Opinion: A Case for Consistency?

Today’s blog post was inspired by a discussion on Facebook. It all started innocuously enough; someone asked a question about what is allowed in terms of a Nature photograph in the context of FIAP/PSA regulations. What followed was an enthusiastic – and at times perhaps a little strained – discussion about the rules themselves, then the background and as the internet is wont to do, numerous tangents and ever more exaggerated examples & what-if discussions. Entertaining it may be but in terms of producing a tangible, actionable change perhaps less so.

One interesting comment was that the people at FIAP/PSA are all volunteers who are giving their time freely for this, and that it’s unreasonable to expect them to produce a standard that is effectively bullet-proof. Though I disagree that volunteers should be held to any lower standard simply because they aren’t paid the challenge of producing a better standard, producing a bullet-proof standard isn't a realistic goal.  Producing a better one is a much better goal!

I’m linking to the FIAP definition here because it’s easier to find but all the major salon patronage organisations have agreed to operate to the same standard.

http://www.fiap.net/pdf/DefNat-en.pdf

The very first question is one that is conspicuous by its absence in the definition. What is this standard designed to achieve?  A closely linked second question is “what does the standard seem to say”?

Without this explicitly stated it’s already hard to produce a standard when the patronizing organisations haven’t set out what they are trying to achieve in their published definition! Still, I think we can also have a pretty good go at defining that too.

The first complication I would do away with is the tenuous distinction between Nature & Wildlife. In broad terms the standard seems to suggest that Nature can depict any situation in the natural world. The natural world seems to be broadly understood as “the word where human intervention is minimized/not present or essential to the story element” but still that gives a huge latitude for interpretation. The Nature section as is allows non-living phenomena to be depicted (e.g. hurricanes & tidal waves), allows captive animals as a subject but does not allow domesticated animals, cultivated plants are not permitted but natural subjects in controlled conditions are…. I hope you see my point – the standard seems to be internally contradictory, extremely broad in apparent scope but with ultimately vague restrictions. In short, it’s confusing for photographers & confusing for judges. The latitude for interpretation is so great it limits how effective the standard can ultimately be.

Wildlife seems to be a sub-standard of the Nature definition but in the broadest sense, restricts photographers to only wild animals/plants. “Natural forces” or landscapes are explicitly banned and the distinction between captive vs free animals is fairly clear. The Wildlife explanation is just about the clearest element of the whole definition yet is still interpreted differently across salons worldwide!

This image of a kingfisher living in an urban environment should be eligible in both the Nature & Wildlife categories but has been rejected by judges in both because of the presence of the metal railing.  It represents an animal wholly adapted to a human-influenced habitat but what little feedback judges have provided state that the human element invalidates the entire photo as Nature OR Wildlife.

This image of a kingfisher living in an urban environment should be eligible in both the Nature & Wildlife categories but has been rejected by judges in both because of the presence of the metal railing.  It represents an animal wholly adapted to a human-influenced habitat but what little feedback judges have provided state that the human element invalidates the entire photo as Nature OR Wildlife.

Summarising the problem, we seem to have one definition split in two with so many caveats and conditions it makes interpreting the whole thing a challenge for photographers & judges alike!

How do we fix it?

  1. Make the goal very clear to all. State it at the top of the definition to make sure everyone is aware what it’s trying to do and add context. My suggestion would be that in this specific field photography, the primary goal for this standard should be to recognize, reward & promote quality photography first and foremost. This is in line with each of the major organisations goals already; it seems to make sense to apply it here too.
  2. What should it cover?  Natural Life. We already have Open & Photojournalism categories to depict the awesome forces of nature, beautiful landscapes and the impact of the changing environment on people. The Natural Life category can depict all aspects of “life that isn’t human”. That’s broad in terms of scope for what can be photographed but quite clear in context.
  3. With the requirement for quality photography established, the value of the story is the next most important factor. So much of the natural world is being impacted by human interaction & influence it will become increasingly hard to adequately separate humans & animals over time; their interdependency is increasing all the time. Natural life can depict any kind of animal/plant, living or dead, even including those where human elements are present – it’s the story that’s important here. Remove any artificially imposed photographic limitation; shoot what is actually happening. This could well be the most controversial element but please continue reading to understand why it’s here.
  4. Use this genre to raise awareness. It could be raising awareness of how animals behave in the wild, presenting an insight that most people will never see. Like the image of the buzzards eating honey below, that’s fascinating and tells a great story as I imagine most people never knew birds would ever do that. An equally captivating story could be of animals in captivity, showing how humans have decimated the natural habitat so much the only way to see this animal now is in a controlled environment. Likewise, a shot of deforestation for human expansion tells a powerful story. Here the challenge would be to convery that in one photo without it simply looking like a “touristy” record shot. I think the existing definition of wildlife promotes “pretty pictures of animals” versus “promoting an understanding of wildlife & how humans can sometimes impact them”. I think the latter is far more important, far more challenging to represent photographically & when done well, much more interesting and effective.
  5. Respect for the natural world. Simply put, if an image is judged to be contrived or endangering natural life for the purposes of the photograph, the judges have the latitude to (and should) reject it. This means situations where it looks like the photographer’s influence has caused distress to the natural life or adversely impacted the scene or environment, it’s ineligible.  I make the distinction "for the purpose of the photograph" because documenting humans endagering the natural world can be a powerful & valuable tool for highlight the problems we're causing.

