September 19, 2021

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Preying Eyes: Wildlife Photography as a Form of Paparazzi Intrusion

13 min read

Do non-human beings have a need for privacy? And if so, is it comparable to that of human beings? Does wildlife photography invade privacy? This essay seeks to explore these questions by comparing paparazzi photography with wildlife photography regarding the concept of privacy invasion. To do so, two images will be studied in detail and compared to each other.

The Start of a New Genre: Paparazzi Photography

The first image, seen above, is that of Windblown Jackie photographed by Ron Galella in 1971. It is considered one of the first and probably most famous paparazzi photographs and was named by Time magazine one of “100 The Most Influential Images of All Time.”

It is a black and white picture taken of a woman on the street in the daytime. It is just slightly from a lower point of view than eye-level with Jacqueline (Jackie) Kennedy Onassis as the subject, depicted in motion (walking), positioned slightly left of the middle in the photograph.

She takes up nearly the full picture with only some spacing left above her head. She is pictured from the side and her silhouette is cut off just below the knees (her lower legs and feet left unpictured). In the foreground, there is a piece of a traffic pole, depicted out of focus and with remains of probably stickers or posters that used to hang there.

Jackie Onassis is walking on the sidewalk of a street with a line of parked cars in the background and some trees and houses in the far back. It is a scene from a city and judging by the sidewalk slabs and the cars it is an American street. Both she and the traffic pole create two vertical lines in the photograph, while the sidewalk slabs and the line of cars create diagonal lines.

Jackie Onassis is pictured in motion, just as she is taking a step to the right side of the picture, her right leg in front and her arms swinging effortlessly along in opposite motion (left arm in front, right arm back). In her right hand, she holds is a small object: folded sunglasses. She wears light jeans and a dark sweater, her hair blown from the back and partially covering her face. She looks at the viewer/photographer with a slight smile on her face.

The photographer Ron Galella is often considered a ‘pioneer’ in the field of paparazzi photography, picturing celebrities in their everyday life, not staged. He was also the first to employ a follow-and-ambush style of photographing celebrities and with that set the standard for paparazzi photographers thereafter. He took this photograph of Jackie Onassis from the back of a cab after the driver had honked the horn and just as she turned to look in the photographer’s direction.

In his prime, Galella seemed impossible to deter. He was hospitalized after being beaten by Richard Burton’s bodyguards; he was spat on by Sean Penn; Marlon Brando broke his jaw and Jackie Onassis ordered secret agents to smash his camera.

In fact, Jackie Onassis became his obsession (he refers to her as ‘my Golden Girl’ in the documentary Smash His Camera and even published a book titled Jackie: My Obsession containing 400 pages of only her.

Jackie Onassis resented the constant attention and sued Galella twice eventually getting him banned from photographing her and her family.

“Jackie claimed I invaded her privacy,” Galella told Time. “I don’t believe I did. Once you are a celebrity, always a celebrity. You have to face it. You are a celebrity, in public areas: you are fair game.”

As much we might question his line of work and methods, Galella did have some sort of charm: he famously carried with him an oversized measurement tape after initially being ordered by the court to maintain a 25 feet distance from Jackie Onassis (something he violated regularly) and a helmet when set out to photograph Marlon Brando, after his jaw injury.

Our contemporary meaning of paparazzi photography is well captured by photo editor Peter Howe in his book Paparazzi: “It’s taking photographs you shouldn’t take, in places you shouldn’t be.” This definition highlights more the act of taking the photograph and the violation of privacy it involves than the depiction in the image itself.

Paparazzi photography can be seen as a form of photojournalism in the sense that it aims to show reality unstaged and is especially related to street photography as it shares the attempt of capturing a candid image in public (this is particularly valid for paparazzi photography from the ‘60s and ‘70s that did not yet employ telephoto lenses – which make it possible to trespass via camera without actual physical trespassing).

What sets the genre apart is a tendency towards scandal and sensation. The history of the term ‘paparazzi’ is said to be derived from the photojournalist pestering celebrities in Federico Fellini’s movie La Dolce Vita — his name is ‘Paparazzo’. But the exact origins on which Fellini based this name are contested.

Time magazine introduced the word to the American public in 1961, in an article entitled, “Paparazzi on the Prowl”. The article included a paparazzi picture of reporters blocking the car of the Iranian princess Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary visiting Rome, with the following description: “A ravenous wolf pack of freelance photographers who stalk big names for a living and fire with flash guns at a point-blank.”

Descriptions like these about the aggression and stalking involved create the parallel between paparazzi photography and hunting, as do the long history of legal cases and restraining orders. In the documentary Smash His Camera, even Galella himself speaks of “attacking” a celebrity (quickly correcting himself thereafter that he shouldn’t use this word). With the words related to ‘hunting’, we naturally think of non-human animals which takes us to the second part of this essay: wildlife photography.

