Accurate knowledge vs. Ignorant Bliss

January 21, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
I've been wanting to get this blog going for several months now, but couldn't decide on the topic for my first post. Sort of like writing a novel. You want a brilliant opening line, but "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and "We were almost to the desert in Barstow when the drugs kicked in" are already taken. Not to mention "Call me Ishmael."

So I decided to take the path of least resistance, pose a question with a mild ethical dilemma. As a photographer, there are more difficult ethical dilemmas than this one, and I'll deal with those later. But this one was also fun.

Last April, I spent a few days photographing wildlife in the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, on Sanibel Island, on Florida's Gulf Coast. Ding Darling is easy to shoot because there is a road through the refuge that provides good views of great bird habitat, with lots of birds habitating there. Near where the one-way road exits the refuge, there was an active osprey nest. On my final visit, I decided to get there about 90 minutes before sunset and set up to shoot the male osprey bringing a fish back to his babies.

p863649146-2 There were two chicks in the nest, and the mother was perched in a nearby tree, keeping an eye on things while Dad was out fishing. The babies were nearly ready to fledge. One kept standing on the edge of the nest, flapping his wings just for fun. It was only a matter of time before Dad came home with dinner.

I set up the camera on my tripod with a 400mm lens and a 2x extender. I had to focus manually, and I wanted minimal camera shake, so I locked up the mirror and put a cable release on, and then just waited. And waited.

After about an hour, the chicks started getting excited, and suddenly I head the distinctive osprey cry as Dad approached the nest and announced his arrival. Almost immediately, he was there, flapping his wings to control his landing, and I hit the shutter release and fired off a dozen shots in full burst mode. Perfect timing. I was ecstatic.

I started taking down my gear. It was late, and I was hungry. As I opened the trunk of my car, a car with Minnesota license plates and five middle aged people inside pulled in and parked behind me. They followed the direction my camera was pointing and saw the nest, which was a good 75 yards away, high in a dead tree. One of them pointed his binoculars at the nest and cried out, "Eagle! It's a bald eagle!" The others ooohed and aaaahed, and gazed toward the nest.

And there was my ethical dilemma. What was my obligation here?

I could opt to improve their knowledge and ensure they would come away from the experience smarter and wiser. Or I could keep silent and let them believe they had seen an eagle. Now, as  former journalist, of course, I always feel a certain responsibility to the truth. But as a compassionate human being, I'm also very sympathetic to happiness.

I thought about it for a minute, and I finally decided to keep my mouth shut.

To tell them that what they were looking at was not in fact an eagle but rather another of the most interesting and powerful predators in the avian world, would have ruined their day. Already they were thinking of how to tell their friends back in Mankato about the eagle they saw on Sanibel Island. Who was I, and what was the truth, to be so arrogant as to take that away from them? Let them tell their story, inaccurate though it may be. It would do no harm to them, to me, to the ospreys or to any eagles.
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Another way to look at it would be the way the chicks in the nest looked at Dad when they realized he had come home not with the fish they were expecting for dinner, but with a stick. Take a look at the face of the chick looking at Dad. That's how those people from Minnesota would have felt if I'd told them the truth.

I hope they are still telling the story back in Minnesota.

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