Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Question of the Month

March 2009


Does a National Geographic photographer's
shooting supersede the rights of everyone else?

When the event ended and the cows were beginning to be pulled away, XXX approached the tourists again and while our guide expected that was to apologize, his impression was that instead he was simply reasserting his aggressive position, literally starting a fight. From my Field Journal

Some time next year, National Geographic Magazine should be publishing an article on the effects of a hyrdo-electric dam in southern Ethiopia, and its impact upon the unique, endemic people that live in that region. As part of the story, we were told, may be the effect of tourism on these people, and by this, most likely, is meant the negative effect this cross-cultural interaction may have.

Recently Mary and I and a small group visited this area, in the Omo River valley drainage. This leg of our Ethiopian trip was indeed to photograph the endemic people, the Hamar, Karo, Nyangatom, and Mursi tribes. While I've photographed native people in many areas, some civilized or westernized, and some not, there was nothing to compare to the tribes of southern Ethiopia. The principle attraction here is the fierce Mursi tribe, whose women sport lip plates they insert into a hole they create, and enlarge, in their lower lip. The extensive literature we received from our outfitter included articles from journals that analyzed the effect and relationship tourists have had on these people, and the possible exploitation this entailed. Those articles discussed how tourists rushed in, took pictures, felt harassed by the Mursi, and rushed away, and detailed how they, the Mursi, felt about the experience. We were determined to act more properly, but the Mursi were a tough group, and that experience was the hardest of the trip.

Another group, the Hamar, were far more accommodating, and we were lucky to be there when a notable event was occurring, called 'bull jumping,' although it more properly should be termed the jumping of the cows. It is a rite of passage of a boy to a man, and although it may occur in Hamar country weekly, the chances that any one photographer will be present, or within driving distance, of the ceremony is slim. We were close enough to get to one, after a three hour plus drive, and word had spread around the area, alerting everyone of the event. This rite of passage is notable, and those involved want witnesses -- think of it like a big wedding. Tourists are welcome, provided they pay a fee to attend, and that money, in fact, probably helps pay for the event, the food and drink that the scores, or hundreds, of Hamar people attending consume.

While the bull-jump is the climax of the event, where a naked boy jumps up and runs across the back of six or eight cows held in place in a tight row by several warriors, there is a range of other activities that are even more interesting and worth photographing. The most graphic is the whipping of women, solicited by the women themselves as a show of loyalty and, perhaps, a way to instill a sense of obligation from a man. As we neared the site of the ceremony we heard what Mary thought was the cracking of small fire-works, but the 'whack/crack' was the snapping sound as an eight foot long cane slapped against the bare flesh of a woman.

When we arrived, our Ethiopian guide spent several minutes negotiating our entrance. Tourists are tolerated, and permitted because they are generating an income to the sponsors of the event, and no tourist, or white guy that looks like a tourist, gets in for free. When we were cleared, there was still a huge fuss for a time among the women, as they thought they were not getting any money. Our guide, and the guys he paid, spent several more minutes waving the cash and making it clear that the women would get a cut, and in some of my later images I saw that they had money clutched in their hands, so they were paid.

So we started shooting, or we started to try to. We were told that a National Geographic photographer and a Nat'l G writer were in the area for a story, and we were likely to see them at this event. As we approached a small group where some warriors were painting themselves up for the ceremony, while others took a few minutes to obligingly swat a woman with a switch, we noticed the NG guy. He was using a shorter zoom lens and a flash with a diffuser attached. He was moving about, getting in front of the folks to get his wide-angle view, and in doing so getting in the way of the people I was with who were hoping to photograph the people without a non-native in the way. Other tourists were arriving while we watched, and after getting cleared that they paid, they wandered about as well, so it was tough to get a clean, authentic, no tourist in the picture type of shot.

Meanwhile, I decided to photograph the face painting and avoid the frustration of the NG guy (To not embarrass the guy I won't give his name here) in my background. As part of the story, remember, is the interaction of tourists with the natives, and soon the NG guy was a few feet from me, photographing me as I was either photographing the Hamar or showing them my LCD monitor and their images. It was an unpleasant experience for me, as I had several choices -- make faces or throw the guy an obscene gesture; move off and avoid him; or simply ignore him and continue to work with and interact with the Hamar. I chose the latter, but I felt like I was posing for the NG guy by doing so.

Meanwhile, the Geographic photographer, XXX-, moved in close, using either a wide-angle or short zoom and fill flash, and shot away. I couldn't see the logic - the contrast between sky and subject was great and unless the flash was really doing a terrific job wide-angle seemed, to me, self-defeating. But hey, I'm not a Geographic photographer.
As our group attempted to set up it was soon clear that XXX had no interest or concern about where or how his position affected anyone else's photography. As it was later explained to us, he was not only trying to document the ceremonies and activities involved with the bull-jumping, but also the tourist interaction. The forthcoming article was to involve the impact a hydroelectric plant would have on the Omo peoples, and likewise the effect of tourism, so he wanted white tourists in his shots. For some unpleasant reason he seemed to key in on me, as I was filming close, using flash, and, more significantly, I was actually interacting with the people, and showing my interested subjects the shots on the back of my LCD. XXX, just feet away, shot away, and I was quite self-conscious and uncomfortable, faced with the decision to either make faces at him, stop what I was doing, and, significantly, cease showing my subjects their fascinating shots. So I ignored him, feeling very much like I was posing for this guy and not liking it one bit.
One could say then, what was the difference between what he was doing with me and what I was doing with the Hamar, Nyangatom, Karo, or, soon, Mursi people we photographed. While some tourists may indeed act just like XXX, not interacting, not talking to his subject, and generally just recording images, Mary and I actively interact with our subjects. We laugh with them, tease them, touch them, and hopefully make them feel as if we are indeed working with them, and not just using them like inanimate still lifes - human carrots, if you will. With XXX, I felt like a thinking carrot.
While XXX eventually became almost part of the scenery, which I'm sure he felt he was achieving his objective of 'disappearing' and being unnoticed, he became so with about the same effectiveness as a Tsetse fly that hovers about, biting and making a nuisance of itself but impossible to swat or kill. You know the bastard is there, but what can you do? So you ignore it until it really, really gets you annoyed, then you get mad and try to kill it, or hope somebody will. As it turned out, Randy's later behavior at the actual bull-jumping ceremony could have possibly done just that.

