Another Sad Story…

Discredited Lynx Photo by Terje Helleso

Can you see the cat at the bottom of this photo?  It is purported to be a wild European Lynx, shot through forest vegetation that gives the image a sense of mystery - entirely appropriate for such a secretive, rarely-seen animal.  The only trouble is that this picture - which won the "Swedish Wildlife Photographer of the Year" award for Terje Helleso - has been shown to be a fake, a composite of a landscape and a stock photo of a captive cat.

To learn more, go here.

This comes less than two years after a similar scandal rocked the prestigious BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in the UK. (In that case, the winning photographer tried to pass off a captive and baited wolf as a wild one) Details here.

What is surprising is not that people continue to fake pictures like this, further eroding the value of genuine, hard-won wildlife photography. What I find surprising is that in both cases, the photographer did it in such high-profile, highly-scrutinized venues, and almost got away with it.

This is not just a comment on the challenge of recognizing fakes in this Universe of Photoshop, but that the pressure to rise above the competition, to out-shoot your peers, makes this kind of behavior almost inevitable.

In an article I wrote for the BBC a few years ago, I expressed the fear that we were in danger of losing the "Wow" factor in photography, the sense of delight and astonishment that comes from a genuinely remarkable picture. Whether it is the use of trained animals, dishonest composites, or the wild exaggeration and over-saturation becoming so commonplace in much current landscape photography, we are in real danger of squandering what makes photography worthwhile, it's ability to inspire real, genuine wonder.   I find that terribly sad.


    What I find so troubling is that the photographer, and I suspect all who do this (luckily still a minority I like to think), was so blatant with the manipulation and just thought he could get away with it and did not think anyone could figure it out (I know, obvious right?). Hubris! If not for an extremely sharp person with knowledge of that cat, he very well could have gotten away with it. I just don’t get that attitude and, as mentioned above, casts such a bad light on all the others who are true to their photographs and profession. The trust we have in photos just diminishes every time this occurs and that is such a shame. There is nothing acceptable about doing this, unless it is CLEARLY mentioned and entered into the “Digitally Manipulated” category, which actually should probably not be a category in a wildlife photography convention. Those who buy photos from these photographers should stop so that the message gets out that it is not acceptable to do this.

    Hi Rebecca, Thanks for your comment. I think you are right, there is a difference between capturing and creating. Both are valid in their own place, but there should be a careful, and honest, boundary between the two, as Steve says. The problem is, that boundary is still poorly-defined, even though it threatens to diminish the power of ALL photography..

    Having read the blog that exposed Helles??, it struck me that he was fiercly defended by Tellus Wildlife photographers. They were deaf to arguments that he pasted Raccoons that did not exist in the Sweedish fauna, that it was strange that an unedited picture for a 6 MB camera rendered 8 MB files, that he only shot JPG and never RAW, that the winning shots were always single shots and never sequences, that the Lynx had winter habit in June etc. It was only after the original pictures where found that the pro Wildlife photographers relented and accepted the fraud.


    Thank you for your comments. Yes, it is strange that many people did not question pictures that, in retrospect, seem almost ridiculous. Perhaps we all share a desire to believe what we are seeing, especially if it is striking or different. But as I have said, if we are tricked too many times, we won’t believe anything anymore.

    Yes it’s a shame things like this happen. But has anyone noticed just how much photography is going on in this new age of digital? I am not making excuses for anyone who cheats, but at some point, won’t it be difficult for talented photographers to stand out? Too much attention is paid to those who win “contests”, and not enough to the rest, because there are entirely too many. It’s just too easy to take photographs today. So in order to place highly in a contest, the shot has to be very unusual…to create a sense of “wonder”. That is, assuming the judging is done fairly. Much like the fine art world, it really all comes down to the subjective opinion of the judge…whether it is by their peers, or a few judges on a panel. What you like might not be what I like. Different subject matter appeals to different people. So those in the position to make judgments, pick the winners. It’s all just one big beauty contest. The longer it goes on, and the more people participate, the more mundane it will all seem. Makes me wonder what photography will be like ten years from now. It just feels strange to be enthusiastic about something that billions of other people are doing, and more every day. As creative individuals we all want to be unique, and yet also accepted by a wide audience. It’s certainly almost encouraging people to cheat, or to befriend the judges.

