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June 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Ethics in Macro Photography

are critters sentient beings?

from the June, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Underwater close-up or macro photography has always been popular, because even in the more difficult days of film cameras, a diver could go into the water with a camera and strobes pre-set for guaranteed results. With the digital revolution, underwater photography has grown exponentially and macro is the rage.

Whether it is because of the obvious loss of pelagic species or because of the seductive success of macro photography, the minutiae of marine life have spawned a huge interest, hence the wealth of illustrated publications concentrating on colorful nudibranchs and other invertebrates. This in turn has seen the advent of dive guides who have become expert at spotting the tiniest creatures for the benefit of photographers.

It's not uncommon to see dive guides armed with pointers, searching out these critters and coaxing them into a better position for a clear view for the macro lens. At the same time, underwater photographers, seeking to produce a different result from the mainstream, go beyond moving a gorgonian frond to get a better view of a pigmy seahorse, to such actions as moving a critter on to a piece of white Perspex or other artificial surface for a more graphic shot.

The Philippine newspaper Visayan Daily Star reports how Danilo Ocampo of Oceana Philippines had written to the mayor of Dauin (near Dumaguete - Negros Orientalis) informing him that, together with Laua Pearce, a diving instructor, he had witnessed an underwater photographer and a dive guide manhandling a pregnant seahorse and repeatedly placing it upon a mirror they had brought with them.

Unable to stop them, the two surfaced and sent a message to the local Filipino Sea Patrol via another dive instructor. They then resumed their dive and watched while the two offending divers continued to do the same with a nudibranch and other marine creatures.

"There's a growing movement among divers and photographers to compel the industry to practice responsible and ethical behavior underwater."

Ocampo said the incident "should not be condoned and ignored," citing a "growing movement among divers and photographers to compel the industry to practice responsible and ethical behavior underwater."

A video of the two divers coaxing the seahorse on to the mirror for the benefit of the camera led to protests on various social media and a campaign led by one underwater photographer and environmentalist for better ethics. A video of dive guide and client photographer was viewed more than 7500 times and met with as much outrage as a video of a foolhardy diver riding a shark or another grabbing a crocodile by the tail. Of course, the shark and the crocodile have recourse should they object to the diver, whereas the seahorse can only instinctively do its best to survive.

Where does this leave the more ordinary practices of underwater photographers? It's almost normal to see a macro photographer drive a xeno crab or commensal shrimp along a whip coral for a better picture. Does this harm the creature? Does the macro lens itself, closely adjacent, alarm the animal? Are such creatures sentient, able to perceive or feel, and if so, is this still acceptable?

The problem arises when we attribute them human characteristics. Does the seahorse turn away because it is shy? Is the xeno crab running for fear of its life? Is the nudibranch acting instinctively or thinking?

Dr. Marc Bekoff wrote in Psychology Today in 2014 that fish are sentient and emotional beings and clearly feel pain. He, in turn, quoted Professor Culum Brown's review paper in Animal Cognition entitled "Fish intelligence, Sentience and Ethics."

"Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioral and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate."

It seems that fish have feelings too

So what about invertebrates? Around the same time, The Washington Post published an article by Tamar Stelling, who wrote about Robert Elwood, who worked with crabs and shrimp for three decades at Queen's University in Belfast. He looked at how their need to escape pain competed with other desires, and found that behavior went far beyond reflex. Robin Cook, an evolutionary neurobiologist at the University of Texas Health & Science Center in Houston, found similarly with cephalopods.

On the other hand, Hans Smid, who studies the brains and learning behaviors of parasitic wasps at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is "absolutely convinced that insects do not feel pain."

If we encourage dive guides to manipulate critters into a better position for the benefit of our cameras, that's our responsibility.

Underwater photographers will want to get the best view possible of any critter, and local dive guides will do their best to facilitate that. If we encourage them to manipulate critters into a better position for the benefit of our cameras, that's our responsibility. The fact that they, themselves, appreciate the wonders of life underwater when it is quite likely their fathers were making a living by destroying it by fishing with explosives or risking their health by diving and plundering the reef with primitive hookah gear, is a distinct improvement.

That said, these dive guides need to act with the best interests of the environment forefront in their minds. They need to be the full-time stewards of the reef, rather than manhandling marine life in order for it to give them and their children a continuing livelihood.

Local dive guides in developing countries rely on the tips they get to improve their lives. The tourist dollar proves very powerful. One dive guide told me that he was saving such tips in order to buy his mother a proper bathroom with a flush toilet. He will obviously do his best to please.

Maybe it gives perspective to the perceived plight of the whip coral shrimp. Is the manipulation of a small creature, by herding into a better position for the camera, acceptable? While we are rightly concerned with the wellbeing of a single seahorse, where is the voice of protest for the millions of seahorses that are harvested for use as phony aphrodisiacs in traditional Asian medicine?

- John Bantin

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