Common Housefly (50X Stereo Microscope)

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

Today we discuss killing insects to photograph them. I recently killed a housefly and photographed it. They usually just go into the trash.

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Martin Bailey
Martin Bailey is a nature and wildlife photographer and educator based in Tokyo. He's a pioneering Podcaster and blogger, and an X-Rite Coloratti member.
  • Mike Cristina
    Posted at 01:06h, 30 July Reply

    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
      Posted at 11:05h, 30 July Reply

      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!


  • John Nelson
    Posted at 09:57h, 30 July Reply

    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
      Posted at 10:57h, 30 July Reply

      Hi John,

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


  • Brian Wood-Koiwa
    Posted at 09:04h, 04 September Reply

    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
      Posted at 23:43h, 04 September Reply

      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,

  • William Bodine
    Posted at 23:57h, 05 April Reply

    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
      Posted at 09:22h, 06 April Reply

      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!

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