Winning at what cost? The staging of wildlife for photography competitions

By Doug Gimesy and iLCP staff member Brooke McDonough


In the competitive field of nature and wildlife photography, it appears that the staging of wildlife to produce a competition-winning image has become more frequent, and in some competitions, rewarded. We have seen, for example, instances where two animals are artificially placed near or touching one another, posing of animals in unusual ways, and live baiting – all of which can unjustifiably cause stress and anxiety to the wildlife involved.

This behavior on one level is understandable (if not generally justifiable), in the world of social media where the desire to create sensational images to get ‘likes’, and be liked, is sometimes fierce.

However, supporting and rewarding such behavior for the simple outcome of winning a competition is ethically hard to justify, as staging wildlife can come with significant risks.

The dangers of staging wildlife in photography for no greater purpose than to achieve an eye-catching, competition winning image, are three-fold: direct negative animal welfare impacts, normalizing the view that manipulation is generally acceptable, and potentially misrepresenting reality.

Direct negative animal impacts
Firstly, staging an image means manipulating the animal and possibly its surrounds. This has potential negative consequences to the animals’ wellbeing and includes:

  1. physical impacts (e.g. resulting from the animal struggling to move/escape whilst being restrained or positioned for the shoot),
  2. mental wellbeing impacts – which can range from stress to anxiety from being confined and/or handled and used as live bait,
  3. potential short-term and long-term behavioral impacts (e.g. becoming accustomed to human interaction, being fed etc.)

All these impacts are much more likely to occur without the guidance of a wildlife expert and someone whose primary concern is for the welfare of the animal.

ii) Normalization
Secondly, staging wildlife for a competition image poses the danger of normalizing the view that it’s acceptable to use wildlife simply as a means to a creative or egotistical end, nothing more.

iii) Misrepresenting reality (i.e. deception)

Finally, staging wildlife presents the danger of misrepresenting reality. Of course, this concern can be overcome if what is staged is actually seen in the wild, or by full disclosure and accurate captioning, however considering the direct impacts and dangers of normalization already explained, it’s usually hard to justify.

With all of this, it is not to suggest that staging of wildlife to create images has no place and may never be justifiable. For example, in the creation of images for educational purposes, or in raising awareness about an important issue (where the image could not reasonably be expected to be captured in the wild, or would produce other negative impacts). However even in these instances, animal welfare considerations and consequences must always be paramount, along with full disclosure about the conditions under which the image was captured.

Conservation and wildlife storytelling must put the best interests of the animal, the species and the environment, as central pillars at the forefront. As such we suggest the following:

i) Guidelines:
All wildlife photo contests should have in place guidelines that:

  1. Disqualify images that stage wildlife or any behavior that has the potential to injure or distress an animal or its habitat.
  2. Disqualify images that use baiting (especially live baiting)
  3. Provide full and honest captioning and metadata that includes
    • disclosing conditions under which the photograph was made
    • considerations given to any potential negative wildlife impacts

We note and applaud the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for having the following in place:

“Entrants are not permitted to submit images that …. portray captive or restrained animals, animal models, and/or any other animal being exploited for profit unless for the purposes of reporting on a specific issue regarding the treatment of animals by a third party”

“Entrants are required to report on the natural world in a way that is both creative and honest”

“Entries must not deceive the viewer or attempt to disguise and/or misrepresent the reality of nature”

“Caption information supplied must be complete, true and accurate”

“Entrants must not do anything to injure or distress an animal or damage its habitat in an attempt to secure an image……an animal’s welfare must come first.”

ii) Judging committee
All photography competitions where wildlife images may be submitted should consist of a jury which comprises at least:

  1. One experienced wildlife photographer who can speak to potential image capture considerations
  2. One naturalist/biologist that can speak to any animal welfare and related ethical considerations

Images have the power to create understanding, engage empathy, connection and catalyze people into action.

Organizations that host photography competitions, however, have the potential to not only engage many people in wildlife, but influence those who take photographs and the large audience they reach.

Because of this, they have great responsibility to ensure their impact (driven by what is accepted or rewarded) is not negative to wildlife or a species in any way. Photography competitions which include wildlife and nature categories, or accept images of wildlife within the competition, should really only reward those people who also hold the highest ethical standards for honesty, professional practices, animal welfare, and empathy to wildlife.

Fortunately, most leading international photo contests include some guidelines to protect animal welfare and ensure what is captured is honest and a true reflection of the situation. Sadly though, there are still many that do not.

As such, we feel that such guidelines must be added and we urge all photography contests to review their processes and ensure that policies are put in place so there is no danger that either: (i) wildlife, a species, the environment, or the profession of wildlife and nature photography may be negatively impacted by the running of the competition, and (ii) NO STAGING of wildlife be allowed. The organizations that run these contests, the field of wildlife and nature photography as a whole, and our wildlife will be better for it.


N.B. First published by iLCP 9th April, 2020 

This entry was posted in Conservation and Animal Welfare.