Here’s Why Scientists Should Take More Selfies

Beach goers on the Jersey Shore love wildlife. It’s not always obvious, but if you are lucky enough to be on a crowded public beach when a rare sea turtle washes up, or a humpback suddenly leaps into the air, or an injured osprey flails around the beach, you’ll see it. Even the grumpiest and laziest of us will bolt out of our beach chairs to join the amassing crowd and take a closer look. Then we’ll cherish the experience of a close encounter with a wild animal forever as one of our favorite memories of the shore. We’ll tell strangers we meet on the beach about such experiences for the rest of our lives. We don’t always behave in ways that are in the best interests of the animals who fascinate us, but that is mostly because we don’t know how to and are simply overwhelmed by the magic of the moment. We are generally not stupid, nor are we cruel. We’re mostly just curious, and passionate about the beach we love.

We are generally as ignorant as we are curious about wildlife.  We’ll call bottlenose dolphin “porpoise” or even “humpbacks”, and we’ll call ruddy turnstone “sandpipers” or maybe “plovers”, depending on what our parents or friends taught us, as their grandparents taught them. We’ll vacation in August one season and marvel at the huge flocks of sanderlings, then return in early July the next year and bemoan the fact that all the sanderlings have “disappeared”, oblivious to the simplicity of their seasonal migration and life cycle. With no one around on the beach to teach or correct us, we’ll do this for years and teach our children the same. But if someone with good information happens to be among the crowd and is willing to share, he or she will often get pinned down and bombarded with endless questions. We want to know more. We’ll run and grab our friends and families and repeat everything we just learned with giddy pride and enthusiasm. We relish it.

I have little interest in photography, but would eventually come to own a tremendous amount of camera gear just so I could have more of these experiences of getting closer to the wild animals who fascinate us. I have zero interest in writing, or even sharing, but I would come to share everything I learn, or think I learned, through that camera because I know from years on the beach how thirsty most of us are to know more; and how few people there are who are available to feed us information. But we do want to learn. To have our curiosity satisfied. And to share these things with others who love the beach like we do. It is a huge part of our beach experience. I marvel at this all time. These forces are so hidden, but so strong, that I am still willing to suffer the incredibly boring activities of photography, writing, and blogging in their honor.

But of all the unexpected places I’d wind up while following the path of our collective curious passion for the wild beach, the most boring and unexpected of all would be hanging around with scientists. In the same way it is not always obvious, on the surface, just how much the average beach goer is interested in wildlife, it is also not always obvious just how much we sometimes loathe and distrust scientists. A battle has been raging on the coast for years between those who want to conserve its natural splendor, and those who want to use it for the best vacations and recreations of their lives. Our interests are ultimately shared, but we clash on the details. The end result is a very real bias on each side: the beach going public tends to see coastal environmental scientists as arrogant, tyrannical invaders who threaten their happy lives, and many scientists see the beach going public as ignorant, selfish, destructive boobs. On the extreme ends, they are both right. But in the moderate middle, in the vast majority, both groups’ subtle,  often unspoken, and even unrecognized, biases are mostly wrong, really sad, and totally unhelpful.

It is understandable. Both groups are made up inherently flawed humans: foolish, wonderful, selfish, caring, determined, deluded humans. Scientists have both knowledge and the law on their side. And beach goers have the sheer numbers to be overwhelming destructive to the goals of scientists, and also are often the hand that feeds the scientists through their hard won-and-lost tax dollars, private donations, and community support. There is a path to more reconciliation and cooperation somewhere. I don’t know where it is yet, but I’m sure in the end it will have something to do with our shared love of the beach and our innate fascination with the animals who live there.

This clearly has been the Summer Of Science on Readings From The Northside. Because that’s where the story is right now. Somehow over the years I have managed to weasel my way into all kinds of beach science adventures; to be places I never should have been, to see things I never should have seen, to meet scientists I had no business meeting. And perhaps because I am channeling all of the collective curiosity and enthusiasm for wildlife of the beach going public, or maybe just because I am just so annoyingly persistent, these scientists have, unbelievably, let me tell their stories and, more amazingly, show pictures of them and their work.

