Permission To Smile

Hours of difficult preparation and scheduling go into every banding. Kashi carefully watches Stacy & Tatiana tend their new brood of chicks to be sure that everything is ready to go. You certainly have earned permission to smile.

There is no doubt my photography is controversial. 

While picking up a camera leads most people towards art, it somehow led me toward science. As a result, I now mostly take pictures that nobody wants to see. Regular folks get uncomfortable seeing scientists handling wild animals, and scientists have legitimate concerns with people taking photos at delicate wildlife management operations.

Surely a lot of people would be happiest if I simply went away. But my unique position has exposed to me a vast disconnect between the public’s understanding of wildlife management and what the biologists actually are doing (as well as their motivations and impacts). I know my photos can be part of the solution and help broaden our collective understanding, benefiting science, the public, and most importantly, the animals.

And so I soldier on, respectfully and with an open mind, always listening carefully to critical feedback, and doing the best I can to straddle the line and strike the right balance. 

I know I can do good and can also do wrong. And I also understand that these issues regarding what types of photos are appropriate to share are new and unique to the social media era. But, unfortunately, we don’t have a clear set of guidelines or answers yet, so I’m happy to be a big part of that conversation as we collectively try to figure it out.

I’m all on board with the issue of context. I agree you simply shouldn’t show photos of bandings or handling of wild animals out of context. In fact, I’m in such agreement that I’ve banned myself from all socials, and you can only find my work here on Readings From The Northside, where you’ll be forced to read (literally) hundreds of thousands of words of context just to see a few photos you probably really didn’t want to see in the first place. Social media is intentionally engineered to limit context and favors the emotional and the provocative; a terrible medium for issues requiring depth, debate, sensitivity, and most of all, context.

But beyond the gross issue of proper context, there are many subtleties to debate. Like, what about… smiling? Is it OK to show biologists giggling and grinning while they do delicate and challenging work? Does it send the wrong message about their intentions and their actions? Should they even be smiling at all?

Jess, the tireless hero of Plover Park, carefully carries Stumpy away from the banding to be released back to Stacy & Tatiana. She’s worked so hard for this bird, through so much difficulty and sadness. Here, holding Stumpy in hand, she has an intuitive moment understanding precisely why it is worth all of the struggle. Jess most certainly has permission to smile.

I’m sympathetic to and curious about this debate. I love being a part of it. But since we are hidden away here in this dark corner of the internet, drowning in the context of a decade of Readings, I can tell you true: I’ve become absolutely exhausted watching biologists frowning in the field when they should be smiling. I’m tired of coming home from a mission and reviewing my photos to discover everyone looks like they are enduring a colonoscopy.

So I’ve been calling it out this season while I shoot. “Smile like you like it,” “Pretend you’re proud of your work,” and “Look like you love that bird!” have become a part of my photography.

The effect is often contagious. It often results in a total energy shift. Shoulders drop. Sighs are audible. And the joy shines through. And the focus on the matter at hand increases exponentially. Because the people who do this work are, in fact, full of passion and motivated by some of the most sincere forms of love possible in the human heart.

Showing grinning scientists holding terrified animals in delicate management operations is undoubtedly dangerous and ripe for misrepresentation. Yet so is beating biologists down with the gravity of the already grave situations they deal with every day to the point where they no longer express and share joy; because, one day, they may lose the ability to experience it. And that’s when we’ll lose them and all of the amazing gifts they give us.

The fearless co-moms of NJ’s beach-nesting bird program: Emily Heiser & Kashi Davis. Not only are they controversially smiling, but they are controversially pausing for a moment to pose with the chicks just before the release. I firmly believe the five extra seconds this added to the banding was of no consequence to the birds, and that there is immense value in this photo. But I also believe that posing with wild animals can be deeply irresponsible, and that showing this photo could potentially encourage someone to behave poorly. I don’t know what the right answer is. But I know I’ve provided proper context, and I know this photo is full of all of the joy and all of the love that is at the root of their hard work and incredible contribution to the world. I know these four creatures are beautiful and I’ll treasure this photo. And, in full disclosure, I know they did this quick pose so they would have leverage over me if I lingered at the chick release, because that is the cutest part of all. Permission to smile.

The truth is, joy is not the antithesis of seriousness, and it is not the enemy of concentration, care, skill, or success. If anything, it is the one, true root of them.

And so, with that context as background, I now grant all wildlife biologists permission to smile. Especially these four amazing women. Kashi, Emily, Jess, and Megan. They’ve done so much for the animals, for us, and honestly, for the world. What they do is complicated, often sad, and incredibly serious. 

Sweet release. Kashi, Jess, Megan, and Emily. As a way to thank you for all you do for Barnegat Light… permission to smile! Trohman, Stumpy, Hurley, and Wentz return to Stacy & Tatiana.

But they have given us so many reasons to smile; it just feels wrong they shouldn’t be doing the same.

Enjoy this short clip of the best moment of all. I don’t need to call out any reminders to smile here. It is impossible not to smile when releasing the chicks back to the parents after a successful banding. Enjoy.


  1. If anyone deserves a smile it is this group of amazing women!
    Don’t you forget to smile either, Jim!
    Thanks to all of you for your hard work.


  2. I agree. Scientists can be serious and committed to their work. But they are also allowed to take delight in it. In fact, I hope they do. It can sustain them through all the trials, tribulations, and losses.

    Liked by 1 person

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