The Moral Dilemma of Killing Insects for Photographs (Podcast 747)

by | Jul 29, 2021 | Microphotography, Musings, Podcast | 10 comments

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Today we’re going to take some time to think about the moral dilemma of killing insects for photographs. This can be a very polarizing subject, and I know that many people have strong feelings against killing insects for photographs. I personally hadn’t killed an insect for a photograph until two days ago, and this came after a conversation with a good friend of mine about this subject that kind of help me to understand my own position on this complicated subject. I’m still very much undecided about my stance but figured this was as good a time as any to talk about this, and I’m also interested to hear your thoughts as well.

As this can be controversial if you can feel a flame war coming on, I ask of you three things. The first is to hear me out. Listen or read this entire post before commenting. The second is if at the end of the post you feel like attacking me, walk away from the computer for a few hours and then come back and write your comment after you’ve cooled down a little. And even then, don’t attack me. I’m sharing my views in good faith, and you are in my house now. If you attack me in a disrespectful way, I reserve the right to delete your post. I’m fine with you sharing alternative views, but do it with respect, or you’ll be wasting your time. The third thing that I ask, is if you are a visitor, please give your real name when commenting. If you comment anonymously, the chances are I’ll just delete your comment.

So, here’s how I feel about killing insects for photos. I’ve been photographing insects for many years. Not often, but I’ve been doing it for probably around 20 years now. I have mostly photographed live insects in the wild, and occasionally tried to photograph live insects at high magnification, and generally failed. They move around too much, making focus stacking pretty much impossible, so the results are generally not what I want.

The Hypocricy Aspect

For many years I’ve felt that I would not kill an insect just for a photo. There was and still is a bit of a moral dilemma behind this decision, but in addition to that, I actually didn’t think I could physically kill an insect, but hypocrisy kicks in here when I say that in some ways it’s the size of the insect that concerns me. If I think about it, I will slap a mosquito on my arm, which generally results in its demise. We have these annoying little tiny flies that appear from nowhere in the summer and walk across my laptop screen. These also generally find themselves stuck to my thumb, then scraped onto a piece of used paper or tissue in our waste paper basket. So, I won’t kill an insect for photography, my love and passion, and profession, but I will kill one for trespassing in my apartment. That is completely hypocritical.

Other People Kill My Meat

Another huge chunk of hypocrisy that surfaced as I wrote my thoughts down for a friend is that in the regular state of the world, as in, we are not being attacked by aliens or zombies and I’m not in survival mode, I generally rely on other people to kill my meat. I don’t eat meat or fish every day, but when I do, the weight of killing and preparing that meat falls on someone else’s shoulders. I can and have plucked chickens and skinned rabbits, and I am fine with gutting a fish. Come to think of it, I’ve killed a few fish too when I was a boy, caught with a fishing rod from a holiday town pier, and eaten that morning for breakfast. The rabbits and chickens though were killed by someone else.

Now, going back to the aliens and zombies scenario, if we were in a life or death situation, and my survival depended on killing an animal, I probably could, but I would not find it easy. My friend and I agreed that killing for sport is not something that we agree with. But if the animal is going to be eaten, without waste, then it’s more acceptable, in my opinion. I realize that there may be vegetarians or vegans listening with other views, and I apologize if any of this offends you, but I need to get this out as we work our way back to the topic of killing insects for photographs, which I’ll try to do now.

So, I realized that I’m completely hypocritical when it comes to my stance of not killing insects for photos, yet I will squish a mozzie or fly for no greater crime than sucking my blood or walking across my computer screen. I generally don’t kill spiders in the house, though larger spiders that make me or my wife uncomfortable generally get ushered outside. It’s actually rare for us to get common houseflies in our apartment because we have mosquito screens on all of our windows and we don’t leave the doors open unattended. But a few nights ago, there was a fly sitting on our bedroom floor when I went in to turn the air-conditioning on. It was probably on the floor to keep cool, but it flew up and over onto our curtain as I walked closer.