I’ve learned three big things doing this. The first, which I already knew, is that beach goers are really interested in wildlife and our natural, human enthusiasm, compassion, and caring are more easily stoked into a bright flame than they are extinguished. The second is that scientists are nothing at all like the stereotypes we cast onto them. They are often the exact opposite. They are true underdogs of the story of the coast. The third thing is that our coastal wildlife is even more amazing and wonderful than we could ever imagine. The closer we look, the more we experience, the deeper we think about our wildlife, the happier we become and the better off we all are.

It is for these reasons that I want to encourage all coastal scientists to take and share more selfies and photos of their adventures, and to share them more widely. Have more fun with your restrained animal subjects and flaunt your very special access to wild animals because we, the regular folks of the beach, absolutely love it. It lights our fires. It helps us learn the things we really want to learn, even when we don’t know we want to learn them. It easily helps to smash the stereotypes of who we mistakenly think you are, what your objectives are, and softens the intense resistance we throw up against you and your activities. But most of all, do it for the animals. The only way to love something is to get to know it intimately. Your photos and stories help us do that. You need to share. And we all need to celebrate.

It is such a thrill to see the younger generation of folks involved with coastal wildlife using the tools of the information age to get the animals we are interested in, and some we didn’t even know we were interested in, right up in our faces. And it is so great to see these scientists as real people, and to get a glimpse of the incredible highs and lows of their brave and difficult work. Bonding with the animals and bonding with the people who care for them and learn about them for us is a quantum leap forward and opens whole new worlds of possibilities for interest, for engagement, and for action, especially when it comes to endangered species.

But as wonderful and magnificent as this all sounds, I offer these encouragements because I know first hand how difficult this can be. First of all, there are plenty of well-intentioned, but fearful voices out there that want to keep things quiet. Indeed, there is no risk for science when you say nothing and you show nothing. There are always risks when engaging with the public, and many scientists have been burned badly in the past. If nothing else it is way easier for scientists to do the most difficult work, like predator management, in the dark. Engaging the public only makes the job more frustrating and difficult in the short term.

Then there are those who believe that regular people should not see scientists holding wild animals at all, for fear they might try to hold some themselves. That is a really arrogant and offensive line of thinking to most non-scientists, but it comes from a well-intentioned place so is easily forgiven. The reality is, reckless people who are going to trap, bait, fondle, and mess around with wild animals are mostly doing these things already anyway and the rest of us simply aren’t that cruel, that motivated, or that stupid. If anything, seeing how the pros do it might help the cruel and criminally minded do these things in a less destructive way. That is kind of a joke, but there is a good, recent case-in-point. Shark fishing is both illegal (well, for most of our local species), and incredibly popular along the Jersey Shore. It is generally tolerated as enforcement is virtually impossible (i.e; “Officer, I did not mean to catch the shark, he just took my bait”) Since the “accidentally” landed sharks must be released, the real prize is the “shark selfie” and you can find tons of these online. But with the explosion of shark selfies, NJ columnist Jay Mann recently took things to a new level by dropping some serious science on the fishing community. He explained publicly how shark jaws function and, if you are going to land sharks and open their jaws for photos, how you can do it more humanely without injuring them. That is a step in the right direction, at least for the shark. And the next step will be that, armed with and proud of that knowledge, the angler might develop a greater understanding for the magnificence of the shark. That might lead him to stop maiming and killing them. Or maybe not. But at least the shark now has an in-tact jaw.

The kind of basic scientific information the public could gather from photos of professionals handling wild animals is actually quite valuable in cases where we are called on to put a baby osprey back in a nest it was blown out of, or help a diamond back terrapin cross a busy boulevard.

Humans who hold knowledge have always feared the consequences of its distribution. The King & Queen had very good reasons for not wanting the peasants to learn how to read. But the Information Age is not only here, it is kind of old news. Resistance is not only futile, it is silly at this point. There is no going back and only the stubborn and the fearful would want to. Each year, as each new generation more conditioned to the over-sharing economy joins field teams, we can be sure there are more and more wildlife managers, advisors, and directors panicking over leaked photos on Facebook of delicate field operations. Some are probably trying to crack down. Yet to try and stop the flow of selfies of wildlife scientists and their restrained subjects is a bad, if not impossible, strategy. Your pictures and stories are powerful, they are awesome, and we love them. Pictures have the power to make us buy expensive things we don’t need, and support wars that are not actually in our best interests. Pictures are mighty. We want your photos and your stories. We need them. The animals need them. And besides, even if they were not all of those wonderful things, not one is realistically going to stop the global flow of behind-the-scenes photos anyway.

