Post, Like, Share: The Power and Peril of Social Media and Wildlife Photography
By Morgan Rector
When I first picked up a camera and decided to start my Instagram page, @seawithmorgan, I had a mission in mind: share the beauty of our planet and its creatures. However, the more time I spent near the ocean, a new mission became abundantly clear, to try to use whatever voice I had to spread awareness about the pressing issues facing our oceans, animals, and planet. My mission evolved. It became, to use photos, social media, and words to try to spread a message: Everything in our planet is connected. Our actions have an impact. We need to address climate change. Now.
So why did I choose social media as my main platform? Social media has allowed people to connect more than ever before. We are able to collaborate with people in different regions of the world and reach thousands (even millions) of people in an extremely short period of time. Social media is a powerful, revolutionary method of communication with a larger, more diverse potential audience than we have ever experienced before. What better way to connect with others and share what I was seeing and studying?
Wildlife photography and social media can be difficult to navigate at times. To me, the distinction between good wildlife photography on social media, and poor wildlife photography on social media, lies in the motivation behind creating the material, and the knowledge of the subject portrayed.
Love and respect are essential tools in wildlife photography. When an artist truly cares for and respects their subjects, they can create incredibly powerful content. I try to focus on the message I am trying to send and the care that I have for the animal every time I am taking photographs. Motivation behind taking wildlife photos is critical. Are you trying to spread awareness? Are you appreciating the beauty of nature? Or, are you trying to go viral and become famous? If it’s the latter, you may be erring on the side of unethical wildlife photography.
When wildlife photography is backed in a strong understanding of science, this also increases its power. It is no accident that some of the best wildlife photographers in the world are also scientists. I have seen images by incredible photographers that have completely changed my perspective and even the course of my career (shout-out to Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, Bertie Gregory, and Brian Skerry). Does that mean you need to be a scientist to be an effective wildlife photographer on social media? No. But you do need to have a clear scientific understanding of your subjects. Before I attempt to photograph any animal, I research them extensively.
In fact, that is my most important piece of advice: study the animals you want to photograph. Be aware of their signals of distress, their normal behavior patterns, what they eat, where they sleep,etc.. Know that there are going to be many days when you are not going to get any good photos, so you are not tempted to resort to unethical practices such as scaring an animal or getting too close to get a good photo. Patience and ethical wildlife photography go hand in hand. Capturing a truly fantastic photo may take days, weeks, months, or even years.
On the other hand, the potential downside of wildlife photography on social media, is that it can be motivated by a desire for personal fame or for the number of “likes.” I have certainly seen many photos and videos online that have gone viral that are actually photos or videos of scared animals. For instance, I have seen countless photos of frightened otters captioned “curious otter,” because otters often pull their bodies and paws out of the water when they are afraid, which can look like a “curious,” pose. Again, without a thorough understanding of an animal before attempting to photograph it, people can unknowingly inflict harm on the animals. Many well-meaning people accidentally disturb animals purely because they are unaware.
Unethical wildlife photography is devoid of its power to motivate others to care and protect our beautiful planet. In a society that values “getting rich quick,” the desire to capture a photo or video that will make you famous online can override a commitment to ethical guidelines.
Another potential downside of social media, is that someone may see a photo by a wildlife photographer who has practiced all of the ethical guidelines and used a telephoto lens and think “I want to take that photo too.” In an attempt to recreate a professional photo, they try to use an iPhone and get too close not realizing that the photographer used a telephoto lens. This creates safety issues for the photographer, as well as stress on the animals. Photographers can help combat this tendency by being transparent about the equipment they use and the stories behind their photographs.
Overall, I believe that the potential benefits to communication and connection created by social media outweigh the negatives. From my own Instagram account, I have been able to connect with people from all over the world. I have been able to show people what happens when balloons end up in the ocean, sea otters using an empty wine bottle to crack open a mussels on their bellies, when pelicans mistake plastic pollution for food, or when animals become entangled in fishing line and nets. I absolutely love this aspect of social media because it creates awareness and motivation to change. Social media has the power to incite movements and change hearts, if executed correctly.
Research has shown that the impact of photos and videos reaches far beyond the impact of words alone. When people can actually see the need for conservation, they are more motivated to act. The more people that see, the better. When I think of social media, it gives me hope that we can reach enough people to motivate large-scale change to reverse the impacts of climate change and protect our planet and its creatures. Climate change is a multi-dimensional, interconnected problem, that will require many brilliant minds of all different backgrounds to develop effective solutions. How can we connect with many brilliant people? Social media.
 Loeffler, T.A. A picture is worth... capturing meaning and facilitating connections: Using outdoor education students’ photographs. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 8, 56–63 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03400804
About the author:
I know that people are willing to protect what they love, and my hope is to inspire love and appreciation for nature through my artwork. As a means of doing so, I document amazing wildlife, scenery, and photos of the plight of our oceans. I hope to inspire change in consumer behavior through my photography and encouraging people to connect with the planet. When I am not taking photos, I spend my time working with multiple conservation organizations in Monterey and the greater California area. I received an undergraduate degree in Psychology with a special focus in Biological Sciences from Cal Poly SLO in 2019, and plan to return to graduate school in the coming year.
On a more personal note… born in Monterey, California, I developed my passion for conservation, the outdoors, and adventure at a young age. I am an energetic thrill-seeker, spending as much of my life outside as possible. Whether that time is spent pursuing photography, hiking, kayaking, SCUBA, biking, camping, backpacking, cliff-jumping, free-diving, horseback riding, skiing, or a combination, I am constantly in pursuit of a new adventure.
Check out Morgan's website: https://www.seawithmorgan.com/