“Do you want to present your photographs as real, or as made up?” Canon Master and former National Geographic editor-at-large Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols has a clear position on the idea of manipulating wildlife images: “My whole drive is about making pictures that are as real and as wild as possible.”
It’s not just a theoretical issue, manipulating images can have a real impact on a photographer’s livelihood – US marine biologist Nancy Black was fined $12,500 for feeding killer whales on a video shoot.
Over the decades Nichols, whose work will be celebrated in an exhibition on the Canon stand at Visa Pour l’Image 2017 in Perpignan, France, has witnessed technological changes that have transformed photography. But through it all, he tells us, the heart of his mission has been to “preserve true wildness”...
Do you have a code of ethics for photographing wildlife?
“I think, because I did not start as a wildlife photographer but as a photojournalist, I had that concept that you’ve got to always be able to disclose whatever you do – there’s nothing you can hide. Working for National Geographic, you have an editor who is putting 100 years of credibility on the line when they publish you, so it’s going to come up in the course of the editing and creating. In my own case, it was always about disclosure: could I stand in front of the world and tell you how I made these photographs? I just didn’t feel like I could ever do something that I couldn’t stand behind.”
What’s the driving force behind your desire for authenticity?
“Making pictures that are as real and as wild as possible. I don’t want to tame my subject because you can’t tame a tiger, you can’t tame a leopard. You can have habituation but tame is very, very different. Tame is another word entirely.”
Using bait to attract owls is a common practice. Where do you draw the line?
“If I made a great grey owl picture with a mouse, it would be in my caption. I would never try to make the world think that my reflexes were so good and I was such an incredible naturalist that I could find a great grey owl and see it catching a mouse. The exactness of these pictures makes me suspect that they put the mouse there and they’re focused on it. I think you have to be particularly aware of how what you do is going to be perceived.”
Image manipulation seems more prevalent than ever. What’s acceptable?
“You can’t move a pixel. Photography is supposed to represent something that happened – it’s not supposed to represent a fantasy. When you want prints, you want depth so you do toning, contrast and saturation, but it’s within the limits of what that day looked like. If a sky becomes ominous and yet there was no storm that day, you’ve gone too far.”
Photography is supposed to represent something that happened, not a fantasy.
Why did you use a robot controlled mini-tank for photographing Serengeti lions?
“The goal was to not disturb those lions. We got it right in among them while they were sleeping, and they just didn’t care. Do you want the animal interacting, or do you want it doing its thing? I didn’t publish the pictures where they were curious about it because that’s not what we were after.”
Do you think technology has blurred the ethical lines of wildlife photography?
“Technology is going to allow us to take more intimate photographs but you don’t have to compromise your ethics. You can use it to make them stronger.”
What do you think about ecotourism and photo safaris?
“One of the most distasteful things you can do is go to the Mara River during the migration, because there is no control about where the cars sit. You’ve got people surrounding a cheetah so it can’t hunt, and wildebeest not crossing because they’re getting spooked by vehicles. There should to be constraints.”
What have been the most beneficial advances in camera and lens technology?
“Composites. My redwood tree composites are an example; you couldn’t have made that picture in the time of film. In my early photography, which was all chrome, my style came out of the limitations of my film. I just want the technology to be there so I can think out a creative way to use it. Because the sensors got more delicate, I didn’t have to use as much strobe, and the speed of the motor drive got to the point where you were practically making a movie. The sky’s the limit on what we can now do.”
I try to make the photograph as interesting as possible but not change it.
What’s the message of your new book A Wild Life, A Visual Biography of Photographer Michael Nichols?
“You can come from anywhere and live the dream. I come from a poor background, I dreamed and it all came true: love, work, and the mission.”
Who are some of your favourite ethical photographers?
“Steve Winter, who sticks to his subject and finds a way to do the impossible. His breakthrough at National Geographic was jaguars. He’s still shooting them 20 years later, and has been unrelenting in building stories on big cats – being able to live with predators is essential for any conservation photographer.”
“Charlie Hamilton James – he loves tech and shows us the unseen while finding a way to attach the mission of conservation to his stories. Another one is Brian Skerry, who brings a sense of hardcore conservation to photos from the sea. He shoots images that make us think, and may change behaviour. All three of these photographers live under too much scrutiny not to follow my rule of full disclosure. Peer pressure can be a guiding force.”
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