Saturday, 1 June 2013

A fancy scorpionfish and some thoughts on photography of animals in captivity

This is a lacy scorpionfish (Rhinopias aphanes). It's extremely rare and I know only one diver with 5000+ logged dives who have seen this gorgeous creature in its natural habitat. I guess that makes me fortunate to be able to see it, at least in an aquarium.

Unfortunately for this psychedelic fish, its beauty makes it very desirable among aquarists. In addition, it is so confident in its perfect camouflage that it simply doesn't bother to hide and sits in the most visible place of the tank. Most likely it also doesn't try to hide in its natural environment either and divers just miss it.

And obviously you can watch this fish forever. I can imagine that it is capable of "ruining" a dive and make you spend all air just gazing at those crazy textures, lines, and various structures that constitute its camouflage.

It might be hard to believe that this thing can blend with its environment at first glance. But a few steps (fin kicks?) away - and the effectiveness of this texture becomes obvious.

Taking some shots of this fish was part of my "job" as a photographer. While watching the fish and taking pictures was fun, the whole experience left a sour taste in my mouth. This scorpionfish is for sale... in a pet store. I know that it's not classified as an endangered species. But made me think how selfish someone who would buy it must be. If I accidentally caught that thing--it would never occur to me that I can make money of it and just release it. Yet a search in google reveals a very depressing picture:  most of "Rhinopias aphanes" requests are associated with words "for sale" and "buy."

I hope that people who look into buying this fish will find this page.  Because I have something to say: if you have that much money to sustain an outrageously expensive aquarist hobby and call yourself an animal/reef/underwater lover, perhaps you should start thinking of supporting reef conservation instead. At first glance this activity does not harm marine habitats as much as climate change, industrialization, poor reef management, and pressure caused by tourists. My first thoughts were "why not"? Especially if you take good care of your pets. But then I realized that such line of thinking is fundamentally the source of multiple ecological problems. Instead of actually caring for life, we start treating beautiful creatures as pets. Corals, which became my recent photography interests, have been creating marine habitats for millions of years, thus through countless environmental connections shaping our existence as well. Why do they deserve ending up in fish tanks for their captivating appearance? Why don't they deserve your money that sustains multi-million dollar coral aquaculturing business to be spend on their protection? In a hundred of years, perhaps, when pictures and tiny captive populations will be all left of their glory, how will people think of our generations for refusing to do anything about their massive decline despite having all the means to stop it?

This experience also made me think about taking pictures of animals in captivity. All of images in my website are studio shots and I can never claim to be a wildlife photographer. Which also means I can't participate in the majority of photo contests and publish in most of magazines. I think that is a good restriction. My images are next to impossible to produce in the wild and it would be extremely unfair to compete with wildlife photographers who have to posses an insane repertoire of skills.

Microscopic animals can't be photographed in the wild at all. You need to collect water samples and put them on a glass to watch through the microscope. Recently I've been doing a lot of coral photography and I was fascinated with extreme macro that requires focus stacking. Focus stacking and diving are things that are incompatible with each other. At least at high magnifications. However, I would never take a coral from underwater. After all, that would require some work with a hammer... What I do is I ask people whom I don't support--auqarists. I ask their permission to take images of their pets. To produce this:

If I refuse to take this chance of having captive animals for a few shots, nobody would be able to see corals that closely.

And I am not alone in studio photography at all. Most of focus stacks in the internet (the technique is becoming incredibly popular) are studio shots and when it comes to bugs, photographers either have to kill them, freeze them, or look for very chilled out samples. May be a lame excuse, but I don't do at least that. I need the animals alive in their full glory. Ok, some fluorescent shots that I took 2 years ago through a microscope were an exception. Now I am extremely careful with all my objects. I try to release the smallest microscopic invertebrates. I never expose aquarium corals to air. And I don't hurt them with excessive amounts of UV.

I never though of choices that photography entails when I started it. It didn't occur to me that I would be having difficulties with deciding whether or not I can and should be dealing with captive animals. Being a biologist made me more relaxed about fixing killing animals for scientific purposes and even photography. After all, our immune system kills billions of microorganisms per day, whether we want it or not. And I don't even want to get started on how many microbes live on any kind of food, even vegetarian. And guess what? They die in our stomachs too. Somehow our brains make us care about bigger living things, but not bacteria, fungi, algae, flagellates, cliliates, amoebae, rotifers, or even insects (especially mosquitos and roaches). I find that some people are too stressed about not hurting living things. Any biologist knows it's impossible. Yet I don't use it as an excuse for killing animals for fun, and I am especially protective about marine life.

It's not a topic about which I can write a lot of meaningful things. But it would be interesting to hear comments from other photographers.

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