do it and with what purpose.
    I want to ask, what arguments to the people who argue that it is unethical to kill the insects, have?

    Link to this

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