From Congo with love: An Earth Day selfie for the ages.

Only the gorillas themselves know what they’re truly thinking. That said, a supposed selfie of rescued mountain gorillas posing for a relaxed snapshot with the park rangers who rescued them as babies has gone viral this Earth Day, and why not?

The gorillas are apparently trying to imitate humans, but again, who can say for certain?

It’s an arresting image, regardless. The selfie was taken at a gorilla orphanage in Virunga National Park, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), ground zero in the anti-poaching wars to help save one of the world’s most recognizable, high-profile endangered animals. There are said to be slightly more than 1,000 mountain gorillas left, of which, according to the most recent census, some 600 of which live in the Virunga Volcanoes. Though a seemingly small number, that’s still twice as many as 30 years ago, when the program to help save them was originally  established.

©Mathieu Shamavu

©Mathieu Shamavu

Virunga — the park and the gorilla conservation program— was the focus of a 2014 British documentary film, Virunga, that won the Peabody Award and was nominated for a best feature documentary Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards. The film Virunga, financed by Netflix, put public pressure on the oil company SOCO International to halt its then-controversial exploration for oil within the protected World Heritage Site.

The film told the story of four people dedicated to protecting the world’s last mountain gorillas from a range of threats, including not just the oil company but illegal hunting, land invasions, the steady encroachment of agricultural farms inside park boundaries, and the 2012 emergence of the violent M23 rebellion movement.

Park ranger Mathieu Shamavu, pictured in the gorilla selfie, is following in the muddy boot-tracks of ranger André Bauma, one of the original “gorilla caregivers” in the Netflix documentary.

@Virunga National Park

@Virunga National Park

It’s dangerous work, and not just because even an adolescent gorilla can tear a grown person from limb to limb. Five Virunga park rangers were killed in an ambush by suspected M23 rebels inside the park just last year. In all, 130 park rangers have been killed in Virunga since 1996.

Eastern DR Congo is mired in seemingly endless conflict between an unstable, corruptible government and various armed groups, driven by the wealth of priceless minerals, including many of the rare but vital materials used in today’s smartphones. Eastern DRC has also been the scene of a deadly, growing — and underreported — outbreak of the ebola virus.

It’s small wonder, then, that the gorilla selfie has touched a popular nerve in the wider world, and not just because today is Earth Day.

Deputy park director Innocent Mburanumwe told BBC’s Newsday program that the orphaned gorillas, just two- to four-months-old at the time of their rescue,  think of the rangers as their parents. The gorillas’ mothers were both killed in July, 2007.

©Facebook/Innocent Mburanumwe

©Facebook/Innocent Mburanumwe

They’ve grown up in the Senkwekwe Sanctuary and have learned to “(imitate) the humans,” Mburanumwe told BBC, “learning to be human beings.” For example, the gorillas frequently stand up and try to move around on two legs, something they wouldn’t normally do in the wild. 

“I was surprised to see it,” Mburanumwe told BBC. “It’s very curious to see how a gorilla can imitate a human and stand up.”

The selfie first came to light Thursday last week, when a ranger shared a photo on Facebook of what he called “another day at the office.”

The Virunga gorilla program is staffed by local men and women, and relies on donations from the outside world for much of its support. The risk of violence is real, and ongoing: Officials closed the park from May last year to this past February, following the death of a park ranger and the kidnapping of two British tourists.

©Elite AnitPoaching Units/Facebook

©Elite AnitPoaching Units/Facebook

Virunga is believed to be Africa’s oldest national park, according to National Geographic, but there are other parks on the continent that lay claim to that title.

Regardless, it’s hard to think of many parks that may be more important — or fragile. The Earth Day selfie and the worldwide attention it’s generated has prompted prompted program directors  to urge people to “make a difference” and donate to Virunga’s conservation efforts.

Virunga, formerly known as Albert National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and covers some 7,800 square km (3000 square miles) of some of the most breathtaking natural landscape — and unique species — found anywhere on planet Earth.



The “eye of the beholder” and award competitions: When seeing is not always believing.

Another internationally juried photo prize, another controversy — another scandal.

Malaysian photographer Edwin Ong Wee Kee’s haunting image of a partially blind Vietnamese woman carrying her baby won top honours — and the USD $120,000 prize that came with it — at the 2019 Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA) in Dubai.

Ong’s vision was judged to be the most representative of this year’s theme, “Hope,” and there’s an undeniable human quality to the image, its depiction of sadness and loss, coupled with one person’s determination to survive, despite the challenges.

©Edwin Ong Wee Kee

©Edwin Ong Wee Kee

As reported on PetaPixel, though, according to those who were there at the March 12 ceremony, the announcement was greeted with several eye-rolls, mutterings and murmurs of thinly veiled irritation. Here we go again with the poverty porn, they seemed to be saying.

