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Truth In Captioning – An Interview with Melissa Groo and Don Carter

By December 18, 2017No Comments

Photographs by Melissa Groo

Interview by David C. Lester


A Great Horned Owl in Fort Myers, Florida. © Melissa Groo

Although little introduction is needed, Don Carter is the president of NANPA, and Melissa Groo, in addition to being a world-renowned wildlife photographer, is chair of NANPA’s Ethics Committee.  Over the past several years, significant ethical considerations around nature photography have arisen, along with the need to honestly and accurately caption the details of images.

After several years of work, NANPA has developed a new “Truth in Captioning” statement that addresses these and other issues.  I recently sat down with Don and Melissa to talk about ethical considerations in wildlife photography, as well as the work done on this document.

DL:  When did the need for a new Truth In Captioning Statement come about?

Melissa:  It became clear a couple of years ago that the TIC needed to be updated.  We (NANPA Ethics Committee) felt we were seeing the need in print and social media for clearer captions, particularly in terms of ethics and education.  Clear, honest, accurate captions.  Ethics committee members agreed that a new statement was needed.  We worked hard on it, and the board approved it.  We hope that this statement will become an industry standard.

DL:  What is the goal of the TIC?

Melissa:  The goal is not to dictate these captions to NANPA members or anyone else – it’s simply to educate.  To create a resource that nature photographers and photo editors can look to if they are interested in using captions in a way that is accurate, honest, and useful.  We hope this really gets traction — we need partners from organizations outside of NANPA to help reinforce the message.

DL:  How does the TIC document relate to ethics in photography?

Melissa:  Ethics is definitely part of the drive behind putting the document together.  Some workshop leaders bring mice to an owl shoot to get the owl to swoop down so dynamic photographs can be made.  If you’re getting lots of incredible shots of owls swooping toward the camera, chances are good that the owls have been baited.  Some photographers put dog food around an area to attract bears and other animals.  Then, they’ll get in a nearby hide and get good shots of the baited animals.  Unfortunately, countries in Europe are particularly relaxed about this, especially Finland, Norway and Sweden.  If you’re interested in learning more about this, just do an internet search for “baited photography hides.”

DL:  What’s another example of an ethical breach in wildlife photography?

Melissa:  One of the most prominent examples was the initial winner of the 2009 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the prestigious annual competition sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London.  The photographer claimed that the wolf jumping over a fence in his image was wild, but further investigation revealed that the wolf was likely captive and trained.  The photographer’s award was rescinded, and he was banned from the competition for life.

Photographers often have to wait hours, frequently in harsh weather conditions, to naturally obtain a good image of a wild animal in their habitat, engaging in normal behavior.  If an image is made of a baited or captive animal, the caption should include those details.

DL:  How widespread is the lack of captioning?

Don:  “When I first started looking at the document, there was a feeling that this was a type of document that wouldn’t apply to too many people.”  We assume that when photographers make an image of a baited or captive animal, most folks can tell that this is not an “in the wild” sort of image.  However, with more sophisticated post-processing techniques, this may not be so obvious.

In addition, the stress on bears and other wildlife is high when throngs of people are there photographing. Moreover, sometimes photographers are often not very considerate of other photographers or of other people when wildlife is present. So, ethics is a big issue, and it goes well beyond the captive and baiting activity.


A bobcat in West Yellowstone, Montana. © Melissa Groo


DL:  How can people educate themselves about wildlife to help with their photography?

Melissa:  It is important to know something about your subject before going into the field, and knowing what stage of the animal’s life cycle it’s in at the time. There is so much information on the internet, so that’s a good place to start.  Be careful, however, to choose reliable sources.  For example, for just about anything you want to know about birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website is excellent.  Many zoos have good educational tools.  NANPA resources are good, too, as well as NANPA members.

Another consideration is to offer help to scientists.  Young researchers need photographers to help them document their research.  Work with a researcher when they’re drafting their research grant, and they might be able to request money for a photographer.  The education you can get from working with a researcher can enable you to write articles about the work you’ve done.  Keep in mind, though that the field work can be physically demanding.  If all of this is more than you want to do, remember that there are lots of stories to tell just by checking out your backyard.

DL:  Any final thoughts?

Don: “I’d like to give my heartfelt thanks to Melissa and the Ethics committee for all of the hard work they’ve done working on the new TIC.”

Melissa:  I’d like to express my appreciation to Don for recognizing the importance of ethics and truthful captioning in photography, and for his leadership in making this a priority for NANPA.

To read or print a copy of NANPA’s Truth In Captioning Statement, please click here.