Wildlife Photography: Its Beginnings

Three white-tailed deer, Michigan was shot by George Shiras III in 1893-1898.

The photograph Three white-tailed deer, Michigan was shot by George Shiras III between 1893 and 1898. It is a black and white photograph depicting a dynamic composition of three deer in a forest-like surrounding during the night. All three deer are in motion, jumping away from the center of the image.

The deer take up roughly about half of the image, positioned in the upper half. The photograph is shot at slightly below eye-level view, with the bellies of two of the beers slightly showing and the horizon at about one-fourth from the top of the image. The photograph is taken by night with a flash, highlighting the whites of the image (especially the tails and bellies of the deer) and creating a vanishing point in the center of the image.

In the foreground, continuing to take up about three-fourths of the image, a forest-like ground with leaves is depicted, out of focus. In the back, we see parts of tree trunks and branches but mostly the dark of the night. The lines in the image are mostly diagonal and dynamic.

The left deer is the one farthest out and pictured from the side, the deer in the middle is the middle ground of the image and pictured diagonally from the back/right side, and finally the deer on the right is closest to the viewer/photographer and pictured diagonally from the front/left side.

The July 1906 issue of National Geographic featured its first-ever wildlife photographs. Editor Gil Grosvenor printed 74 photos photographed by U.S. congressman George Shiras III, beginning a long tradition of featuring wildlife photographs in the magazine.

The single-article issue was titled “Hunting Wild Game with Flashlight and Camera” and it created a huge stir. Two National Geographic Society Board members resigned over the publication arguing that the reputable magazine was “turning into a ‘picture book’.” But the reading audience thought otherwise: the July 1906 National Geographic was so popular that it was reprinted soon after its initial publication and with that National Geographic changed from being a text-oriented publication, closer to a scientific journal, to featuring extensive pictorial content.

George Shiras III was a lawyer and politician by day and a photographer by night. His photography also includes the first examples of flash photography outdoors. He was highly esteemed for his photography skills: several of his flash light photographs of deer were exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1900 where they received two gold medals as well as at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 where they received a Grand Prize.

Shiras was highly inventive, constructing ingenious devices to get as close as possible to his subjects. To photograph animals far from the shoreline, Shiras set up camera traps using suspended strings that, when disturbed, triggered a flash and a remotely controlled camera that Shiras developed using a complex system of wires. Shiras called this method “flashlight trapping.”

George Shiras and his assistant John Hammer on their jacklighting-equipped canoe, Whitefish Lake, Lake Superior region, Michigan, 1893. (National Geographic Creative Archives)

To photograph at night, Shiras mimicked a hunting technique he learned from the Native American Ojibwa tribe called ‘jacklighting’: fire is placed in a pan at the front of a canoe, and the hunter sits in the bow of the boat. The firelight makes it possible to see the animal, whose attention is caught by the flames, causing it to stand still and observe for a moment.

At the rear of the canoe, the hunter, cast into the shadows, only needs to aim at the animal in front. In the photographic version, the fire is replaced by a kerosene lamp and the trigger of the rifle by the shutter release of the camera1.

Camera Hunting

It is remarkable that in nearly all literature describing the photography of Shiras, it is always compared to hunting. Some literature even goes as far as describing the whole genre as “North American practice of camera hunting.”

Shiras, a hunter himself, published several articles in newspapers in the 1890s advocating camera hunting as a replacement for gun hunting because it allowed people to continue to hunt while still fully adhering to game laws. He promoted camera hunting as a sport and as a means of conservation.

Shiras was not alone in this advocacy; a number of prominent figures of that period were in favor of replacing the rifle with the camera. Among them was Theodore Roosevelt, who argued for the adoption of camera hunting as a means of conserving game while developing hardihood.

Once more, as with paparazzi photography, the photographer is described as a hunter and the subject of the photograph (whether it is a human or non-human being) is the prey. The difference is, however, that we easily associate paparazzi photographers with words like annoying, prying, invading, and even unlawful (e.g. even the very first Paparazzo in La Dolce Vita is depicted in a negative manner, as a night prowler looking for that next scandalous story, whatever it takes).

Usually we do not have this same connotation with wildlife photography. In fact, it is rather highly esteemed, featured in what is commonly regarded as ‘respectable’ more expensive magazines (in contrast to cheap ‘tabloids’). But is this commonly embedded notion of wildlife photography as something beneficial (or at least non-intrusive) to nature and non-human animals actually correct?

Privacy for Everyone

The case for privacy invasion and the negative effects thereof for paparazzi photography are widely known. Whatever the official reasons for the tragic and deadly accident of Diana Princess of Wales, most link it to paparazzi.

For human beings, the case of privacy is more clear-cut. Not only can celebrities speak for themselves and out their dismay, which they have often done (in a language that we as humans are receptive to), but also they can take (legal) action (e.g. Jackie Onassis suing Galella and finally obtaining a court ruling banning him from photographing her).