The term “poverty porn” has been used to describe photographers’ fixation on images of people struggling to survive desperate circumstances. These images are considered safe to do because to dismiss the image is to dismiss the subject, and who in good conscience would do that?

©Brent Stirton/WPOTY53/Getty Images

©Brent Stirton/WPOTY53/Getty Images

There’s a growing feeling in the photography community, though, that creativity — looking at familiar subjects in new, unfamiliar ways — should count for more than always taking the safe and obvious route, especially when it comes to internationally recognized competitions.

Any announcement of a major award, especially one with money involved, is bound to be greeted with catcalls. Judging is subjective, after all. My choice may not be yours. Cynics are everywhere, and it’s always easier to disagree than to agree. Safe choices are safe for a reason: People like them, and photo juries tend to agree. When a rare, controversial choice is made — South African photographer Brent Stirton’s image of a slaughtered rhino winning the prestigious 53rd annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year award being a prime example — the resulting public disagreement, and the bad press that comes with it, can scare future juries away from making similar choices. 

The Wildlife Photographer jury opted for a much safer image in this year’s awards, picking Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten’s portrait of two rare golden snub-nosed monkeys in China's Qinling mountains, over a field of nominees that included SeaLegacy photographer Justin Hofman’s unforgettable — and hard to look at — image of a starving polar bear in Canada’s far north.

©Marsel van Oosten/WPOTY54

©Marsel van Oosten/WPOTY54

The Hamdan International Photography Award was bound to have its detractors, in other words, no matter what image was chosen.

But then the other shoe dropped, and a controversy became a scandal.

It turns out the photo was probably staged. The seemingly natural image — with its echoes of Steve McCurry’s famous National Geographic cover shot of “the Afghan Girl” — was one of several taken by a group of photographers at a photo-op session organized by fellow photographer Ab Rashid.

Ong defended his image to the Malaysian daily The Star, telling the paper, “In this trip to Vietnam, we (photographers) went to the rice field and there was a mother (with her children) that passed by. We never told her to stand up or sit down.”

©PetaPixel/Ab Rashid (right)

©PetaPixel/Ab Rashid (right)

Strictly speaking, Ong never violated any rules of the contest: Unlike some juried photo competitions, the  Hamdan Photography Award doesn’t require photographers to sign a claim that prohibits staging or, in the case of nature photography competitions like the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer awards, that the subject be free-ranging, in its natural habitat. Unlike the World Press Photo Awards — itself a lightning rod for recent controversy — the Hamdan Award doesn’t demand that photographers follow the principles and ethics of professional photojournalism, with its emphasis on hard news.

Recent past winners of the Hamdan Award show an understandable bias towards photojournalism, though, and it’s easy to see why: These are the images that reflect the world as it is, not necessarily as we want it to be.

©Mohammed Alragheb/Hamdan International Photography Awards

©Mohammed Alragheb/Hamdan International Photography Awards

Even so, there’s something unsettling knowing that an image was, if not staged exactly, certainly posed, when comparisons to actual, genuine photojournalism are not just implied but obvious for all to see.

In a thoughtful essay on PetaPixel, Yale University graduate, iTunes podcaster and PhotoShelter co-founder Allen Murabayashi suggests the problem isn’t the contest but us, as a society.

“We feel duped,” he wrote, “not necessarily because the image may or may not have been directed. We feel duped because Ong took the image with a gaggle of other photographer of a young, impoverished mother in a way that feels creepily reminiscent of a mid-20th-century all-male camera club hiring a female model.”

We live in an Instagram culture of algorithm-generated clicks that encourages “likes” and feeds on our collective vanity and search for validation.

“The same people who decry contests use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to build their own followings,” Murabayashi said, “while chasing retweets and likes of their own.”

©Ab Rashid/PetaPixel

©Ab Rashid/PetaPixel

Our collective fascination with the pain and suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves is harder to reconcile. A powerful image of someone in distress can raise awareness and generate much-needed funding for relief efforts — we can’t rely on Western and particularly US politicians to do the right thing — but there’s also that disquieting feeling that it’s amoral to celebrate suffering in the form of competitions that provide a cash prize — in some cases a significant cash prize, as with the Hamdan Award — to the winners.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, any monetary reward should go to the subject, at least in part.

There’s an upside to the Hamdan Award as is, Murabayashi suggests.

“If nothing else, maybe increased awareness of the world’s richest photo contest will attract a whole new wave of photographers doing important, long-term work.”

Perhaps. As long as photo captions — and juried competitions — don’t explicitly explain whether an image was natural or posed, though, questions will remain. Troubling questions. 


Later: Here’s an interesting thought.