Housefly in a Jar

Having already thought a lot about this recently, I grabbed a jar that I just happened to have put aside and caught the fly. Before we talk about the fate of this particular fly, I should tell you that no housefly has ever gotten out of my apartment in the past unless they fly out before being noticed. As a general rule, if a fly comes into our apartment, it will either be swatted, or sprayed, but its exit mechanism is generally via the trash. So here again, I found myself in a hypocritical dilemma, but, I figured if this animal was going to die, is it really wrong for me to benefit from its demise? Am I any more guilty for killing it and taking its photo than I would be for killing it and sticking it in the trash can?

As I mentioned earlier I’m not really OK with hunting for sport or fun, but if the animal will be eaten without waste, then I have no problems with that. By photographing the fly, surely I’m making more use of it than I do by simply disposing of it. This was the thought process over a relatively long time recently, that resulted in the fly from my bedroom sitting in a jam jar in my studio. Initially, I thought I’d just leave it in the jar for the night, but then I started thinking that it would stress the fly. I know this might also sound hypocritical as I’d decided to kill it, but I did not want to cause it any unnecessary stress.

This, by the way, is why I don’t really agree with putting insects in the fridge to slow them down enough to photograph them, or using chemicals to put them to sleep, for example. If we’re going to cause them physical discomfort, we’ve already crossed the line. I did cross the line with the fly. I said a few words of apology with my hands together for what its worth, then I opened the jar and poured in around one centimeter of pure alcohol mixed with 10% water. The fly died instantly, arguably with less trauma than having its backside smashed through its brain in a deftly swatting action.

So, I’d done it. I’d killed a fly and I was going to photograph it the next day. I didn’t feel 100% OK with this. I woke up early the next morning with a pang of guilt, but I went on to photograph the fly over a few days, and I can live with my decision, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that I am now going to become a mass murderer. At this point, my thought process is unchanged in that either I or my wife would have killed that fly anyway. I still, at this point, do not think I could kill anything much larger. I know that size should not be important, but for me, it is. My friend, who I will not name just now because I didn’t get permission to do so before he left for a short holiday with friends, talked about bacteria dying as part of his job. I’m sure that most people, although I’m not going to assume all people, are happy to let that one slip. I mean, you can buy yogurt that comes with bacteria in it, and even when we wash our hands were killing bacteria. We’re actually also killing insects as we wash away little fleas that people have on our skin, but we won’t go there right now.

Sometimes It’s Unavoidable

So, for me, at this point, it seems that size plays a part in my ability to kill an organism. I’m not too worried about killing tiny insects, but I feel a lot of resistance towards killing anything much larger. The point with the previous paragraph is that if we are going to say that all life should be respected, then really, how far can you take that? Just washing your face or leaning on the arm of a chair carries a good chance that you’re killing something. It’s just so small that you don’t know you are killing it, but does that make it OK? I’d say that it has to because it’s unavoidable.

Nature’s Course

One other thing that I’d like to mention is that I recently photographed a scarab beetle that I found dead at the bottom of my apartment stairs. I am fine with that too. I’m relatively OK working with insects. I am just not comfortable killing anything much larger than a fly, so making use of an insect that has already lived its life is in many ways the ideal solution for me. I don’t pick up anything that’s decaying, but if something is upside down in the middle of the pavement the chances are it’s just died, so I’ll pick that up and photograph it, generally after giving it an alcohol bath to kill anything that might be stuck to the insect or embedded inside it. I’m not sure I could handle a parasite bursting out of an insect while I look at it through a microscope at 50 to 100X lifesize.

Scarab Portrait (15X 75 Frames Stereo Microscope)
Scarab Portrait (15X 75 Frames Stereo Microscope)

Could I Kill an Ant?

I mentioned to my friend recently that I think I could probably just about bring myself to kill an ant for a photograph too, and this is what got us talking about the size thing. The reason that I have not yet done that though, is because I would have to go looking for one. Although I’ve killed ants that got into our kitchen back in England, we don’t get ants in our Tokyo apartment, so I would have to enter their realm in order to get me an ant, and although I think I will do it at some point, I’m still struggling with that to a degree.

I feel as though the hypocrite is still there. Why does size matter when it comes to my ability to take the life of an insect? Come to think of it, when I see the number of insects stuck to the front of my car after a summer drive, even killing larger insects is not necessarily something I’ve never done, but there is the problem of intention. I don’t drive my car with the intention of killing insects, and for numerous reasons, I wish I could avoid it.