    Hi Carl, Thanks for commenting. There are a lot of issues in your post : contests, cheating and the future of photography! I agree that judging is a very subjective process: I have judged several competitions myself (BBC, Valley Land Fund etc.) and find that every judge brings his or her own experience and bias to the process. (Have you ever looked at a set of contest winners and just scratched your head – wondering what the judges were thinking? I think we all have). But your larger point is whether the competition to rise above the flood of images is pushing people to cheat, whether it is by “enhancement” or, as in this case, outright fraud. Yes, I think as we are inundated by pictures, especially of familiar icons, we are always hungry for something new and different. That’s getting harder and harder to do, frankly. I, too, wonder where nature photography will be in ten years. I suspect we will be awash in gorgeous sunsets, perfect star trails, and and a steady stream of silky waterfalls – and none of it will impress anyone anymore. Or maybe – just maybe – people will discover new, unfamiliar locations or simply new ways of seeing that remind us why we loved photography in the first place. Let’s hope so!

    Mr. Schafer, thank you for replying to my comment! It is an honor and privelige to converse with you here. I suppose I did stray to a broader topic in my comments. But I especially appreciate your thought and insight into my comment about the future of nature photography. As someone who began submitting images to OP this year, I feel the future is already here…especially from the perspective of landscape shots alone. “Nature Photographer” seems to be more oriented towards wildlife, and submitting to them is a bit more costly, daunting task, and likely even more difficult to compete with much of the work included, in my opinion. I don’t own a supertelephoto yet. So on that score, OP seems a more fair, democratic proposition.

    But frankly, the people who seem to win, or get the cover…are usually people who visit the national parks often, especially those in the western US. It’s hard to make a shot of a location that is as beautiful and compelling as Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, Glacier National Park…the Oregon coastline…or Crater Lake. (Mark Adamus’ cover shot really got me interested in digital photography, about 4 years ago. I don’t see his work in this magazine anymore, however. Incidentally, I saw an image of a bay on the Greenland coast in National Geographic about a year ago, and have had trouble finding it again. Would like a print of it. I emailed them with no response. I forget who the photographer was.)

    Anyhow, I feel it is fairly easy to capture a beautiful wide angle shot of a beautiful place. It doesn’t take skill or much creativity…just a wide angle lens, possibly a tripod, and the desire to shoot in late day, night time, or early morning. The only thing special about the photographer is that they have the opportunity to visit such a place, and that they dress warmly, or otherwise brave insects. Not to trivialize their effort too much, but I suppose they do have to camp out or hike long distances sometimes. This doesn’t make them better at photography than anyone else, does it? Perhaps the are more diligent at times, or sometimes just lucky. But places like Alaska, Africa, or especially Borneo or similar remote islands…are more wild, remote and hostile places, so I have vastly more respect for those who journey to, and brave that wilderness to do photography.

    You mention locations that haven’t been seen before. The problem with those is, the person making the value judgment expects it to blow him or her away, and if it doesn’t look better than Half Dome, it escapes notice…no matter how interesting the sky, flowers, trees, or wildlife may be. Or perhaps they expect their readership to not be interested unless the picture is taken in one of the better parks?

    Not that I am a world traveler, but I suppose the primary under-photographed locations of today, are mountainous areas lying in the Andes, New Zealand, Scandinavia, and possibly Russia. Then after those are fully plumbed, the only place left is Antarctica??_until we journey to Mars, anyway. There?۪s a big mountain there, but it?۪s mostly just like four red Everests stacked on top of each other. It will look ho-hum after a while, there isn?۪t even any waterfalls or wildlife, or trees!

