“I am not amused,” Deacon seems to say, his pupils mere slits. Before my intrusion, the cat slept in the sun. Now, I hover, zooming in with my camera. I struggle with whether to continue, feeling guilty.
While I can’t be confident of Deacon’s thoughts, by turning his head away and repositioning his legs, he seems to signal, “No, human.” I concede it is not a moment that needs to be documented for eternity.
Backing away, I remember a photograph taken decades ago, a sepia print of my family in an American frontier saloon, suggesting gold rushes and bandits, “beasts” to be tamed and “savages” to be civilized. Pictured is the Wild Wild West, romanticized by a 1980s theme park vendor in the urbanized Great Plains, now called Kansas City.
My six-year-old sister sits center in a corset and feathered boa, amusingly placed on my father’s lap. She is quite obviously dressed as a “soiled dove” (i.e., a town prostitute). Nearby, my mother stands displeased in a high-necked dress. Between them, I appear unwillingly, my face formed in a scowl. My interior thoughts are clear to any viewer. I do not want to be photographed.
First, notice why you photograph.
Contemplate for a moment the last animal photograph you took. Who is pictured? Why did you snap it?
I’ve come to believe my own impulse is driven by a desire to document, a drive to impress, or a response to an internal emotion. Or a combination of these.
In the case of sleeping Deacon, I felt pleased and relaxed. “Oh look, the skittish cat is not always scared. See how peaceful he is? He must be feeling more comfortable with us.” And yet, standing over him, I disturbed his tranquility.
Other times, I capture my amazement, like when I snapped a pic of a fluffy squirrel splooting on a tree branch outside. On vacations, delight leads, entangled with an appreciation of rarity. “Oh, look! A Spix’s macaw!” I shriek amidst a lush Brazilian rainforest. “Did you see her?” I whisper, watching a white lion lead cubs along a dusty path in South Africa.
Second, contemplate power dynamics.
It’s not lost on me that our language often consists of “taking” photos or “capturing” images. I acknowledge the power imbalance that arises when one controls a camera.
For example, consider squirming dogs adorned in witch hats or angel wings and held “in place” for holiday photos. I can’t help but suppose they’d prefer lazing on the couch or running after a tennis ball.
I must concede that, in many cases, my desires overshadow a subject’s desires or needs. So while I am cautious not to harm habitats or harass animals, merely being in their presence might do so anyway.
Far too often, we believe that if an animal does not attack us or get up and leave, they either agree to our choice to snap a pic or are ambivalent to photography. But visualizing myself in similar positions, some very uncomfortable and distasteful feelings arise. Let’s look at two.
Consider the popularity of “smart” backyard bird feeders that capture amazing in-flight images. Now, imagine how you might feel if someone hid a camera to watch you eat.
Next, contemplate hidden trail cameras feeding nature websites, sharing the goings-on of animals in a habitat—eating, prowling, cleaning, playing, and even mating. Now, ponder your response if someone hid a webcam outside your bedroom window and livestreamed your actions onto the internet. Might you call a lawyer or your local police department?
These awareness-expanding thought experiments illuminate two privileges we rarely extend to other-than-human species: photographic consent and our perceived right to privacy.
Third, prioritize their independence.
“But how can we know if an animal consents to me taking their picture?” you might (rightly) ask. That, my friends, is one of the juicy debates of animal ethicists. However, I’d like to recommend three practices that might help us get closer to an answer.
Let the animal lead.
Learn about animal body language and respect what you see. For example, avoid photographing if an animal gives you a look that you sense means “You disturbed me.”
On the flip side, notice any animals who appreciate camera attention. Our feline Buba-ji is a perfect example.
A slick, black tuxedo cat with long whiskers pointing every which way, he poses like a model—purring and unaided by treats—for many minutes while I click away. In images of him, his eyes pierce through your soul like a pro.
The key is watching his tail. When it thrashes back and forth, Bub is at the end of his patience. I respect that boundary.
Tip: Expand your knowledge of animal body language with Zazie Todd’s books Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy and Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.
Photograph with mindfulness.
Back in the day, when we had to pay for film, flashcubes, and development, pictures were precious and treasured. What if we brought back that type of discernment and thoughtfulness? Photographer Torsten Andreas Hoffmann states, “Meditation and photography have more in common than you might initially think: Both deal with the present moment, both demand the highest degree of awareness, and both are most attainable when the mind is empty.”
Tip: Pick up Hoffman’s book Photography as Meditation to turn mindless snapping into a contemplative act that serves both photographer and subject.
Share judiciously and respectfully.
In many ways, my choice to document animals highly influences the way they are seen. The photos I choose to take of Deacon and Buba-ji—and how I describe them in captions—construct narratives that may or may not be like the cats’ inner experiences.
Tip: Before taking a photo, ask yourself, “Would I be happy with being represented this way?” In other words, “Photographically do unto others as you would want done unto you.
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