Maybe I’m actually just a big wuss, and I’m too scared to kill anything with any more presence than a housefly, and I’m just wrapping that up as a moral dilemma? I’d actually say that this is around 20% true, but the other 80% of me really just would feel too guilty. For the time being, I’ll be patient and continue to wait until I find dead specimens of larger insects. There was actually a cicada dead on my balcony a few days ago too, but it had been mingling with pigeon crap, which is nasty stuff, so I decided to give that a miss.

That’s Where I Stand

OK, so that’s where I stand on this. It’s not necessarily a bold stand, and I’m not pretending to be either a saint or necessarily consider myself a sinner. I should also mention that I don’t necessarily condemn anyone that takes a different stance. If you have no problems killing insects for photographs, I’m actually probably a little bit envious if anything. There’s that 20% wuss coming out again. And, if you strongly believe that we should not kill insects for photographs, I do get that too, but having just euthanized a housefly, I’d be hypocritical to pretend that I’m completely on your side of the fence.

Why Do You Stand?

I would like to hear your views, hopefully from both sides of the fence, or even if you are like me, sitting mostly on the fence. Once again, please don’t blindly attack me. Even if you have strong views on this, relay them calmly in the comments below, and give your name. I don’t like talking to anonymous people. You know my name, please use yours. And if you want to say something that can’t be associated with your name, or if leaving your name annoys you, then just close the browser and walk away, or you’ll be wasting your time, as I will delete your comment.

In the next episode, I’ll talk about some of the methods I used to prepare the housefly to photograph it and share some of the photographs. We’re talking housefly at between 50 and 100X magnification, so if you think that might disturb you, you might want to skip next week. Personally, I think the shots are beautiful, but then I might be a bit weird in that respect. I’m sure you’ll decide for yourself.

Show Notes

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  1. Mike Cristina

    For the record, we kill houseflies, mosquitos and ticks, and consider it self defense, but still feel bad about it. Any other insect we kill is an accident. It’s a moral issue.

    I know an expert who kills moths and butterflies for scientific and educational purposes. But he claims that his “taking” doesn’t affect the integrity of the species.

    Now, to your fly. If you kill an insect and publish incredible photographs that prevent 100 people, going forward, from killing insects, then you’ve done your job and have done a service to the insect population.

    • Martin Bailey

      Thanks for the comment, Mike.

      I probably couldn’t kill insects in large numbers even for education. I know it shouldn’t be about the size or the number, but there are a few comfort levels that I cannot cross. I bought a set of slides for my microscope to give me something to look at when I first bought it, and some of the slides were of insect parts. The thought of someone mass-producing these, probably farming the insects, is a little disturbing to me. That’s kind of similar to someone else killing my meat though. I did enjoy looking at the slides, so I’m still a hypocrite in that sense as well. This is hard!


  2. John Nelson

    I’m not comfortable killing something…anything… intentionally when it’s absolutely not necessary and killing just for a picture is not necessary. Justify it any way you want but the unnecessary taking of life is immoral and killing something just to get a picture is an abject example of that. I do not believe you can justify images of life you killed for that purpose based on scientific inquiry or educational “reasons.” There are literally millions of images already taken for that purpose that are just as “illuminating” and “educating” if not more so. Furthermore, you can’t justify it based on numbers or that killing one individual won’t impact the overall population. That completely misses the far more important moral issue. Yes millions of insects exist in the world. That fact does not give us the right to frivolously and intentionally take their lives away from them. Nothing is gained by the continued practice….taking life for profit and pleasure… except perhaps to prop up the ego of the photographer.

    What you image and how you image matters! “They’re just insects” is no defense. Where do you draw the line?

    Contrary to the thought expressed early in the blog, it’s actually not complicated. Bottom line: Killing in the name of photography is wrong.

    You can not celebrate life by killing it. So don’t! Be a force for preservation not destruction. Photograph living things in life! Killing something to get a great picture only encourages others to try the same.

    • Martin Bailey

      Hi John,

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. I understand what you are saying and respect your views.


  3. Brian Wood-Koiwa

    Hello Martin.

    First I want to say “thank you” for taking the time and thought regarding this topic. That right there means quite a bit to someone like me. We have been friends for several years now and share the same megalopolis of Tokyo, so you probably know my stance on this, but it is my stance – my beliefs – and I do not feel it necessary to push them on others, particular those who sincerely grapple with such dilemmas.

