Beyond Pretty Pictures: Responsible Wildlife Photography on Long Island

By Lucie Lagodich ~ Amateur and professional photographers alike struggle with the issues and ethics behind responsible nature photography – be it those with thousand dollar cameras or someone impulsively reaching for their cellphone – it’s never okay to disrespect nature to get that photo.“My concern has always been with people who don’t do the right thing,” said Arthur Kopelman, marine biologist and a founder of The Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. “Those who disturb these animals to get some kind of picture, or who just don’t understand that their behavior is going to have an effect even from a distance.”Much of Kopelman’s work over the past three decades includes photographing marine mammals in the wild for identification and monitoring purposes. He has witnessed both beginner and professional photographers disrupt wildlife.“They don’t know how to approach, they don’t stay low, they don’t remain quiet, they attempt to, in some cases, disturb them, just to get them in motion,” he remarked. “It’s always been an issue.”Kopelman went on to speak about the seals he has studied for years, and the potential impact that disturbance to their habitat by disrespectful photographers can have on these mammals.“The consequences are that they would abandon which has become a major resting area…Anytime a mammal is stressed there are all kinds of hormonal changes and neurophysiological changes that are triggered and that could have an effect on reproductive success,” Kopelman added.There are a handful of wildlife photography groups for Long Island on Facebook with a combined tens of thousands of followers. Some of these groups have strict rules on what wildlife photography is permitted while others do not.The Facebook group Long Island Wildlife Photography is one of the larger groups for the Long Island area on wildlife photography and has strict moratoriums on what users are allowed to post. Aviation and wildlife photographer Michael Busch began the group on a whim eight years ago and now has more than 20,000 members.”We promote the ethical treatment of the animals, there’s been a lot of issues with fox kits getting harassed. Snowy owls get abused quite a bit and we just don’t allow any of that stuff. In fact, we put a snowy owl moratorium during the season, and do not allow anyone even to post any photos just so we don’t encourage it,” Busch said. “You get a lot of people hassling them, and it’s not good for the birds.”By taking away the incentive and restricting members from posting these photos, Busch explained that he hopes to decrease the poor treatment of Long Island wildlife.”We’re only on one group though. You can see a lot of people in the city come, and there’s been organized chasing the birds where one person will flush the bird, and they get cameras set up on the other side and it’s just a lousy way to do things, it’s unethical,” Busch said.Long Island Sun Chasers is another large Facebook group that has over 11,000 members. This group, although primarily focused on sunrises and sunsets, supports all photography including that of wildlife, and does not have any restrictions on what animal members are allowed to post.”We let all kinds of photography in our group. I don’t put a damper on anything,” the founder of the group, Douglas Kelley, said. “I haven’t seen anybody or heard of anybody being rude or horrible to animals. There’s a few I would say I’m skeptical of, but I have no proof and I’m not the one to point the finger.”Kelley added that he has seen people disrespect wildlife during shoots and that all photographers should be respectful of animals but as a Facebook page, they cannot tell their members what to do“When we go to shoot we see [people] walk almost right up to the animal with their cell phone taking pictures and other people even with their big lenses, they have to be on top of the animal,” Kelley said.Another concern is the increasing use of drones as photography equipment. Last May The New York Times reported a tragic incident in which a drone crash-landed on a beach in Southern California, frightening 2,500 elegant terns who abandoned about 1,500 eggs, which were no longer viable after they fled.“We actually had a passenger on one of the whale trips I led last year fly a drone and I told him to bring it back in,” Kopelman commented. “I’m always concerned about that drone falling down and scattering the wildlife, no matter where it is … but people, they don’t care, or they don’t know.”He added that he tries to always inform people on the correct way to photograph and treat animals.”Once I was doing workout at Montauk and there was a group of kids and adults, and the seals were freaked out. I just told them to sit down, get on the ground, and wait, just wait. Within about 20 minutes a ton of seals came,” Kopelman said. “That was a lesson to them to do the right thing.”