[the following is a modified repost from Myrmecos, 2010]
Audubon's Ted Williams explains that staged images have taken over the animal photography business and argues that these ubiquitous phonies give the public an inaccurate view of nature:
Audubon has sent me to lots of wild places over the past 31 years, but I'd seen only one wolf and three cougars (a litter) until December 8, 2009. On that day, before noon in the Glacier National Park ecosystem of northwestern Montana, I encountered not just one wolf but two and not just one cougar but two! What were the chances of that?Well, they were 100 percent, because I'd rented the animals for a photo shoot.
I'm not as bothered by the hired animal photography business as Williams. The most valid concerns are those surrounding the welfare of the caged animals, but apart from that I have a hard time being scandalized by staged imagery.
The trouble is that photography is not and never was a valid medium for determining truth about the world around us. The whole point of photography is propagandistic. Pictures communicate a story, or promote a concept, or a person.
Even in the wilds of the deepest Amazonian jungle, photographers still make decisions about when to trigger the shutter and what to include in or exclude from the frame. These decisions are as much a lens into the imagination of the photographer as they are a recording device for the subject, and the difference in artificiality between farmed animal photos and wild photos are more in degree than in kind.
To be clear, I have much more respect for the photographers who put in the hard yards in difficult conditions to shoot animals in their natural state. Truly wild wildlife photography involves a level of skill and artistry beyond that seen in the calendar crowd. But to the extent we're interested in how the world works, we should not impart on photography a role that it cannot play. We should not be deluded that pretty pictures can inform us more than they can mislead us. We have science for that.