In the stream of comments posted on PetaPixel and other sites in the wake of the “posed photo” revelation, more than one person suggested the behind-the-scenes image below tells a more topical, relevant story than the actual image that won the Hamdan Award.

It has certainly kickstarted a more far-reaching conversation about the relationship between photographer and subject, and how the haves often exploit the have-nots for their own purposes, regardless of motive.

That’s not news, of course — or won’t be to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of how the world works — but it’s worth talking about in the open, in online chat forums and other public spaces, and not behind closed doors in sequestered photo-jury rooms.

Another interesting question: How many of these  photographers pictured here got exactly the same image, but didn’t think to submit it to an international photo competition?

How original is originality supposed to be, anyway?

After all, the eye of the beholder doesn’t add up to much if everyone sees the same thing.

Food for thought.



When fake means fake: the hidden underbelly of faked nature photography.

Fake news, fake views. One is so common, it has practically become part of everyday conversation.

The other isn’t so obvious, but for anyone interested in nature photography — or nature, for that matter — it’s fast becoming a burning issue. No pun intended.

At first glance, a photo of a frog riding a turtle looks like fun. It’s funny, cheerful and uplifting, and heaven knows we could all use a little more of that these days.

The photo below was posted on PBS NewsHour’s Photo of the Day showcase, the U.S. public broadcaster’s equivalent of National Geographic’s popular — and prestigious — Your Shot series.

©Yan HidayatGetty Images, via PBS NewsHour

©Yan HidayatGetty Images, via PBS NewsHour

PBS News, like National Geographic, is a credible, proper news organization, unlike say some of the UK tabloids, and so it wasn’t long before someone on PBS News’s science desk flagged concerns that the photo may have been staged — or, worse, faked, using Photoshop or Lightroom or any number of the growing number of user-friendly, less expensive photo-editing apps that are becoming as common as smartphones themselves.

In case you’re wondering, as one science expert noted, frogs don’t normally ride turtles, for recreational purposes or for any other reason.

The resulting controversy, minor as it might have seemed at the time, highlighted the increasingly cloudy lines that demarcate nature photography, animal welfare and creative licence. All of a sudden, a fun, whimsical photo was starting to look a lot less whimsical.

It didn’t help that an infamous 2015 photo that went viral, of a frog riding a beetle, was later found to be staged, and discredited.

In PBS’s case, suspicions were further raised when the caption accompanying photo — from Getty Images, and identified as having been taken in West Sumatra — identified the frog as an Australian tree frog, and the turtle as a sulcata tortoise.

There’s just one catch. Or two, if you want to get picky about it: Neither species is native to the region.

It was as if someone had photographed a crocodile wrestling an anaconda in the Florida Everglades, which would have been some catch as neither the croc nor the snake are indigenous to South Florida. (Florida crocodiles are called alligators because, in point of fact, that’s what they are.)

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

PBS dutifully posted a science story on the channel’s home page, fessing up to any deception, intentional or otherwise, while tracing the photo’s origins (Getty, by way of a contractor called Barcroft Media, by way of a subcontractor called Riau Images, based in Indonesia).

No harm, no foul. At least not in hindsight.

Ironically, though, just days later, another series of frog images ran on the UK Daily Mail’s website Mail Online, showing a pair of snails perched on either side of a frog’s head, looking remarkably like Princess Leia’s cinnamon-bun hairdo from the original Star Wars film.

No one at Mail Online seemed to care that much, though a handful of visitors in the comments section noted that the photographer in question has previous, as the English say, in this area.

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

The photographer Yan Hidayat, when asked to explain the photo’s original in an email exchange with PBS NewsHour, was perfectly forthcoming: He purchases his frog and turtle subjects in a pet store in Jakarta, then stages the photos. The snails he digs up from his garden. When the juveniles grow up to become adults, he releases them, Hidayat told NewsHour.

Hidayat added that Riau Images never asked him how he took the photos; Barcroft assumed they were legit, and Getty followed suit.

Animal-rights advocates and ethicists worry that, regardless of how well these particular animals may or may not be treated, in our present-day selfie culture, there are always morons who’ll go to virtually any length to snap a pic of themselves with a wild animal, even if that animal is torn away from its natural element and harassed and abused to strike a good pose.

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

More and more, nature-photography competitions demand signed affidavits to the effect that the animals in submitted photos are wild, and not captive. Photoshop manipulation raises the stakes to a whole other level of deception, and is tantamount to fraud in many adjudicators’ eyes.

It may seem harmless enough — the hybrid word “non-troversy” has been used — but the whole issue of faked nature photos has spawned at least one Facebook page, Truths Behind Fake Nature Photography, which features such lively comments as, “Excellent exposé of these highly staged photographs with their accompanying bullshit stories.”

