My View: Wildlife Photography Culture

Decades ago in the fall, while on a photo safari in Yellowstone, I came across a group of wildlife photographers at a pullout in Willow Flats, just south of Swan Flats.  This was the best prime moose area (pre-1989 forest fires) in all the park back in those days, and a morning destination for many.  There were no wolves, and bear populations hadn’t rebounded yet, so moose and elk were prime subjects.  The willows were twenty feet high in places, the narrow valley was marshy with a creek running north through it, ending in Indian Creek.  I pulled over and joined the group, anxious to see what this gathering of big glass photographers was all about.

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Brent in Yellowstone. 1987

I parked my ’82 S-10 Blazer and walked up to the group of about fifteen guys, all dressed in camouflage, all talking loudly and telling stories.  I casually asked if “… anyone had seen any bulls this morning?”  A couple of them turned and asked me who I was, where I was from, and finally … where I had been published.  They looked me up and down – no camouflage.  The talking quieted down, and then I asked about the morning success with bulls again.  No one answered, and the group began to disperse.  Ok, whatever.

Later that day I was photographing a small group of elk on Mt. Washburn.  There was a bugling bull elk nearby in the forest, but he hadn’t made his entrance yet, so I was waiting for him.  I wasn’t far off the road when I noticed another photographer walking up, tripod and lens over his shoulder.  He asked me how long I had been waiting and after a few minutes asked me if I had been down to shoot the pronghorn antelope along the back road from Mammoth to the Northwest Entrance Station just outside Gardiner, MT.  This road was a mystery to me back then (this was about my 3rd or 4th photo trip to YNP) and he told me he could show it to me, and I was welcome to ride along with him.  I left my vehicle at Tower and we headed back towards Mammoth Hot Springs.

Shooting along the Yellowstone River in 1993.

Shooting along the Yellowstone River in 1999.

Over the next four hours he educated me about Yellowstone, where different animals were commonly found, when to be where, where not to waste my time, and some tactics on approaches.  During the drive I mentioned my encounter that morning at Willow Flats, and the stand-off nature of the group.  His words ring just as clearly today, “That is the culture of wildlife photographers.”  Hmmmm.

I remembered classroom discussions about corporate culture in an Organisational Behavior class I had taken at BYU.  IBM was called “big blue” for a reason, and it had to do with culture.  The word culture isn’t too tough to understand, and I think most people would come up with a reasonable definition.
Here is a definition I found after googling the word “culture”:

A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

Wildlife photographers, a subset of nature photographers, have a unique culture.  That culture is never more evident than in Yellowstone National Park.  Defined visually by camouflage clothing, big glass telephoto lenses and Wimberley heads, big groups of photographers, to the vehicles everyone drives (those are just some of the symbols) – the culture is defining. Behaviors range from mildly hostile to very hostile to obvious newcomers (me at the time of Willow Flats), to a pack mentality that attempts to enforce compliance of beliefs on others.  I have never seen a time when verbal intimidation is used to force compliance among a group at an animal event in YNP more than happens today, or when social media is used to bludgeon others who dare to speak up.  Sometimes it is in response to just a joke, sometimes it is a response to a photo, sometimes only words.  It makes my blood boil.

Autumn in Yellowstone, about 1998

During the autumn elk rut in Yellowstone in 2002.

Those that know me well know that I am all about the photography, not the culture.  The cliques of wildlife photographers who have found a Cause célèbre band together to create an alternative truth, one that promotes their culture and themselves as being pure in thought and intent, essentially better than everyone else.  In those cases wildlife photography moves away from being a visual art form that displays beauty, grace, and wildness – to a bullhorn that pushes an agenda of compliance upon those both inside and outside the wildlife photography culture.

That bullhorn screams animals are more important than people, it yells that they decide who is following the rules and who isn’t, it screeches the anointing of some newest, greatest photographer based on their friendships.  Social media is rife with photographers portraying themselves as the best and most popular, who has the most likes or shares.  In some ways it makes me long for the day when most of the wildlife photographers knew each other by the byline credit on their published photos, or their books, but not anymore. Now it is about social media.

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While its difficult to see the camera angle in this cinnamon black bear cub image, I was 35-40 yards away on a paved trail, and on the ground, not in the tree. The sow was asleep with other cubs at the base of the tree. Danger level: 1.

While I belong to a community of wildlife photographers I am about as far from the culture of wildlife photography as you could be.  I sometimes wear camouflage, I own a big glass telephoto lens, I drive a suitable (cool) vehicle, and am mildly hostile (ok, possibly more than mildly) to others outside my safari groups – but in most regards I just want to be left alone to be a photographer.  I lead by example – helping those photographers with me to push themselves, anticipate movement and behavior, and to shoot and maneuver – never forgetting that we all want to return home safely.  I try and provide a wildlife learning curve enhancement to other photographers who don’t have the time or opportunity to learn the curve for themselves.  Wildlife photography is a privilege for everyone who wants to venture out.