Image credit, Rosa Shieh

With these points established, the definition becomes simple.

Natural Life is a category where the photographer shares a story about any kind of non-human life, be it animal or, plant; whether it’s an insight into aspects of life rarely seen or how humanity is changing the world around us and how it impacts other life on our planet. Quality photography is the most important factor; the story & what it can teach us is also paramount. Images entering this category will be judged on these two elements first and foremost. Photographers or photographs endangering or adversely impact natural life or their environment for the sake of the photograph are ineligible.

I’m sure the first thing people will do when reading this is try to find the grey areas in such a new definition, places where the standard is ambiguous or unclear. To pre-empt that here’s some guidance/notes that could be issued with the definition – incidentally, making that kind of guidance available to photographers and judges is something I think FIAP & PSA are sorely lacking in ALL definitions.

  • If it doesn’t include non-human life, it’s ineligible for the Natural Life category.
  • If it includes non-human life it’s eligible, but remember the category is explicitly focused on the story the photograph tells. Just including non-human life doesn’t mean it’s a good Natural Life photograph!
  • A beautifully composed, well photographed image of an animal is lovely & certainly eligible. An equally well photographed image of the same animal catching its prey (for example) tells a better story and would be deserving of higher recognition.
  • What about photographers who may influence the environment to “stage” the shot but effectively hide it in the end result?  This comes down to individual judges and the level of perceived staging but the rule is clear. The photographer must not adversely impact the life or it’s environment for the sake of the shot. For example, putting out feed to encourage animals into the best photographic location is one level of interaction and current research suggests that directly or indirectly feeding animals is a net benefit; glueing animals to monofilament wire to “pose” them is something else entirely, as has been suggested for some controversial photos. This is where judge discretion is paramount and where I’d advise judges to request original RAW files for clarity if needed. However, I believe that FIAP & PSA should be more engaged in this area of influence than simply letting judges reject images they are unsure of – where photographers have caused distress to the natural world for the sake of an image, FIAP & PSA should take action and see to it that the photographer in question is permanently banned from patronized events and – in my opinion – reported to authorities where sufficient proof of harm is available.
Images like this tropical frog were widely publicised a few years ago and subsequently publically discussed as potential cases of animal abuse - this kind of image would be one I'd personally suggest judges seek RAW files for confirmation/clarification. Judges should have the ability to reject images where they aren't comfortable with what is portrayed but should provide adequate feedback to photographers as to why. As for the image above, I'm not sure if conclusive evidence was provided either way. The question still remains as to whether or not cases conceptually similar to this should be awarded in salons patronised by FIAP/PSA or if judges should get comprehensive proof the animal was not distressed in any way before awarding the image.

Images like this tropical frog were widely publicised a few years ago and subsequently publically discussed as potential cases of animal abuse - this kind of image would be one I'd personally suggest judges seek RAW files for confirmation/clarification. Judges should have the ability to reject images where they aren't comfortable with what is portrayed but should provide adequate feedback to photographers as to why. As for the image above, I'm not sure if conclusive evidence was provided either way. The question still remains as to whether or not cases conceptually similar to this should be awarded in salons patronised by FIAP/PSA or if judges should get comprehensive proof the animal was not distressed in any way before awarding the image.

As I mentioned above, right now the nature category can also include “natural forces” – tidal waves & hurricanes being two quoted examples. I think we should remove them from the Natural Life category because, as I said before, we already have other categories they can compete in. The benefit of removing them from a Natural Life category is obvious, in that it promotes clarity, and they can still receive due recognition in other genres. That’s not to say natural forces can’t be a factor in a Natural Life image – I imagine a vision of cows fleeing ahead of a hurricane tearing up their field would be quite captivating – but a “simple” image of a hurricane, or the human impact of a hurricane devastating a town would be best represented in other categories.

This photo of a jellyfish might be pretty, and some people may value the artistic appeal or the chance to study the structure of the animal.  The same jellyfish feeding or interacting with other creatures would tell a much more interesting & valueable story though. The fact it was shot in an aquarium is irrelevant if the photograph teaches the viewer something about the subject in question.

This photo of a jellyfish might be pretty, and some people may value the artistic appeal or the chance to study the structure of the animal.  The same jellyfish feeding or interacting with other creatures would tell a much more interesting & valueable story though.

The fact it was shot in an aquarium is irrelevant if the photograph teaches the viewer something about the subject in question.

Another interesting point raised in the initial discussion was “how do we recognize the craft that goes into capturing wildlife shots”. For me that’s simple – in the final image. To be brutally honest, if someone slept in a tent made from twigs and ate nothing but berries for six months to capture a photo yet that photo isn’t engaging, telling a story & technically well executed then it doesn't matter. The photographic skill and the message communicated are what should be judged. The hardships in getting it should not be a factor. They make for an interesting story outside the photograph but we’re discussing photography not autobiography!

Job done?  Let me know what you think!

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