There are no good years or bad years anymore at Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards.

There are no longer good years or bad years at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards. The prestigious contest — half a century in the making — sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum, has never seemed more important.

This past weekend, some 14 commended images in this year’s edition — the 54th overall — were announced to the public. 

One of those images, South African nature photographer Isak Pretorius’ stirring image of a lion drinking from a reed-covered riverbank, has already been selected as the cover shot for Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 28. The overall competition winners will be announced on Oct. 16, and a full exhibition of winners and finalists will go on display at the Natural History Museum three days later, on Oct. 19.




Submissions for next year’s 2019 WPOTY Awards open Oct. 22 and close on Dec. 13. The window is short, in other words — just eight weeks.

The past year has seen its fair share of controversy, from photojournalist Brent Stirton’s competition-winning 2017 image of a slaughtered rhino, its horn hacked off with a chainsaw by poachers — many viewers found the image to be disturbing and inappropriate for a competition supposedly designed to celebrate nature in all its beauty — to the disqualification of Brazilian photographer Marcio Cabral’s award-winning night image of an anteater moving towards termite mound that was later found to be staged. (The anteater turned out to be stuffed, arguably making it the most famous stuffed animal in the history of taxidermy.)

It will be instructive to see what image wins this year’s competition, because by focusing on a hard-hitting “message” picture last year, award judges were signalling that the most urgent issue facing wildlife today is environmental ruin, everything from habitat destruction to poaching and looming species extinction. It’s no longer enough, in other words, to celebrate natural beauty just for nature and beauty’s sake.

With no further ado, then, here’s a look at a few of this year’s commended images.

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Another photo contest, another scandal: Welcome to the world of temptation-by-social-media and instant gratification.

Here we go again. Another photo contest, another scandal. Consider it a scourge of the digital age. Digital technology, the very thing that made wildlife photography easier — less time trying to match ISO with available light; less time worrying about whether you’re running out of film at that exact moment your subject is about to do something, anything, let alone the very thing you’ve been waiting all this time for; less time fretting about whether the subject is even in focus to begin with — has also made it easier to fake that seeming once-in-a-lifetime capture.

Digital manipulation leaves a trace, but that still means a wildlife image can be staged, using a captive animal or — as in this most recent accusation — a possibly stuffed animal. Digital technology can make tiny, telling details that would otherwise send up a warning flag almost seamless. 

Prize-winning nature photographer Marcio Cabral has been accused of using a stuffed anteater in his Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest image — now removed by contest sponsors from the London Natural History Museum exhibit of last year’s winning and nominated images — of an anteater eying a termite mound glowing with bioluminescence, beneath a starlit sky in Brazil’s grasslands. The image was named best-in-show in the prestigious contest’s “Animals in Their Environment” category.

©Marcio Cabral/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

©Marcio Cabral/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

Questions were raised after an “anonymous third party” flagged the eerie similarities between the anteater in the Cabral photograph and a taxidermy anteater displayed at one of the entrances to Brazil’s Emas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the same park Cabral said he had scoured for three years at night, trying to get the distinctive image. 

©Natural History Museum (UK)

©Natural History Museum (UK)

In what seems a shame for the other shortlisted candidates in the category, contest organizers say they are vacating Cabral’s win and will not replace his image with another winner. The names of the other finalists were announced last October, the Natural History Museum explained, which means the judges “can no longer render an objective decision.”

I’m not sure I follow that logic — surely the judges can get together in a conference call and decide which of the runners-up they like best in retrospect, but then I’m not privy to the details of the case behind the scenes. The only thing that does seem clear is that the entire situation is a mess. (Photographers who submit images to the WPOTY competition must sign a waiver saying their image has not been staged or manipulated in any way, standard practice in virtually all nature-photo competitions nowadays. It’s largely based on an honour system, though; detection, where it exists at all, is usually after-the-fact and difficult to enforce.)

Cabral denies the accusation, and that’s important to note. The thing with photography, especially wildlife photography, is that much of it has to be taken on faith. Nature photographers, by definition, spend long hours under stressful conditions in the middle of nowhere, often unseen by other human eyes. It’s the nature of the beast, if you will. Nature photography is based on the honour system; there often aren’t witnesses to corroborate or refute the conditions under which an image was captured. The reputable nature photographers who’ve made a name for themselves, often but not always with well-established media organizations like National Geographic and Getty Images, form a close, tight-knit community, in part because it’s a tough job, tougher than it looks, and in part because it’s a hard way to make a living, let alone establish a reputation as one of the world’s best. 

The advent of social media has created a field of intense competition, where clicks and “likes” count for everything. That wasn’t the case just 10 years ago, at least not to the extent it is today. Established conservation photographers like Steve Winter, Michael “Nick” Nichols, Beverly Joubert, Paul Nicklen, Brent Stirton (below), Ami Vitale, Cristina Mittermeier — even a young up-and-comer like New Jersey teen Ashleigh Scully — don’t need to prove themselves.

©Brent Stirton.com

©Brent Stirton.com

For relative unknowns looking to break in, though, the temptation to game the system must be great indeed, especially in a present-day social milieu that seems to be driven more and more by instant gratification. We live in a wired, connected world after all, where even some bozo on YouTube can become a millionaire overnight, based on little more than clickbait and trending views.

Reaction to the Cabral controversy has ranged from mild surprise to shock — “I find it disheartening that a photographer would go to such lengths to deceive the competition and its worldwide following,” WPOTY 2017 judge Roz Kidman Cox said Friday in a statement — but perhaps the real surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often. By its nature, nature photographer can be about getting that one image of a lifetime, though it’s also true that the most respected, admired photographers are those who have a proven track record over time. 