How does this compare to non-human beings? Looking at the two pictures being compared in this essay (of Jackie and the deer), we know that both photographs are unstaged, pictured out in public (street or forest) with the subjects being captured by surprise, while in motion. We can probably empathize with Jackie Onassis not wanting to be followed around and photographed in her everyday life. But how is that for nonhuman beings? Do they have the same need and right to privacy? And what is ‘public space’ for nonhuman animals (like deer) that do not build homes or nests? Are we really respecting non-human animals by switching to camera hunting? Or is it shifting the problem into another area?

The remainder of this essay dives into these questions. The term “privacy” is used frequently in ordinary language as well as in philosophical, political, and legal discussions, but there is no single definition of the term. Generally the definition comes down to: the right to “being let alone”.

Discussion of the concept is complicated by the fact that privacy appears to be something valuable — to provide a space within which we can be free from interference by others — and yet it also appears to function negatively, as an excuse with which one can hide domination, deprivation, or physical harm to women and others.

Nonetheless, the right to privacy is an element of various legal traditions to restrain governmental and private actions that threaten the privacy of individuals. Over 150 national constitutions mention the right to privacy, according to The Constitute Project.

In the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 12, the United Nations states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

The Privacy of Non-Human Beings

The assumption that privacy, as a value, is attributed to humans only, has received a lot of criticism from the beginning. Nonetheless, contemporary thinking often regards wildlife and nature photography as a respectful practice honoring the ‘beauty’ out there, while leaving “only footprints.”

In this logic, photography appears as a nonintrusive, environmentally-friendly activity that shows proper respect for the fragility of nature and non-human animals. But in reality, the production of wildlife photography can be enormously disruptive to the lives of non-human animals, and this aspect is left completely unshown in the final image.

Examples include, chasing animals with helicopters, animal tracking including the use of facial recognition, installing camera traps to capture footage of elusive creatures (e.g. like Siberian tigers), and developing new technology with the purpose to film a narwhale hiding deep beneath the Arctic ice sheet.

There are also ample examples of this information falling into the wrong hands and being used by poachers and hunters for tracking. Here privacy issues can be directly linked to physical protection. Related protection issues also emerged in the infamous “monkey selfie” lawsuit, when a federal U.S. court ruled that a monkey who had used a photographer’s camera did not own the resulting photographs which went viral.

The notion of a monkey being entitled to copyright protection usually sparks some ridicule, yet the underlying message for wildlife photographers is clear: how do portrait rights apply to non-human animals? What is in it for them?

Apart from direct harm, there is also the issue of consent. There are ample studies showing that nonhuman animals adapt their behavior when they feel they are being watched. And furthermore, studies have shown that non-human animals, similarly to humans, function within two areas, a public and a private one. Some actions are preferred to be taken up alone, away from the community: e.g. leaving the groups in order to have sexual intercourse, give birth, or die. Filming beings in such moments, even with the use of a hidden camera which does not disturb their functioning whatsoever, seems to be ethically questionable.

Privacy entails a certain intimacy. This is why paparazzi photographs are attractive to the viewer: it gives a certain ‘thrill’ to get such a close and personal view of a celebrity. And it is also why it feels unethical to photograph a person in a coma or a person with a developmental disability regardless of their ability to understand what it means to be photographed.

The act of photographing is itself an enactment of power, irrespective of whether who/what is being looked at is bothered about being viewed2. In that sense, it is not an issue of a non-human being’s preference or wishes, but a case of how we as humans position ourselves in our environment, in relation to human as well as nonhuman beings.

Are non-human animals or celebrities there to serve us to our liking or is it exactly notions like these that make us forget that the whole of ecology is interconnected and we as any being are just another part of it?

John Berger argues in his essay “Why look at Animals?” that wildlife photography presents an image of the animal as fundamentally separate from the human. He concludes that looking is implicated in relations of power by showing images that normally remain invisible to the human eye and it is this looking that impedes us from ever having an ‘authentic’ encounter with a non-human animal.

So with that in mind, as attractive as wildlife imagery might be, if we ever are to step out of the Anthropocene, we might want to take a closer and more critical look at wildlife photography (pun intended).


1 ‘Jacklighting’ actually came to be seen as ‘unsportsmanlike’ and was one of the first hunting techniques to be broadly banned.

2 Mills adds that watching animals might not be the only source of harm. “For many species, sight is not the primary sense. To worry about privacy only in terms of looking is to understand human-animal relations in an anthropocentric manner that normalizes sight,” he says. “So how could privacy work in terms of, say, smell?” Maybe an animal is fine with us staring at them all day, but they’d prefer we kept our noses closed.”


About the author: Anna Andrejew is a photographer and student at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK) in The Netherlands. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely those of the author. Andrejew is inspired by equivalence in art and all matters related to ecology. She welcomes positive and open explorations. For collaboration proposals and all other inquiries, you can send her an email.


Image credits: Header photos licensed from Depositphotos

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