    I am one who would not intentionally kill even a mosquito and move out of the way if I see an ant going about its life in my path. Just last weekend, while my husband and I were driving up to higher ground to get away from the swampy butt crack of Tokyo in summer for a day (rather unsuccessfully since it was not much cooler up there), we were driving along the expressway and some kind of insect collided with our windshield. Needless to say it did not survive and left its deathly mark. I felt horrible about the insect and had this saddening queasiness in my stomach for several minutes after. Later that day on the drive back to Tokyo, the same thing happened but with one of my favorite insects, a dragonfly. I watched it heading toward the windshield wincing at the inevitable conclusion then heard it make a thud against the glass. It did not leave a visceral mark, but I assume it did not survive such an impact. Again, I felt absolutely horrible for a while afterwards.
    Don’t get me started on seeing roadkill (which thankfully is not very common here in Japan) or actually witnessing a larger animal get run over by a speeding vehicle without the person in the vehicle even showing the least bit of concern for what just happen and going along at the same speed after the incident. I actually witnessed that on another day trip last year when I saw a tanuki-type (raccoon-ish) critter meet its demise that way. To this day, that saddening queasiness lingers.

    It is this callousness of humans towards other life forms, particularly fellow animal life, that I have little tolerance for. The fact that you were concerned enough about that housefly that you willingly threw yourself into a moral/ethical dilemma and even afterward felt it important enough to create this post/podcast is pretty compelling evidence that you did not commit this act lightly or callously.
    No, I would not have done this and I would never kill for the sake of art or would I buy a piece I knew was created specifically by taking the life of another animal, no matter how gross or “dirty” society makes certain creatures out to be. However, I am also a realistic relativist in this sense and know my views are rather extreme on one side. For example, I am a vegetarian (been one since I was 13 and am now 52), but I am not one of those who would not eat with someone who orders a juicy steak or make judging comments (though I have to admit, I would probably wince a bit if the steak was cooked rare). I would be a vegan, but it would be close to impossible here in vegetarian-unfriendly Japan…and didn’t like cheese and ice cream so much.

    Basically, I think it is the intent and amount that is key. If it is done with callous disregard for that life, then yes, that would be rather problematic. If done constantly, that would also unfurl red flags in my mind: like the killing of large numbers of moths and butterflies for “science” commented above or those perverse dissection classes in high school I had to endure (especially with today’s technology).

    Therefore, Martin, if you plan to do more of such photography involving the killing of insects, I feel that I only have the right to ask that you continue to do so with a heavy heart like you did with this housefly and to not let that heaviness lighten no matter how many times you do so.


    • Martin Bailey

      Wow! Brian,

      You touched me, as usual, with your beautifully written explanation of your feelings on this subject. Towards the end of your comment, I thought you were going to say that if I continue to do this you would no longer be my friend, and that thought scared me. I’m pleased you didn’t force that condition on me, but do know that you understand me 100%. You know that this is hard for me and the reasons why.

      Your comment reminded me of when a friend and I were heading to the Manchester airport before dawn one morning, probably around 45 years ago now. We went over a small hump in the road and when our headlights dipped after the hump they illuminated a pigeon that was sitting in the middle of the road. It got one or two frantic flaps in before hitting our windscreen. I screamed! It was reflex, 50% shock, and 50% horror that we’d just taken a life. I felt sick afterward for a number of days, so I can relate to your story 100%.

      Having said that, I did kill an ant after this post, but the plastic test tube in which I placed it reacted with the alcohol, and when I came back to it the ant was encapsulated in hard cloudy-white resin. I almost cried as I prized it out, and I must have said sorry a thousand times as I painstakingly removed most of the plastic with surgical-grade tweezers under a large loupe. I was able to remove most of the plastic without pulling any limbs off the ant, and I made a couple of photos, apologizing to the ant the whole time. It was already dead, by my hand, but the thought of it dying completely in vain was an eye-opener. Being able to make something of it made it marginally better, but still made me realize even more how difficult this all is, and why it should be.

      I don’t intend to do this often, and when I do it will always be with a heavy heart and respect for the subjects, so stay my friend, and I won’t make you regret that.