Cox is no dilettante; she was editor of Wildlife Magazine (now BBC Wildlife) for more than two decades, and has been a judge of Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition since 1981.

Brent Stirton, a South Africa-born, New York-based war correspondent for Getty Images who won the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for his haunting, hard-to-look-at image of a rhino slaughtered for its horn, was quoted at length in The Guardian as saying he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to fake an image and then try to pass it off in such a high-profile competition, knowing it would be scrutinized not just by other photographers but also by behavioural scientists — actual field biologists who study animals for a living and can spot questionable behaviour and situations in a heartbeat. Stirton knows a thing or two about the danger genuine nature photographers find themselves in; after surreptitiously taking an award-winning photo of a poached mountain gorilla in Congo’s Virunga National Park in July, 2007, he was told in no uncertain terms to get out of there fast because, “People were looking for him.” People with guns. And a proven track record of using them.

©Brent Stirton/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

©Brent Stirton/Natural History Museum WPOTY 2017 via The Guardfian

The London Natural History Museum is not some monkey exhibit at the local library; submitting a faked photo to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is a little like trying to pass off a plagiarized novel in front of the Pulitzer Prize award committee.

Behavioural science is one thing, where animals are concerned. Who, though, can figure out what gets into human beings’ minds at times?

Whether the Cabral photo was faked or not, only Cabral can know for certain. The contest judges — and the independent scientists they canvassed — seemed to think so. In retrospect, if not at the time.seemed






A passion for nature: The brave new world of conservation photography.

“Can a photograph change the world?” has become, “Can a photograph save the planet?”

More and more, nature and wildlife photographers prefer to label themselves as conservation photographers, in part to reflect the perilous state of the environment today, and in part because the word “conservation” suggests a bigger scale and broader reach.

“Conservation” sounds more important, somehow, though old-school nature photographers will argue that nature itself is the reason conservation matters. Nature, after all, provides the foundation on which conservation is built.

Voting has now closed for the People’s Choice Award in the 54th Annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, or WPOTY 54 in the photography community argot. Last year’s winners in all categories are on display at the Natural History Museum in London until May 28th; if past history holds, this year’s winners will be announced in October.

In a somewhat controversial decision — controversial to the outside world, that is, as the jury vote was unanimous, a first in the 50-year history of the WPOTY awards — the grand prize went to Getty Images photojournalist Brent Stirton for his gripping, tragic image of a slaughtered rhino. 

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Stirton’s background is hard news, not wildlife per se. After decades of covering conflict zones throughout his home continent of Africa — he cut his teeth photographing the anti-apartheid struggle in his native South Africa, before moving on to cover that country’s devastating HIV/AIDS crisis —  he says he had an epiphany 10 years ago, in 2017, after photographing DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) park rangers dragging a dead mountain gorilla out of the Virunga National Park rainforest, using makeshift ropes and heavy wooden beams. 

Stirton had just enough time to take three frames before he had to leave, because, as he told The Guardian in Oct., 2015, “The army were looking for me.”

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Stirton vowed then and there to become a lifelong crusader for the environment, using what he knows best to document the plight of endangered species, ecosystems and vanishing cultures throughout the developing world.

The People’s Choice award, by definition, is a vote by the people, and all that that implies.

It’s unlikely a picture of a dead rhino with its horn unceremoniously sawed off with a chainsaw would make the final cut for the People’s Choice Award, even if the finalists were chosen by a judging panel first and then submitted to the general public for a vote.

Even so, it’s hard not to look at the finalists’ images — a handful of which appear below — and not view them through the prism of what’s happening right now in the world’s few remaining wild places. It’s tough to see an image of a mother polar bear huddling over her newborn cubs and not realize that, within 20 years, polar bears may vanish entirely, owing to the catastrophic — and accelerating — ice melt in the northern polar regions.

Big cats often make for dramatic photographs, but again it’s hard to see a picture of a tiger today and not be reminded  that it was the apex predators — the sabre-toothed cat, a remnant of the Pleistocene epoch for some 42 million years before dying out just 11,000 years ago, or the “super croc,” Sarcosuchus, an early ancestor of the crocodile, some 12 metres (39 feet) in length — that perished in the end, leaving their legacy to their smaller, more adaptable successors.

The difference now, of course, is that much of what’s happening is caused by human hands, and humans alone have the power to make a difference. Conservation photography is part of that.

This is not new. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was famously so moved by Carleton Watkins’ stereographic illuminations of Yosemite, on the other side of the American continent, that he signed into law a bill declaring Yosemite Valley to be inviolable. Theodore Roosevelt enacted further protections in 1908, at the urging of his naturalist friend John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Yosemite played a key role in Woodrow Wilson establishing the U.S. National Park Service in 1916.

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Today, photographers who document the beauty and wonder of the natural world have an added responsibility — wanted or not — to shine a new, white-hot light on the crisis facing the planet today, whether it’s something as simple and life-affirming as a sloth hanging out in the rainforests of Brazil, or as complex and hard-to-take as the bloodied hand of a poacher handling an elephant tusk in Central Africa.

Both have a story to tell. They are different, and yet tragically connected. It’s good that people know that.

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THIS JUST IN — Jo-Anne McArthur's "Pikin and Appolinaire" has been declared the People's Choice. Word broke late last night from the UK.

A strong image from a strong field, and well-deserving of the recognition. The conservation message is profound, no?

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