Nic Bishop on Tenacity and Ethics of Scientific Photography

Nic Bishop is an award-winning, well-known photographer of the natural world. Having traveled all over the world to document scientists on expeditions, Bishop has his share of stories. He also goes to great pains to capture action-packed photographic images of mammals, insects, and reptiles in his own studio.

In sharing the following insights, Bishop explores the tenacity required when conducting research and the ethics of producing scientifically accurate representations for his photojournalist books as well as those for which he’s a photo illustrator.

Seek, Seek, Find!

The Thorny Devil lizard lives way out in the Australian desert. So while I was in Australia, I called up the ranger station in this remote part of Western Australia, and I said, “If I come over, do you reckon I’ll be able to photograph a Thorny Devil?” And they said, “Sure, sure. You just come over. There’s a road from here that goes across the Shark Bay. I see them there all the time.” So I flew across Australia, hired a minibus that I could sleep in, and I drove up there. Once I got to the spot, I drove up and down all day, and I didn’t see any Thorny Devils.

So I drove back to the ranger station and asked a question I should have asked before I had come: “Exactly when did you last see a Thorny Devil?” And he looked at me, and he thought, and he realized the last sighting had been four years earlier.

So here I am. I’ve spent a few thousand dollars and ten days of my life getting to this spot to photograph this lizard, and it wasn’t there. So, resigned to it, I just drove at 20 miles an hour, creeping along the road for hour after hour after hour, looking into the sand on the side of the vehicle. And, eventually—amazingly, it’s just like a miracle—I saw the lizard in front of me, just 10 feet away. I can’t explain it, but it’s just amazing to suddenly look and say, “Oh, there it is.”

That’s what happens when you do these things. You’re never really sure when you try and find something in the wild if you’ll ever find it.

Technical vs. Ethical

In the Scholastic Nic Bishop animal books, I am working as a photo-illustrator. For technical reasons, I often work in my studio, given that close up photos require flash lighting and the high speed work also requires temperamental technical extras like laser triggers and so on.  Photoshop is sometimes used for design purposes; for example, to move a leaf in the composition so some text can be dropped onto the photograph. The ethics of doing something like that doesn’t worry me, because it’s the scientific integrity of the picture itself that’s important.

It is very important for me, for example, never to produce a photograph that is being manipulated in such a way that it shows incorrect behavior of an animal. That would be a bad thing to do. So I like in the Scholastic Nic Bishop animal books that the pictures have scientific integrity, even if they are not necessarily all taken in the wild. Also, I offer a photographer notes section at the end of each book where I explain how I take the photographs—how some are taken in the field and some are taken in the studio, etc.—so that people understand how these pictures are taken.

Listen to Nic Bishop speak about creating this photo from Red-Eyed Tree Frog.

Illustration ©1999 Nic Bishop. Published by Scholastic. All rights reserved.

One other ethical consideration is for the animals, too. I need to do these pictures in a way that’s minimally stressful to them. Take my book called Chameleon, Chameleon (Scholastic, 2005), for example, which was a follow-up to Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Scholastic, 1999). Chameleons are such sensitive animals that it was unacceptable ethically for me to stress two animals by sort of inserting them together into the same scene at the same time. It was much easier for the animals’ sake to use Photoshop and photograph one animal in the scene, and then the other animal in the scene by itself, and then put them together using Photoshop. You might say that’s photographically unethical. But in terms of the welfare of the animals, it is ethical. The most important thing is the scientific accuracy of the picture itself. Photography has become much more complicated than it ever used to be before Photoshop.

Questions for exploring research and ethical considerations with students:

  • In what ways is scientific photo-taking similar to other kinds of research?

  • Share what you felt when experiencing a break-through in research.

  • What are some ethical considerations you have faced with photo-taking?

All online resources about Nic Bishop and his books.

This post was originally published as an article in Carin Bringelson and Nick Glass’ monthly column for School Library Monthly.

 

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