Compound Eye

Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

To kill, or not to kill: the insect photographer’s question


And now, just in time for your long weekend, an ethics quiz!

Imagine you have an insect, a camera, and a photography project that might involve the death of your little subject. Insects are not universally regarded to have moral standing, of course, yet exterminating them for no reason also seems wrong. Or, it should seem wrong. We insect photographers bump against the fuzzy ethical line whether or not we agonize over it. We owe it to ourselves, if not our buggy subjects, to think about how we treat the animals we photograph.

To that end, consider what you would do in the following situations. In which would you consider killing your insect to be ethical?

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

Next week I'll provide my responses to these scenarios. In the meantime, drop a comment about how you would handle them.

(disclaimer: All non-ironic use of KILL IT WITH FIRE!!! will be disregarded)

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

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