Response to DL Cade’s “Dark Side of Photography” Article

In Features by Jim Harmer

Cormorant fisherman in China

This is Black Beard (yes, that's really what the locals call him).  He's one of the last remaining traditional cormorant fishermen.  He no longer fishes commercially, but is proud of his family's heritage and loves sharing it with photographers.  Photo by the author – Jim Harmer

First of all, can I say that I love Petapixel and 500px?  I'm a frequent reader of both blogs and we very often site their articles as sources as we discuss news topics on the Improve Photography Podcast.  However, I strongly disagree with some of the points made by DL Cade in his article “The Dark Side of Photography: When getting the ‘best' shot is just plain wrong” which was published both on Petapixel and the 500px blog.

I doubt any photographer disagrees with the premise of the article: don't do anything in photography that would destroy the habitat that we photograph.  That isn't controversial, and I agree with many of the points in the article.

However, some of the examples are sensationalistic and… well… “just plain wrong.” (See what I did there?)  Principally, the example of photographers who travel to China to photograph the cormorant fishermen.

I feel the need to respond clearly to the article, because the author said that those who photograph the cormorant fishermen should “lose the respect of their peers.”  I'm one of those photographers.

Unlike the author of the article, I've actually spent time on the Li River in Xingping and have met and photographed several of the cormorant fishermen.  I even went to one of their homes.  I used the best guides in the business who helped me to get unrivaled access to the area, and I'm leading a workshop to photograph the cormorant fishermen in June 2016.

Much of the information from this article comes from my friends and guides, Andy and Mia Beales, who live in Guilin and probably know the traditional cormorant fishermen better than anyone else in the photography world (they also happen to be the best photo guides in the business).  They were able to give me the real facts about this situation–much of it directly from the mouths of the cormorant fishermen themselves.

Photo of cormorant fishermen, taken by the author - Jim Harmer

Photo of cormorant fishermen, taken by the author – Jim Harmer

The Article's Incorrect Accusation

The article says that one of the ways the cormorant fishermen get the cormorant birds to open their wings is to get the bird wet by putting it in the water or splashing a little water on the bird.  When the bird has wet wings, it naturally opens them up so they will dry.  Some photographers like the way the birds look with their wings spread, so the fishermen periodically do this for the photographers.

Cade's article says the fishermen are committing cruelty to animals, and that any photographer who photographs the fishermen this way should “lose the respect of their peers.”  I'm amazed that Mr. Cade would launch a personal attack against the life work of elderly traditional fishermen half way across the world who he hasn't even met and whose culture he does not understand.  Though, in his defense, he's really just trusting what photographer Jimmy McIntyre reported from his visit to Guilin.

Fishermen Hold the Birds By the Neck to Protect Them

The real reason the fishermen hold the birds by the neck is because this is the safest way for the animal to be held.  The same is true of many animals, such as how a dog holds its puppies by biting the back of its neck.  This is especially important for the cormorant, whose wings could easily be broken if not handled properly.

"Phalacrocorax carbo ja01" by Miya - Miya's photo taken in Hyogo, Japan.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phalacrocorax_carbo_ja01.jpg#/media/File:Phalacrocorax_carbo_ja01.jpg

As you can see, cormorant birds in nature commonly spread their wings to dry off after choosing to get wet as they search for fish in the water.   “Phalacrocorax carbo ja01″ by Miya – Miya

Cormorants are birds which are specially suited to getting wet.  In nature they frequently get in the water to gather fish and then return to a log or the ground to spread their wings and dry.  This is not an unnatural occurrence.

If getting wet caused great discomfort to the animal as the article suggested, why is it that–in the wild–cormorant birds dunk their own heads underwater multiple times per day and then dry off by spreading their wings?

The birds need to get wet.  On very hot, humid days, the black cormorants dehydrate.  They open their wings for air to get to the body.  In fact, the fishermen sometimes splash water on or dunk their cormorants even when no photography shoot is happening so that the bird can hydrate and stay cool.

A cormorant costs a month's wages in this area of China.  The fishermen respect their cormorants and would never dream of hurting them.

For the few men who come from the families that have fished with cormorant birds for so long, their birds are not merely work animals, but prized working pets who they take great care to protect.

We've established two things: holding a cormorant by the neck is actually the gentlest way to hold the animal, and it's very natural and normal for these birds to get wet and dry their wings.

Photo of a traditional cormorant fisherman by Jim Harmer.

Photo of a traditional cormorant fisherman by Jim Harmer.

Photography Did Not Destroy Traditional Cormorant Fishing

There are two types of cormorant fishermen in the Guilin area of China: (1) models who pretend to be cormorant fishermen, and (2) the last 5 remaining cormorant fishermen whose families have fished for generations.  Most of the photos you see are of men simply posing as the traditional cormorant fishermen.  But the traditional cormorant fishermen are also there.  They no longer fish commercially (discussed below), but share their heritage with photographers and tourists who come to see their ancient way of life.

The reason the cormorant fishermen no longer fish commercially with their birds is simply that the yield of fish is too low.  The cormorant fishermen believe that this is because of the massive influx of illegal fishing by Chinese men who electrocute the water and collect the dead fish.  But pollution on the Li river is so severe that I wouldn't doubt it to be a cause as well.  These factors slowly eroded away at the generations-old practice of cormorant fishing.

About at the same time, after several of the last few remaining traditional cormorant fishermen stopped fishing, the modeling for photos started.  Now, the few remaining TRADITIONAL cormorant fishermen are getting very old, and in at least one case they have no sons to carry on the rich tradition of cormorant fishing.

I want you to read a short portion of what Mia and Andy had to say about photographing the cormorant fishermen, keeping in mind that they know more about this than anyone else on planet earth and spend a great deal of time with the fishermen.

You are meeting five lovely authentic fishermen–fishermen who are often in their 80's–men who will soon no longer be on the Li River. They are men willing to share their unique tradition. Men who have fished longer then they have been models. Men proud to be Guilin's last authentic fishermen. Men proud to [be] featured in Canon or Nikon [advertisements]. Men who are enjoying earning a little in retirement. Men [whose] houses I can take you to, humble modest old houses with no creature comforts…. It's a beautiful and iconic shot, a staged shot, but a beautiful experience by real fishermen, real people, in their real fishing waters. People who otherwise would be labouring in the village or living off their children's wages, earned in the iPhone factories of Guangdong.Mia and Andy Beales

Conclusion

The problem with the “Dark Side of Photography” article's assertion of animal cruelty is that the author simply does not understand the customs of the elderly traditional cormorant fishermen, anything about the cormorant bird itself, nor the way the cormorant fishermen have cared for these working birds for generations.

He simply read something that someone else wrote about a culture that he didn't understand, and called it “abuse.”

To be clear, I don't have any personal animosity against the author.  I've never met him but I'm sure he's a great person.  But I couldn't see the names of the great cormorant fishermen tarnished without clarification.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

Facebook Twitter Google+

Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..