AI: Pictures of Science

If you are anything like me (which I suspect you aren’t and may be offended at the suggestion, but humor me for a moment) you are enthralled by the photography of National Geographic and similar publications. Their unparalleled skill in capturing nature and life at its finest is breathtaking.  I wonder, though, how well they hold to their sense of responsibility.

Are they representing their subjects fairly? Is the practice of their art misinforming their audience?

Photograph by Ian Nichols, National Geographic

Do science and nature photographers have a responsibility to be fair and honest?  Can they be allowed the same artistic license granted to pure artists?


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. I would say the answer depends on how their work is to be used. Certainly, if the photos are part of a scientific publication, or are being used in a formal educational context, then accuracy in depiction and objectivity in selection and presentation are important constraints on the artist.

    However, that’s a relatively small part of the market for these works. In most contexts, the real purpose is to evoke in the viewer a love for and appreciation of the beauty of nature. In the service of that goal, the artists can ethically bring to bear every tool at their command.

    The hope is that once a person has fallen in love with nature, they will naturally desire to learn more about her. After the love is well established, it is possible to look more objectively at its object, just as the members of a romantic couple who have been together a while are well aware of each other’s flaws, but it does not diminish their love for one another.

  2. What about documentary photography? They are presenting images under the premise of scientific truth. Is it acceptable to adjust the truth presented in the images to make it more salable?

  3. All artists, pure or otherwise, have a responsibility to truthfully represent what they claim their work represents. ‘Pure artists’ will still be critiqued on whether their work successfully does so or not.

    At its simplest level, I think, art is a visual representation of an idea or subject. If that idea or subject is scientific and the art fails in representing it truthfully, then it fails as a piece.

    If a ‘pure artist’ creates a piece of art that sets out to demonstrate, for example, the sense of joy on a sunny spring day, it has the same responsibility to capture that sense and bring it over to an audience.

    Of course, the typical intentions of ‘pure art’ are wrapped up in emotion and experience, harder subjects to pin down. The wide breadth of metaphor available with subjects such as this does increase ‘artistic license’, but I still think it has a fundamental responsibility to truthfully project what it aims to.

  4. The question reminds me of the occasion where NatGeo got caught moving the pyramids on a cover photo for better composition.

  5. Is that kind of thing okay? Is moving the pyramids around a little a problem or is a bit of photoshop justified to make it fit on the cover?

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