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

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

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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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Music by Martin Bailey


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