I have my own personal rules in the field and I reject those that attempt to force me into compliance to their rules.  The rules I live by are to do no harm to my subjects, to not kill one animal to photograph another, to photograph wild subjects, and to shoot safely so I return to shoot another day.  Different locations have their own rules and while I generally follow those, I don’t consider them set in stone.

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Photographed at about 12-15 yards. She brought her cubs right to us, then rested in the ferns next to a small pine tree. Too close? The bears were calm, knew we were there, approached us without exhibiting signs of stress or danger. Danger Level: 2

For example, the hundred yard bear/wolf rule in Yellowstone is almost never enforced unless you are close (within sight) of the road, and even then the rule is often ignored.  I have been shooting with a ranger standing next to me, while a grizzly sow (followed by her male suitor) strolled by twenty yards away (below).

Brent Paull Photography

Male grizzly following a sow during breeding season, near Tower in Yellowstone National Park. Danger Level: 2

On another occasion I had two-and-a-half year old grizzly cubs about 15 yards away (below), the mother a bit farther, with a ranger next to me.  He was calm and let me shoot, I was calm but excited, the bears ignored all of us – I called that event my “bears-in-the-mist” moment.  Hundreds of times I’ve seen the rules bent by circumstances, or just by the personality of the ever-present rangers.

Grizzly Cub takes offense to the Warning Sign mentioning dangerous bears

Yellowstone grizzly takes offense to the sign mentioning dangerous bears.  Swan Flats on a blustery day.  There were about five cars (including mine) at this pull-out when the bears showed up in the mist and drizzle, and one cool headed ranger.  Danger Level: 3

I learned wildlife photography off the road and out-of-sight of the crowds, in the fields with bull elk, moose and grizzlies.  Nothing can replace those experiences today.  You can’t learn to be a wildlife photographer if you have never left the road, never ventured into the distant meadows and forests, and never pushed.  Carrying grizzly mace is a level of protection, but nothing works better than experience to keep you out of trouble in the field.  Today, the culture of wildlife photography demands you don’t get that experience, that to learn in the field is unethical, or irresponsible, or harmful to wildlife.

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Mojave Green Rattlesnake in goldfields wildflowers in the Antelope Valley, CA. Danger level: 7  This is the most dangerous image I have ever taken. I was instantly sweating, muscles twitching, dry mouth, heart racing – partially because I was using a 60mm macro lens.

This is kind of a side note, but I resent pet names for wild animals.  Bart, the actor brown bear in The Edge and The Bear, as well as in Legends of the Fall and others – can have a pet name.  He was a pet, trained to act – yet always a brown bear.  Some folks use the animals collar, ear tag, or park identification number, like Bear 399 or Bear 610 – frequently spotted grizzlies in Grand Teton National Park.  At least that’s a better alternative.  Pet names rob a wild animal of its wildness. Photographers in the culture might say it is for an easier ID of the animal, but I don’t believe that.  They want to form a personal bond with an animal they frequently see and photograph, and to speak of it in human terms, applying human emotions and thought processes – in order to form their own personal symbiotic relationship.  If they do that then they feel they can rightfully speak for the animal.

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Snowshoeing on my winter safari in Yellowstone in 2005.

Here is a definition I found by googling the word “symbiotic”:

Biology; symbiotic refers to any diverse organisms that live together, but in this (parasites and prey) case, the relationship is not necessarily beneficial to both.

The culture of wildlife photographers has changed over the decades, especially with the advent of digital photography, and not for the better.  There are tens of thousands of new photographers, well equipped, everywhere in the national parks.  While the majority are great folks with a love for their subjects, many have moved the culture farther from the hunter/photographers that initially formed it.  They are the arrogant, condemning, and spiteful folks who demand all photographers adhere to their world view of wildlife photography, and their demanded mores – or face intimidation.

To cross these folks means being deluged with nasty comments in social media, to be photographed and pointed out for derision, and to hear lies about yourself.  I have been yelled at, threatened, had complaints filed against me (to no avail, sorry.) with the park service, lies told to rangers, my vehicle window spit on (when I wasn’t in it), etc that it has almost become a running joke among friends and clients.

