I often get requests from various professional weirdos who want to use my Piping Plover pictures. Those requests almost always come with a catch, and they usually go something like this:
I love your photos and would like to use them for XXX. Do you have any similar photos that aren’t as ugly? Maybe some not in cages and without the colored bands?
The quick answer is “Not Really. I live in New Jersey. My PIPL are lovingly banded and exclosed.”
The more complicated answer is “I do, but I’d be remiss if I did not mention that my ugly picture is actually significantly more beautiful than your fantasies.”
I mean, I totally get it. We can all surely understand that yearning for shallow aesthetics and wild, pristine images of times long gone taken by professional photographers… of unspoiled beaches where the animals born to live there thrive in the splendor intended by nature, where humans & critters live in balance and harmony. Who doesn’t wish that were the reality? Who doesn’t want that to be true? Those are awesome fantasies.
Yet one could make the argument that wildlife and nature photographers (and publications) do us all a great disservice each time they frame up a picture, or pick & choose too carefully, to mask the realities of the real world we are confronted with and have to actually make a future out of. Every photo from Brigantine’s Wildlife Drive that does not prominently feature the very real, grotesque, and totally outrageous background of Atlantic City is something of a lie. That’s not a moral judgement… my pictures lie all the time. That’s half the fun of making pictures. Tricking people into believing they are real life. That’s the power of pictures. Picture lies are the primary reason why we buy so much ridiculous stuff that we don’t actually want or need, or support very dubious wars, for example. Picture lies are fun, powerful, and awesome. I’m also quite fond of anything escapist, and wildlife picture lies can really make you feel, even if just for a moment, that everything is swell.
Alls I know is that for my dollar, what is so beautiful about this picture of a Piping Plover chick emerging from the egg and about to open its eyes for the very first time, discovering it was born to live on the beach, is the background. When I see those wires of the exclosure I giggle thinking about the poor suckers who got paid peanuts (if that) to haul that thing out there on the beach and erect it at lightening speed in the blazing hot sun. Then I think about how clever the exclosure is as a device. Such a simple idea that has saved so many eggs. Soon my eye drifts to the banded parent and I’m psyched. I know this is an animal that is cared for by somebody. This is a bird who we will have a lasting relationship with for the rest of our shared life. This bird is a special ambassador for the whole species. I see the antennae and think, this is an animal who is getting some serious science action and potentially going to reverse the trend towards extinction for everyone. These animals are especially precious. And lucky. And beautiful. Someone is caring for this chick. This chick has a shot against the odds.
Some might see these things as ugly. Some might see them as controversial. My interpretation of any “banding controversy” is that it is an outdated battle between people with either limited experience and bad information, or lazy folks with their head in the sand who just want to pretend everything is OK, when it surely isn’t, so sloppily undermine the smart, hard working people who know better, by advocating the exact strategy that got us into trouble in the first place: “do nothing.” Placating those people with fantastical photos might be safe, and profitable, but there is also some serious value in getting real about it and moving forward.
This post is probably not going to stop anyone from suggesting I work harder to scrub the reality and the New Jersey out of my pictures, but it will give me a place to send them when they do.
Kind of like little Tagalong… she is actually a little nasty looking as she emerges from that egg. But knowing the adorable little fluffy-foo she is about to become, we can marvel at the wonders of her innate cuteness and see beyond the little grease-ball we’re actually looking at. So too, that raggedy background is a hot mess, but beyond it we can see potential for a glorious, hard-won recovery of the wild beach and the creatures born to live there.
For this is New Jersey. We love our PIPL. And that background has love splashed all over it. And hope. Welcome to the Recovery. I can’t imagine anything more beautiful. Except maybe little Tagalong… after she dries… and goes totally rogue.