One could say that I was in the same position as I was putting the Hamar that I photographed, but I'd disagree. Unlike the NG guy, I interacted with my subjects, I shared the images, shook hands, talked with them, and, I think, engaged in a pleasant interchange. The NG guy never spoke with me, but more importantly, I never saw him talk with any of the people he photographed. In fact, on some occasions when a 'model' objected and shouted or rebuked him, the NG guy would back off, smirk apologetically, and shrug his shoulders, like saying, who, me?

After a bit there were enough different activities going on that my group and I could steer clear of the NG guy, although periodically he'd snap a shot of one of us as we shared a video or an image on a camera back. But the bad stuff was to come, and that occurred at the actual bull jumping ceremony.

At the ceremony, a huge crowd had gathered, with about a dozen tourists interspersed among more than a hundred Hamar gathered in a half circle around the cows and the people attending them. There were two prime spots -- either end of the line of cows where the boy would either jump onto, or jump off of, the last cow in the line. The NG guy, ignoring the perspective, viewing opportunity, or photographic chances of anyone else, got in front of the cows and started shooting. Several tourists started shouting for him to move, and two Italian tourists went up to him and explained that he was blocking everyone's view. He replied that he had a job to do and ignored them. Their guide came up and started arguing, and he shoved him aside.

During all this the first of the three jumps the boy would do occurred, and he missed it. He was ready, I think, for the next two, and in doing so blocked the view of most of the tourists on that side. Suddenly, and abruptly, the event was over, and now several tourists and guides approached the NG guy, chewing him out for his rudeness. My guide saw him approach one of the tourists and thought he was going to apologize. Instead, he started arguing, and appeared to be picking a fight. His actions did cause a near fist-fight between the Italian tourists' guide and his guide, but that was broken up. In the melee that followed the NG guy disappeared, returning to his vehicle and driving off.

In that event, a huge crowd of people had gathered in a semi-circle around the cows. Tourists were interspersed throughout, especially around the two ends where the boy would enter or leave, where the best views were to be had. XXX, alone, moved throughout the cows, standing among them and, of course, being in everyone's picture regardless of what one could try to do. As the jumps were about to begin he moved to one end, and in doing so blocked the view of over a dozen other photographers. This annoyed everyone, and two Italian tourists approached him, nicely but obviously annoyed, and tried to explain to him that he was ruining everyone else's experience and shooting opportunity. XXX shrugged them off, saying he was working, that he was a Geographic shooter, and he deserved to be there. Although I didn't see it, others said he actually shoved people out of his way. No one else bought it, and while they argued the first jump took place. XXX started shooting again, and continued to muck up the shots.

When the event ended and the cows were beginning to be pulled away, XXX approached the tourists again and while our guide expected that was to apologize, his impression was that instead he was simply reasserting his aggressive position, literally starting a fight. The Italians guide came over to add his annoyance, and a few fists were swung before others jumped in and interceded, pulling the Ethiopian guide away. XXX disappeared from my view, apparently heading back to his vehicle, and we never saw him again. Needless to say, his behavior was more a part of our drive home's conversation than the actual bull-jumping ceremony, and it was not complimentary. In short, he left a very sour taste in our American mouths, and I can just imagine how the Italians viewed him, the 'big magazine' he was shooting for (the Italians almost exact words), and, sadly, perhaps, all Americans in general.

Everyone there was disgusted. There wasn't a tourist present who was not disgusted with his actions, who felt he was rude and insensitive to everyone and that he was belligerent and aggressive. His policy, we were told, was to not pay for photographs, so he wasn't shooting models and he wasn't paying anyone to photograph them. Fact is, whether he knew it or not, no non-native, no tourist or white guy, gets into these events without the guide paying. He might not know that, and the guide may make him happy by not telling him the truth, but that's the facts.

He knows everyone pays, except for himself he so thinks. However, he should then know that by not paying he's doing one of two things. He is either 'sneaking in' with the belief that the Hamar (and other tribes) think he's part of the paying group, or he's lying to them. Either way, he is most definitely stealing from them, because their photo fees generate much needed income for these people. Worse still, I find the hypocrisy of his coverage, the negative effect of tourism, almost amusing, for every tourist I saw at the Hamar cow-jumping ceremony was pleasant and friendly with the people. They talked with them, on occasion (like myself) sharing their weak, tea-flavored drink made from coffee bean hulls, and shared images from the back of their cameras or video screens. In contrast, the NG guy was a pesky fly that hovered about, never interacting but, from what I saw of various interactions, most definitely annoying a lot of people, both Hamar and tourists.

Like many photographers, I've often contemplated whether I could shoot for National Geographic, whether I had the talent or the obnoxiousness or whatever. After seeing how one NG guy acted, I know I'd rather not be a NG shooter than behave like he did. I hope that most NG shooters don't behave in the same fashion but if they do, and I knew it, I think I'd cancel my subscription.

Previous Questions of the Month

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How difficult is it to master MASKS?


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What is our initial Digital Workflow?
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