Sunrise behind Sow Grizzly and cubs - Yellowstone National Park

Sunrise behind a sow grizzly and her cubs on Swan Flats, Yellowstone National Park. She walked right to my group, and with my mace in hand, she thankfully made a sharp  left turn and moved around us and the vehicles.  Danger Level: 5

One year I was up in the park photographing bears just out of hibernation.  The road south into Swan Flats was partially open and there was a bison carcass three hundred yards off the road.  I came back early in the morning, parked, and got set up.  A van pulled up and eight similarly dressed folks stepped out and set up their telephoto lenses and spotting scopes.  I walked past and headed out to get a closer shot, not much closer, but from a better angle with the light.  I was immediately swore at by someone in the group. I set up my tripod down, removed my photo vest, and walked back to the group.

“Who said that?”  This little group of cowards suddenly went silent.  “The rules are 100 yards, if you clowns want to stand back 300 yards, that’s your business.”  Again, silence, then I headed back out.  Due to the angles of trees, shadows and light, and drifting snow, I stopped about 200 yards away and shot what I could.  When I returned to my vehicle the van with the clowns were gone.  I headed back up Swan Flats and was coming down into Mammoth Hot Springs when I was pulled over by two ranger vehicles (as if they needed two).  When I asked why I was pulled over I got the usual lie “… you were speeding, I got you on radar.”  I laughed, my radar detector had gone off long before I saw the ranger and I was doing the exact limit.  “Not a chance” I said.  He saw the radar detector, still beeping, and decided to come clean.

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Big male bobcat eating his captured ground squirrel in the crotch of a big oak tree, about 100 yards off the road. We crossed the fence and took our images near minimum focusing distance. I was more worried about a rancher encounter than the bobcat encounter.  Danger Level: 2

“I pulled you over because we had a complaint that you had a approached the bison carcass on Swan Flats within 50 yards, and harassed the animals.”  I told him that I had never got closer than about 200 yards, and my boot tracks in the snow leading up to where I shot from would prove that.  He thought for a minute.

“I would be happy to show you where my tracks are.  Those guys that filed the complaint had cursed at me when I started out there, but I didn’t let them stop me.”  Apparently, that was good enough.  The rangers returned to their vehicles and drove off, no ticket and no warning, but I had endured the usual harassment.  Since that time they have changed the rules somewhat about moving towards any carcass, but at that time they hadn’t.

A bull elk moving through heavy timber near Norris Meadows.

A bull elk moving through heavy timber near Norris Meadows. Bull elk have consistently been the most dangerous animal I photograph, especially during the rut. Danger Level: 3

I’ve got to the point where I have one response to people who yell at me, or others, to back away from an animal – “I want to see your badge.”  Most just shut up, one drove away as I approached him in his vehicle, one ran away when I turned and walked up to him.  Other folks can decide for themselves how close to get, or what position to take.  I am not the great bear whisperer, nor does my knowledge give me some level of quasi-authority to decide what others should, or should not, be doing.  However, I never see that attitude among the true shooting professionals – the photographers who make their living at photography, just among the cultural bigots.

Owl Hunter Brent Paull-website

Stalking Great Gray Owls in the mist in 2015 near Tower in Yellowstone National Park.

During those years when I was lower on the learning curve I was lucky to have some experienced outdoorsmen and hunters as friends and fellow photographers.  I learned a great deal about animal behavior, body language, and learned field tactics in photographing them.  There were a few times I drew bluff charges, mostly from elk, but also from bison, moose, bears, coyotes, rocky mountain goats, and once from a male spruce grouse.  They weren’t serious, sometimes just taking a single step in my direction, but it was enough that I learned something each time.

My point is that you can learn first hand, without being told or yelled at, about the creatures you photograph. You can venture out without fear of others, and should you encounter those folks, you are welcome to use my comeback: “I want to see your badge.”  They don’t get to decide how close, when, where, or anything else when it comes to your photography. While a part of wildlife photography is certainly the moments of high anxiety, maybe even a tingle of fear – the other part is getting great images of that great moment.  Don’t let others influence you, don’t let others lessen your experiences, and don’t let others decide when it is ok for you to be a wildlife photographer.  BRP

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About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
This entry was posted in Photography Skills, Stories from the Field. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to My View: Wildlife Photography Culture

  1. Rich Berrett says:

    thanks for your insightful sharing… really interesting. Rich Berrett

    >

  2. Dick heroux says:

    Brent what you wrote is spot on and well presented. I have experienced some of what you discuss but nothing to the extent you have. I’m glad to say that most of my interactions with other photographers are friendly and rewarding.

  3. Daniel Dietrich says:

    Nice Brent. Well written. I had many of the same experiences that you had in my early days in Yellowstone. And I felt the same as you did. It truly turned me off. I have also been on the other side. I’ve been out shooting and had people show up with store bought mice to try and get birds to fly in and grab them so they can get their “shot”. It may not be illegal, but it surely doesn’t seem appropriate or considerate. So I say something.

    It is an emotional career for me. Great read and thanks for sharing.

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