      All the best,

  4. William Bodine

    I disagree with any version of ethical photography as being blatantly cruel, self obsession, lacking skill or lack of care when insects are collected, killed or manipulated. Some apparently adhere to the branch of insect ethics based upon Secular Humanism which relies upon random evolution, is situational and changes from individual-to-individual interpretation with absence of any religious values.

    Some see no fundamental difference between a photograph of a dead human, dead lion or a dead insect. All life is not created equal in value, purpose and sentiency and cannot be treated equally. Present knowledge is that all sentient life are animals, but not all animals such as insects are sentient. I reject the humanistic secular approach that tries to overlay higher life form traits or human anthropomorphic traits such as sentience, emotion, feelings, pain, behaviors etc. on insects.

    First, humans are unique and different from all other lifeforms and must be treated differently. Human anti-exceptionalism is false, anti-Judeo/Christian and misanthropic. Failing to reject this philosophy allows truly harmful ideas to germinate with catastrophic evil outcomes to mankind.

    Second, insects are different than other higher animal lifeforms (i.e. lions) and should be treated differently. For example, some insects do not show certain behaviors even when being eaten or torn apart (Tsetse flies will continue to mate and feed even if dissected, locus continue to feed while being eaten by a praying mantis).see Eisemann et al.1984

    The killing of an insect to obtain its image has nothing to due to a photographers lack of skill, being arrogant, non caring or ignorant of the skill level and technical photographic understanding of creating macro, and microscopic stacked images. It’s the old philosophical questions of, If the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? I continue to create these type of images in studio because if the image is never created in the field it will never be seen. These images clearly contribute to the scientific community for identification, are free to the world for viewing and adds to the understanding of insects as well as create never before scenes of beauty.

    Please, continue to take these beautiful photographs. No one should inhibit, evoke sadness on, advocate exclusion or condemn other great photographers and scientists because they may have a different philosophical view.

    • Martin Bailey

      Very interesting perspective William! Thank you for adding your ideas to the pot.

      I’ve ultimately not done much of this sort of photography, due mostly to time restrictions, although I am still not comfortable killing insects. We’re coming into Spring and Summer again now though, so I’ll see where this goes next.

      Thanks for your encouragement!

  5. Marcus Bain

    Hi Martin – it’s been a while. Loving all the micro photography you have done! But in regards to killing an insect to get a photo is too far for me personally. I had this very talk with a good friend, fellow artist who sculpted a tiny figure riding a housefly like it was a dragon. He said he searched around his house and outside one summer for months trying to find the right dead fly. He didn’t go out of his way to kill it. And when he found the right one etc he embalmed it. Preserving it forever and added the little figure on it.
    You can find it here and a few others.

    To purposefully kill for art is too far. I can understand to a degree it is necessary for science.

    One of my most memorable photographic moments was capturing a little grasshopper on a white flower in a busy Tokyo park. I saw him from quite far away and as I was walking towards him slowly to take the photo I was sure he would jump away. I had a lensbaby 3G with 2 macro filters, so I had to get very close and manually try to focus hoping to get the right few mm in focus, I don’t know why I like to make things hard for myself lol. The whole time thinking this little fella is certain to jump away. When I got into position he was in 3/4 profile then as I went to take the shot he turned to look right down the lens at me. Totally blew me away. I got my shot and then left with the little guy still looking in my direction. One of those magic moments.

    • Martin Bailey

      Hi Marcus,

      It’s great to hear from you mate! I hope all is well.

      I actually haven’t killed anything else since I did this post. I was still battling with it to a degree, and although I can’t say I won’t do it again, it’s not something that I’m going to get into in a big way.

      The problems with the two examples you have given, though, are this. Unless you can find an insect that has just died and you work very quickly, they look dead. That might be OK for some purposes, but it will rarely make a good photograph of an insect otherwise. Your way of shooting insects is proven and a common way to work. I’ve done that myself, too, for years. But, it is not possible to do a 200-frame photo stack at super high resolution. If you want to do this level of work, the killing part is pretty much unavoidable.

      But, as I say, I haven’t done any more of this and, at this point, probably don’t see me doing much more.

      Stay well mate, and let me know if you swing by Tokyo at any point. We’ll just have to hope there are no massive earthquakes and tsunami when we get together again.



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