In a paper by James R. Miller (2005), the author talks about how people in cities, including children, spend very little time in the open, where they are likely to develop an affinity to nature and cognizance to protect and preserve biodiversity. This general apathy among urban citizens towards nature is what the author calls ‘extinction of experience’ – an idea borrowed from author and ecologist Robert Pyle – which shows the lack of connection between nature and human beings. In my opinion, what also compounds this ‘extinction of experience’ is the fact that humanity now lives in the so-called Information Age where digital media – images, videos, audio, software, web pages, social media, etc. – is one of the primary ways through which modern humans make sense of the world. Even when it comes to experiencing nature, viewing images and videos of nature and its inhabitants is a convenient way to bridge the mysterious gap between modern humans and nature (Cooper, 2017). For instance, during the coronavirus pandemic, zoos and aquariums around the world, although physically closed, are broadcasting live shows in an effort to continue to adhere to their mandate of ‘nature education’ while also enthralling their audiences. However, the need to educate the masses about nature and its inhabitants, especially through the use of digital platforms, is not something new and has been echoed in modern-day conservation.
In this article, I wish to critically analyze the use of nature documentaries as a medium through which modern humans connect with nature and its inhabitants, and some of the implications of using this medium on both the viewer and the viewed.
The Appeal of Nature Documentaries
Scientific research on animal behaviour started gaining import in the 1930s and 40s with pioneering work by ethologists who began using moving images to not just research animal behaviour and ecology but also educate audiences in the insights of their new science (Lorimer, 2010). However, besides being informative, these documentaries also needed to be persuasive and entertaining (Deogracias & Mateos-Pérez, 2013). Therefore, in order to communicate abstract scientific notions in a way that makes sense to decision-makers and convinces the general public, filmmakers showcased life in the nonhuman world by increasing the emotional intensity of nature documentaries to evoke a sense of awe and drama (Farnsworth, 2011; Lorimer, 2010). Soon, ‘blue-chip’ documentaries, which essentially meant documentaries involving enormous budgets, star-studded narration, the visual splendor of pristine nature, charismatic megafauna, a sense of timelessness, and dramatic or suspenseful storylines were born (Louson, 2018).
At the forefront of mainstream blue-chip documentary filmmaking has been the BBC’s Natural History Unit which has been making nature documentaries since 1957 (Mills, 2010). With the use of cutting-edge cinematography such as High Definition (HD) camerawork, aerial footage, super slow-motion, time-lapse filming, and composite CGI footage from space, these documentaries are able to use ‘spectacle’ and “never before seen” footage to attract viewers (Louson, 2018). Similarly, from 1961 onwards, the National Geographic Society began producing highly rated nature documentaries which were successful, firstly, because they depicted animals that were ‘most attractive’ and ‘striking’, and secondly, because they used ‘spectacular’ and ‘high impact’ images that had the potential to surprise the audience (Deogracias & Mateos-Pérez, 2013).
While nature documentaries are high on glamour and entertainment, many studies have shown that they do have a positive impact on their audiences (Barbas et. al., 2009). Anecdotal evidence suggests that conservation documentaries have been instrumental in fund-raising initiatives, pushing environmental issues up the political agenda, increasing awareness of the consequences of individual actions, prompting boycotts and other behavioural changes in people (Wright, 2010). Further, many working in the conservation domain report that watching nature documentaries at a young age was the inspiration for their career choice (Jones et. al., 2019). Quite honestly, this has been the case even in my life where exposure to wildlife movies and documentaries from a young age fuelled in me a desire to pursue a career in the wildlife sciences. However, despite the positive impacts of nature documentaries on viewers and decision-makers, concerns have been raised over various ethical and moral aspects of nature documentaries.
