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.
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.
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.
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.
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