Well, not bullshit exactly. More like frog shit. But you get the point.






Vintage Air Rally proving, well, real.

No one said it would be easy. Renowned eccentric Maurice Kirk, 71, one of the magnificent men in their magnificent flying machines making the cross-Africa trek as part of the Vintage Air Rally, in which nearly two dozen pre-1939 biplanes are flying from Crete to Cape Town, South Africa over 35 days, was reported missing over South Sudan earlier this month.

Maurice Kirk, Vintage Air Rally pilot

Maurice Kirk, Vintage Air Rally pilot

Of all the places to be reported missing in a rickety World War II-era flying machine, South Sudan is not as ideal as, say, the Hudson River.

As it happened, Kirk turned up alive and well — as an unscheduled guest of the Ethiopian state, provided free room and board in the local clink— just days later, in a dusty, flyblown outpost of the Sudan-Ethiopia border.

Perhaps Kirk’s paperwork had been in order, perhaps not. Either way, no one, it seems, bothered to give the border-post guards a heads-up, which is odd because South Sudan is, after all, a war zone. Viewed from afar, and unexpectedly, even a 1943 Piper Club plane can look suspicious. 

This is Africa, as Leo DiCaprio’s character was wont to say in the 2006 movie Blood Diamond. Forget the heat, the humidity and the vicious crosswinds. Never mind the bugs, the pestilence and the dangerous animals: It’s the bureaucracy that will get you every time.

By the time the contretemps was over — “This has all been a terrible misunderstanding,” was repeated more than once — the pilots of 20-something vintage planes were allowed to continue, Ethiopian officials confirmed with the BBC, underscoring another curious fact of life in modern-day Africa: When something goes seriously wrong, it’s often down to the BBC to sort it out.

As of posting, the pilots — and their magnificent flying machines — are cooling their heels in Nairobi, before winging off, Out of Africa-style, over Mt. Kilimanjaro to Zanzibar.

The planes, dating from the 1920s and 1930s, took off from Crete on Nov. 12 on their 12,900km (8,000 mile) journey to Cape Town. The rally is an attempt in part to recreate the 1931 Imperial Airways “Africa Route.” The flying teamsare expected to reach their destination on Dec. 17, barring further unforeseen difficulties.

The teams, complete with support aircraft and helicopter supply teams, are being piloted by flying enthusiasts from a wide range of countries, including Belgium, Germany, Botswana, South Africa, the UK, Canada and Russia. The rally includes husband-and-wife teams, fathers and daughters and entire families. One young woman pilot, from Botswana, is 15.

On the other end of the age spectrum, Kirk, it goes without saying, is the quintessential eccentric Brit, complete with a spotty past — he’s a former “drinking partner” of the actor Oliver Reed, The Guardian reported — and a knack for talking himself into, and out of, trouble.

By the time the border incident was over, the grounding and detention of pilots and their planes involved both Britain’s Foreign Office and the U.S,. State Department, this after Wesenyeleh Hunegnaw, head of Ethiopia’s Civil Aviation Authority, told the Associated Press that the pilots had entered Ethiopian airspace illegally and were “under investigation.”

Maurice Kirk

Maurice Kirk

A spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office said simply: “We are in contact with the local authorities regarding a group who have been prevented from leaving Gambela airport, Ethiopia.”

Ah, yes, the language of international diplomacy. Gotta love it. 

The magnificent men — and women — in their magnificent flying machines had to surrender their cellphones and laptops, before being waved on to neighbouring Kenya. Presumably by now, iPhones and MacBook Pros have been returned to their rightful owners, assuming, that is, that the flying teams don’t include some actual spies.

And then there are the eccentrics.

Kirk had a near miss once in France, in his pre-Vintage Air Rally flying days, when he suffered engine failure in his plane, dubbed “Liberty Girl II,” while approaching Cannes. “That so easily could have ended in a tangled pile of twisted aircraft and Maurice,” he posted on Facebook. There very nearly was not a Liberty Girl III.

Africa, it goes without saying, is, well, big.

“Where am I?” Kirk posted angrily on Facebook, on Nov. 19. “I keep getting lost which is why I really wanted to go via Gibraltar and just keep the sea on my right to Table Mountain [Cape Town].”

As it is, Kirk has already suffered a puncture and propeller failure, not to mention that unscheduled stay as a guest of Ethiopian border authorities. He very nearly got himself disinvited from the rally before it even began, owing to what rally organizers called, “a mismatch in expectations.” There have been pluses, mind. Dongola, Sudan, will be a cherished memory for life, The Guardian reported him saying. “(This is) what life is all about … the fried fish fresh out of the Nile … the coffee you can [stand] your spoon up in.”

Ethiopian coffee, no doubt.