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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.