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4 Ethical Considerations of Animal Sanctuary Photography

Animal photography is an increasingly popular area in photography. Of course, we have always had wildlife photography, ever since the 1800s, and we have all seen the increase in pet portraits on our timelines recently too. Increasingly though, we are seeing people do something a little differently. With the rise in veganism, we have seen more and more photographers turning their hands to two new areas, rescued sanctuary animals (like myself) and animal photojournalism which, with the hard-hitting nature of animal rights activism, has many similar challenges to war photographers. With so many different areas of photography involving animals, sometimes it is worth taking some time to discuss the ethics of animal photography. They are complex and require lots of consideration when working with the animals, in this post we will explore some of those.


1. Animal Welfare

The first issue is the welfare of the animal. This will vary dramatically across the different subgenres because, as an animal sanctuary photographer, I would never photograph or even visit a sanctuary that didn't look after its residents to a very high standard, but for photojournalism, the thought should always be "does me being here or taking the photograph negatively affect the welfare of this animal even further?" because, by its very nature, the welfare of the animals will be poor and more than likely the reason you are taking the photograph.

A black and white close-up of a farmed cow's eye behind barbed wire
Photography should never negatively affect their welfare

In order to do this effectively, you must research and study the animals you are planning to photograph, once you are doing it, it eventually becomes second nature and you barely have to think about it. You should learn to tell when a sheep, a goat, a chick, a horse or a pig is unhappy. For example, if a horse's ears are back or drooping, it is unhappy in the current situation and you should probably take a few steps back (at the very least) and see if you can help the horse to relax around you, maybe treats, maybe take photos from further away, maybe not take any photos at all! The wellbeing of the animal is ALWAYS the top priority. You should always keep the individual in mind as well because, if you are at a sanctuary taking photos, many of the animals will have a traumatic past and you should be sensitive to their needs.


2. Let Them Behave Naturally

My approach is to try and capture the animals behaving naturally or interacting as THEY want to, with this in mind, I would never use baiting or luring for a photo and I only use vegan food/treats if the sanctuary is OK with it and it would be part of their routine anyway. It should never be something that would cause harm or distress to the animal, no matter how long term that might be.

A vegan sanctuary photographer sits on the floor with his camera and gets a kiss from a pig with a rainbow
Let them approach you, not the other way around

Another part of letting them behave naturally is keeping your distance, if they get close, let it be their choice, don't force yourself upon them. If you are meeting someone for the first time, stay back and keep an escape route open for emergencies. This also combines with the previous point about learning to identify their behaviour. Remember, you are in THEIR home, you are a stranger and an intruder and different individuals will react to that in different ways. Even if it is an animal you have met before, animals can be in bad moods too, so be wary every time you meet them.


3. Flash Photography

The next point is something that, for me, is a big "NO" and that is the use of flash. When photographing people, they are aware of what a flash is and what it does, yet it can still cause coloured spots and be quite disorientating. Now imagine you have no idea what a camera is and then, out of nowhere, a really bright light flashes in front of you, what do you think your reaction will be? Instinct? Fight, Flight, or Freeze? This is the case for animals.


As vegans we take an internal oath to cause no harm to animals, let me be clear, using a flash causes harm. It may or may not be physical (it can cause temporary blindness in birds), but it will be incredibly alarming, and their instincts will kick in. Now imagine the instincts of a traumatised, 135lb pig, who is suddenly startled by a bright flash of light, they could cause you serious harm, or they could run away and run into something, harming themselves or others, you have no idea, so don't use it.


If you are shooting in low light, buy a small handheld light that won't cause alarm or intimidate any animals too much.


4. Commercial Use

This is a big one for me and is a decision I made very early on. You will not find my photographs on any stock photography sites except for We Animals Media. Why? Because I can't control who uses my images or how they use them and I absolutely do not want my images being used to promote farming or any other form of animal exploitation.


As part of this, I always make the sanctuaries I visit aware of what my images will be used for when I contact them and I donate a portion of my profits back to the sanctuaries each year, this way I can help with the continued love and care for the animals in my photos.

A pig scratches it's head on a wooden pole
Commercially available from We Animals Media

In conclusion, the ethics of animal photography, particularly animal sanctuary photography, requires a lot of careful navigation and consideration when you set out on your journey of photography. The wellbeing of the animals is always the top priority. You should respect the individuals, their homes and their natural behaviours and avoid causing harm and distress. By following these 4 steps, you will be well on your way to capturing stunning images of rescued animals to share with the world, along with their stories.


If you want to help and support these sanctuaries, then please head to the new-look website and check out my work and purchase any merchandise or prints! You can also keep up to the date by following me on Instagram and Facebook.

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