The better strategy is to learn how to take better ones.

I’ve been taking these kinds of photos for a while, and have learned some very important lessons. I share them with you in case you too recognize just how much your selfies, your photos, and your stories benefit the animals, benefit the scientists, and benefit all of us.

Emotive Quality

Very few people look at a photo of a scientist holding a restrained animal and think, “Hey! I’m gonna try that!” But lots of them think “Oh, that poor animal!” or worse, “Oh! That cruel, heartless scientist!” I’ve taken many photos I was wickedly proud of, only to share them with someone and to get one of those disappointing, and frustrating, reactions. That’s your real risk. Not that someone will imitate you… but that they’ll hate you and your work.

Animals generally don’t smile, especially when restrained. And they don’t have emotive faces like humans. Posture and body language are much better indicators. The animals are probably not thrilled about being handled, and that’s obvious. You shouldn’t need to hide that. But you should be careful that your particular photo doesn’t make the animal look more stressed than it actually is. A slightly bad angle of the head, for example, can easily cause that. Pictures lie, and the people who look at them do so with an anthropomorphizing filter. Look at your animal subject in the photo several times, with fresh eyes. Ask yourself what it looks like it might be thinking, or feeling. Ask others to look and give feedback as well.

Emotive quality applies equally to the scientist. Ask the same questions. What do I look like I’m thinking? Or feeling? Do I look excited? Too excited? Brave? Stressed? Angry? Am I smiling? Is a smile appropriate? And consider the emotive relationship between the human and the animal.

These things make a huge difference in terms of a photo that does harm and a photo that does good in the world.  Look carefully. Look critically. If anything is off, toss the photo, and do not share. Keep looking. Take what you’ve learned and apply it next time you are in the field.

Because your subjects are constantly in motion, fire off several photos so you have some choices. A simple kick of the leg can make an animal go from looking calm, to looking violently terrified, and can totally change the viewer’s perception and reaction to not just the photo but also to you, your work, and the merits of wildlife since in general.

Context

Showing subjects in a good, informative context is a huge challenge for any photographer. Photos are tiny picture windows laid over a dynamic world, and the focus is limited. But just a little critical thinking and planning can make all the difference. Think carefully about the background of the photo. Should it show our team? Our tools? The animal’s environment? Don’t leave these things to chance… plan them. Think about what you want to communicate, what you want to say to people, how you best like the share the experience and also how it might be interpreted. A super closeup of a frantically grinning scientist with a more-terrified-looking-than-it-was animal shot against a chaotic background is usually a huge fail. Backgrounds can be as important as subjects.

Also think carefully about the activity. What do you want to show? What’s best to show? What could send the wrong message? What’s safe? What’s pleasant? A quick selfie at the end of field experience just prior to release often provides no context, and can suggest you held the animal too long for no good reason. Find a meaningful part of your experience that will say what you want to say, and will make people feel something. Make them learn something.

And always think about where a photo’s context could be enhanced by some text or captioning, and also how the photo might appear when taken out of context. That’s not something to be frightened of. It is just a challenge to be considered.

Planning

Nothing inspires people and captures their interest like joy. While it is OK to do a serious photo that shows the gravity of the work, be careful about being a downer. Never be afraid to be creative. Have fun with your restrained animal subjects. While that sounds irresponsible on the surface, it’s not at all if you are creative and prepared.

I’m really proud of my amateur photography of scientists doing delicate work. Not because I think my photos are so great, but because taking pictures of wild animals being handled by good scientists working quickly is so unbelievably frustrating and difficult. Getting even a single technically decent photo is a challenge in the extreme. It is like being a wedding and a wildlife photographer at the same time, where the animal hates you and the bride wants to kill you. Everything is in constant motion. And a photo with good emotive qualities for both the animal and the human are extremely hard to come by. Just getting a single good photo out of a season is a huge victory.

It all happens so fast, and a good scientist will not make even a few seconds of extra time to help you get a photo, to pose, or even to smile. And a good, responsible scientist doesn’t need to do that for themselves either.