Behind the Scenes
At the heart of documentary filmmaking is the imperative for encounter and for animal activities to be seen (Collard, 2016; Mills, 2010). For this encounter to be made possible, filmmakers often go to extreme lengths to find and capture various aspects of animal behaviour, a fact evident when BBC sent out 70 filmmaker teams to 200 locations in 62 countries around the world over a five-year span for the production of one of its most successful documentary series Planet Earth (2006) (Louson, 2018). Further, the usage of filming equipment such as telephoto lenses, Crittercams (cameras affixed to wild animals to obtain an ‘animal’s-eye-view’), camera traps, aerial cameras, den and nest cameras, and CCTVs along with novel filming techniques such as time-lapse and microphotography, have allowed human beings to view the most intricate aspects of nature (Collard, 2016; Louson, 2018). In other words, nature documentaries constantly ask questions on how animals should be filmed; they somehow never seem to engage with the debate of whether animals should be filmed at all (Mills, 2010).
Brett Mills (2010) has been one of the leading proponents of animal privacy in wildlife documentaries and states that wildlife documentaries are based on the assumption that ‘privacy’ is not something that should be afforded to animals. The inconspicuous nature of certain animals and their natural ability or desire to not be seen is not only ignored by film crew but often taken up as a challenge that must be overcome by newer forms of technology (Collard, 2016; Mills, 2010). Along with continuous improvements in technology, the ability of human beings to observe animals without being observed – or the process of ‘objectification’ – is also improving, thereby putting human beings in a position of power and control over animals (Louw, 2006). As Adrian J. Ivakhiv states, nature documentaries invite and encourage viewers to “celebrate the expansion of the human colonization of the world through technology” (Ivakhiv, 2013; Louson, 2018).
Besides denying animals the right to privacy, nature documentaries, particularly blue-chip films, have been called into question for misleading their audiences by presenting only certain aspects of nature and animal life. By providing beautiful visuals of nature, animals in abundance and plenty of untamed wilderness, nature documentaries may lead viewers to believe that nature is thriving, thereby infusing in them a sense of ‘environmental complacency’ (Jones et al., 2019; Louson, 2018; Wright, 2010). On the other hand, by focusing on “alien ecologies, unfamiliar anatomies and inhuman behaviours”, nature documentaries may reinforce ideas related to the romanticism of nature, the myth of wilderness, and the separation of human beings from nature (Lorimer, 2010; Louson, 2018).
Nature documentaries also tend to overemphasize certain aspects of animal life. For instance, an analysis of a wildlife documentary series revealed that 32.3% and 32.1% of the scenes revolved around eating and hunting, respectively, and further analysis of these two activities revealed that herbivores feeding on berries, seeds, dried fruits, grasses and leaves accounts for just 18.5% of the scenes, while an animal devouring other animals accounts for a whopping 81.5% (Deogracias & Mateos-Pérez, 2013). While such depictions not only exaggerate certain aspects of animal life, they also make some animal species more visible than the others, the common objective being the portrayal of the ‘spectacle’ of nature.
According to the BBC Natural History Unit’s ethical guidelines on filming animals, “the welfare of the subject is more important than the sequence” (Mills, 2010). While this statement may render viewers free of a guilty conscience, in my opinion, it is still quite ambiguous. Besides, by depriving animals the right to not be seen and instead objectifying them, are human beings not transgressing certain ethical and moral boundaries? Does such a disposition stem from looking at animal subjects as disposable and outside the realm of power so that they are denied considerations (right to privacy) we typically ascribe to human subjects (Collard, 2016)? Further, according to Sir David Attenborough, a natural historian and renowned broadcaster for the BBC Natural History Unit, the purpose of nature documentaries is “to inform, teach and entertain… You cannot educate without entertaining…” (Deogracias & Mateos-Pérez, 2013). While this form of ‘eco-tainment’ may well be a novel mechanism to educate audiences, especially in an increasingly digital world, nature documentaries have been criticized for presenting reality of nature as ‘hyper-reality’ on television by exaggerating and being extremely selective in their depictions of nature and its inhabitants (Louw, 2006).
A friend of mine once joked, “I love animals, especially in gravy”. As I end this article, I am wondering, “Do we love animals, especially in HD?”
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