Six Tips for Ethical Monkey Photography


Jessica Suarez

Conservation Fellow

Jessica Suarez is a conservation photographer and filmmaker and a National Geographic Explorer. Through her work, she explores humans’ relationship to the environment, scientific research, wildlife, and wild spaces. Most recently, she can be found in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest and in Atlanta, GA, USA working on conservation multimedia projects. She holds a master's degree in Photography from Syracuse University. She also is the multimedia director and co-founder of the conservation non-profit the Tropical Conservation Fund and a member of Women Photograph. 

Learn more about Jessica Suarez

June 30, 2021

Six Tips for Ethical Monkey Photography


Photographing monkeys in the wild is an incredibly exciting and rewarding challenge. However, in our excitement there are times when we may not realize that we are not practicing ethical wildlife photography, potentially causing unintentional harm to wildlife and putting their lives at risk. Many of these responsible practices were not intuitive to me when I started working in the Amazon rainforest in 2015. I learned them over time in the field (often through making mistakes) and with the help of my partner, who is a primatologist. I wanted to create a list of tips to help others get started photographing monkeys in the wild while causing the least amount of stress and maximizing the observer’s experience. 

A juvenile squirrel monkey peers down from a branch while traveling with its family across a section of forest at Manu Learning Centre, Peru.
  1. Learn Monkey Behavior: It’s really helpful before going into the field to look for monkeys to learn more about their behavior. Field guidebooks, local guides, or biologists can get you started on learning more.  Knowing unique behaviors to look for can help you take better pictures and know when you are disrupting their natural behavior or they feel threatened. Certain behaviors such as grooming, eating, or playing are indications that they feel comfortable around you. However, if you see them fleeing, making extended eye contact with you, shaking branches, trying to make themselves appear bigger, or even trying to urinate or defecate on you, it is probably time to back up and give them some space!
Learn Monkey Behavior: A howler monkey settles down for the night with its family at Los Amigos Biological Station, Peru. Sometimes it is obvious when monkeys feel relaxed and not threatened by human observers and you may have a good opportunity to take photos of their more natural behavior. 
  1. Don’t Feed or Bait Them: It can be very tempting to feed or bait wild monkeys to get better pictures especially if they have gotten used to human handouts; however, this practice can be detrimental to their health and ability to survive in the wild on their own. It can also make them more at risk to natural predators or humans who wish to harm them. Humans also carry diseases that are transmittable to primates, so close contact is best avoided. 
Do Not Feed or Bait Them: Saddle-back tamarins spend most of their time in the lower and middle canopy, below 10 meters, which means they are often close to eye-level and easier to photograph (verses staring up at spider monkeys in the upper canopy). This individual patiently let me photograph it from a few meters away atÊLas Piedras Amazon Center. It is most likely habituated to humans who visit the research station and not subject to human hunting on the private reserve.
  1. Keep Your Distance: It is best to observe wild monkeys from a distance whenever possible. Long camera lenses or zoom capabilities on compact cameras or smart phones can ensure you still get good photos even from a distance. Wildlife in their natural habitat can also make interesting and powerful images, so consider creating environmental portraits or landscape images of them. Some monkeys in reserves and at research stations may be more habituated, or accustomed to seeing humans,and may not mind closer observation and may even curiously approach you themselves; but, it is important to pay attention and read their behavior to assess what an appropriate distance is. 
A white-fronted capuchin plays in the early dawn light at Los Amigos Biological Station, Peru. Often we are not able to get close up to wild monkeys. However, interesting photos can be made of them in their environment. Also, even when I donÕt get great photos of wildlife, I just feel lucky to have spotted them in the first place.
  1. Be Quiet and Minimize Movement: Monkeys are much more sensitive to sound than we are. While it is very exciting to see monkeys in the wild, and you want to talk about it to your companions on the trail, remember that you will often have better observations and photos if you quietly watch them and then swap wildlife sighting stories back at camp over a meal.
Be Quiet and Minimize Movement: Despite their large size and fluffy coats, saki monkeys can stealthily disappear into the canopy when they feel threatened. Being quiet and minimizing movement can help ensure better opportunities to observe and photograph them.
  1. Resist the Chase: If monkeys move away from you, let them go without chasing them. If possible, don’t stand directly beneath them as you may appear to be a predator (such as a jaguar). Be careful not to intimidate them or prevent them from using their travel corridors, such as branches that create natural bridges above trails where you may be walking. When monkeys run or quickly hide, it is often an indication that they are regularly hunted and have good reason to be fearful of humans. It is important to respect their need to get away. 
Resist the Chase: A mother capuchin monkey and her infant use a branch to cross between trees. It is important in these moments to not corral or block the path of traveling monkeys as this can cause them to become stressed or even get separated from their family group, which puts them at risk of predators.
  1. Truth in Captioning: It is important to be truthful and transparent when sharing photos of wildlife on social media. If you took a photo at a rescue center  or zoo and were much closer than you would be in the wild it is helpful to share that information to create realistic expectations of wildlife photography for others. You can use those captions as an important opportunity to raise awareness about wildlife trafficking or the important work of a conservation group that you learned about or admire. It is also important to be aware that in some settings, monkeys and other animals are taken from the wild to become tourist traps where people pose for pictures with the animals, who are often mistreated and underfed. It is critical not to support these industries, so be a responsible wildlife steward and educate yourself and ask questions!
Truth in Captioning: This portrait was taken of a female howler monkey at Taricaya Eco Reserve and Animal Rescue. It is often very difficult to be this close and at eye level with a howler monkey who are often high up in the canopy of the rainforest. Taricaya does great wildlife rescue and rehabilitation work in the Amazon so I make sure to share about their work when I post images like this one.

We all make mistakes around wildlife; however, it’s most important to continue learning and be aware of how you are affecting species. Any photo you take of an animal is not worth putting their lives at risk or causing them unnecessary stress. Life in the rainforest is hard enough. Remember, capturing ethical photos of monkeys takes a bit of luck, and a lot of time and patience so keep trying and enjoy your time in the field photographing wild monkeys!


1 thought on “Six Tips for Ethical Monkey Photography”

  1. Isn’t the caption for the second picture wrong? It is written “white-fronted capuchin”. To me it looks more like a red howler monkey.


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