If you think carefully about your field operation, you should be able to identify spots where you might as well take a photo as it won’t disturb anything, disrupt anything, or add any time. Visualize it in advance. Consider the emotive quality and the context that would best capture the scene, and communicate the message you want to communicate most clearly. Talk with your team members about it. Let them know what you are doing and what you’d like them to do. Work it into your plan. And have some fun.

Use the right camera technology. A classic one handed selfie can be challenging and time consuming if you are holding an animal. So use team work. Discuss in advance who should take pictures of whom, and what, and when. You have a great chance of getting excellent results with zero disturbance to the animal or to your activity if you do. Set your phone on a tripod before hand, and run a timer on it. Strap a GoPro on your head if it works for your vision.

The possibilities are endless. You just need to think a little, plan a little, and enjoy a little. I’ve been on enough field excursions to know this is not only possible; it is desirable. Even just the act of considering how you appear executing your activity will heighten your awareness and make you better at your task. Everybody wins, especially the animals. This is contrary to the notion that taking selfies is inherently disruptive and a hindrance to the serious work. While it can be, it doesn’t have to be.

Here are a few example from recent posts on Readings From The Northside with some behind-the-scenes notes. I’m not suggesting these are the specific types of photos you necessarily want to take, nor that they are great photos. But they meet the criteria of this post in that they show the realities of handling wild animals in ways that have connected with people in a positive way. The thinking behind them is not difficult, but it took years to learn.

piping-plover-weighed
“Piping Plover Tastes Like Talenti” The scientists actually used this Talenti jar for weighing this PIPL chick. It was easy to capture in a non-disruptive way during the weighing. With good planning your tools can be part of the photo and add context. In this case it suits my goals: being goofy. For yours, it might be branding from your school or something else that represents your project. It took a few attempts to get the right emotive quality. The PIPL looks brave, and slightly defiant, as it should. It shows an appropriate part of its character. Also, based on feedback from a friend, the human hands were mostly cropped out. They looked sweaty, and made the scene look like a kid with a bug-in-a-jar. That implied cruelty less than science.
red-banded-osprey-with-flag
“Red Banded On The Fourth Of July” In this photo, the American flag was a piece of trash found hanging from the nest. So we planted it temporarily while banding to great effect and to give context, and put red bands where they could be seen to help spread the message of this banding project. Emotively, the osprey looks resigned, and importantly, alive. Young osprey play dead and often look dead. He looks annoyed which is appropriate, but certainly not like he is dying, which he isn’t.
pefa-conserve-wildlife
“You’re In Good Hands With The CWF” He had to hold the Peregrine, so might as well hold it with the logo in the frame. A strong, relaxed hand sends a good message. The young Peregrine’s emotive quality is somewhat neutral, and relaxed in the hand.
rebecca-linhart-with-plover
“Face 2 Face” A very simple innovation. There are many moments during a PIPL banding when a field worker has to hold a chick for a few moments. They usually hold the chicks forward, or down, for no real reason. All it took was some advanced notice: while you have a moment of downtime with a chick, look at it for a moment, and enjoy it. See beyond the work for a second. See the animal. Smiles come naturally. The emotive quality of this scene took planning, was hard to capture, but most truly represents the spirit of what is taking place with all their efforts: the love of these creatures. This is a banding photo that makes people smile and bonds them to the animal, and to the scientist.

 

Lack of transparency is never the long term solution to anything. Just ask the history of government. While it certainly makes things easier in the short run, and removes some tiny risks temporarily, long term it is a death sentence for trust and for progress. The true future of coastal wildlife can only be a cooperative effort between the public and the scientists.

The good news is that the seemingly huge chasm between scientists and beachgoers is not quite as big as it might seem. There are so many mutual, shared, overlapping interests, and so many motivated, happy, smart, productive people on both sides. Such a huge difference can be made by good communication. We are hungry to be engaged, and you have the pictures and the stories to engage us. The world is ripe for this. Technology and media have opened up whole new avenues of communicating with us. So powerful, they can be frightening.

But don’t be scared. It is too late to retreat. So instead, be smart. Be joyful. Have fun. Be thoughtful. Be creative. Experiment. Show us your passion. Show us our animals. Make us laugh. Make us cry. Teach us about our animals. Make us super jelly that you get to hold them. Make us like you. Because we love it, and in the end, our love is the only real hope for these animals.

Keep sharing.