    I live in Tennessee, and while there are lots of beautiful shots of the Smoky Mountains published most anywhere, I don’t recall seeing one on the cover of Outdoor Photographer (I could be wrong). Perhaps it’s because this park is the most visited in the country, and people are tired of looking at it? There is a beautiful mountain and river gorge west of where I live, overlooking a city, which isn’t even in the Smokies. It can be especially nice with fall foliage, but alas it is only 2000 feet tall, and doesn’t look as distinctive as most of the Rocky Mtns do…let alone Alaska, Nepal, Mt. Kilimanjaro, or other places outside the USA. So I suppose, until there is an outdoor photography magazine meant only for my area, I will have little chance of making a cover or winning a contest, it seems to me. Should I just give up on this area and focus my photography on other places? There is a bit of a condescension and even a stigma towards people in the southern US, from the rest of the country, that will probably never die. That might even spill over to the look of the landscape here, I don’t know.

    But that is likely a topic for a different place, so for that I apologize for complaining! I appreciate your time, and anyone else who has read me here! Keep up the great work, Mr. Schafer! I wish I had a good solution for the problem of fraud in photography. But like in one of my history courses in college years ago??_we learned that before there were elevators, people didn?۪t die in them. Were they a bad invention? Technology can and will run amok at some point. In time, we got over the need to pull over to the side of the road in motor cars, to avoid scaring the horses. Surely some new solution will arise. I hope it?۪s one that is good for photography!

    Hey Carl,
    Wow, you cover a lot of ground in your comments! A couple of quick thoughts: yes, there is a bias in the publishing field (calendars, greeting cards and photo magazines) for drama and color. No surprise there, and if we tend to see the familiar locations – Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion – that’s because they are places with great light, color and spectacular landscapes. Yes, the Smokies are more challenging – most of the images I’ve enjoyed from there (or taken myself) were of details : flowers, water and rock. But there are plenty of great pictures hidden in there – I hate to think it’s all been done!

    I don’t agree, however, that being a good photographer is just about “being there,” as you seem to suggest. The best images bring something special to the table – an unexpected angle, a spot of brilliant light, a telling moment. That ain’t easy. And it is particularly hard when confronted with an icon like, say, Half Dome.
    Postcards are easy, creative vision is hard. You can put fifty random people with cameras in front of a great sunset, and I would be surprised if you got one really exciting picture out of the event. That takes a lot of experience, mastery of your equipment, and a sense of design.
    Wow, I could on and on like this. But hey, keep at it, analyze the pictures that move you (like the mystery shot from Greenland?) and figure out why. That will take you a long way toward developing your own style.

    Take care, Kevin

    Kevin, your insight and wisdom are much appreciated and enlightening! I certainly will keep at it! Yes, the Greenland photo was a bit emotionally stirring. Figuring out why might be as hard as defining love, or something! But like I said before, someone else might not even give it a second glance. I do enjoy focusing in on smaller elements in landscape, but those sorts of shots don’t win landscape contests very often; the preference being wide angle, large scale shots. Your comment about 50 photographers in front of a sunset, reminds me of one last year where I was in a park, and some sort of instructor had brought his adult students to take pictures. They were all trying to get some orange leaves on a tree that were backlit by the sunset’s glow. He was saying “don’t get the sky in the shot or it will be blown out”. Obviously he didn’t like sunsets much either, haha. They were using tripods, and the priciest camera was a D700. I stood behind them with my camera only handheld, and got some great shots of the sunset included with the tree, and was able to produce images that showed both very well without the sky being blown out. At some point, I think formal education does this sort of cookie cutter instruction in many fields besides photography, and thus inhibits one’s ability to think creatively and to find new ground. If you put 50 chimpanzees in front of a sunset, will any of them produce a “gallery shot”? Not if all the cameras are set to jpeg, and one chimp leads all the others in the same, mundane direction! The funniest part was, when the instructor said “ok let’s go, we’re out of here”…it was like the bell ringing in elementary school or something. These people left cameras mounted on tripods, and rushed to throw them all PILED on each other into the rear of the SUV. As if they were so much dirty shovels after a long day’s ditch digging! I can’t imagine doing that to a tripod, let alone a camera. Obviously people like this don’t know the value of equipment, likely having had it given to them as a gift by someone. I don’t treat pocket cameras like that, let alone my SLR! And there is certainly an argument to be made about the declining value of higher education! Maybe there is a general moral decline going on that also encourages people to cheat? If you don’t respect $6000 worth of camera, lens and tripod, what do you value in life? I can only speculate.

    Not only the manipulation of photos, but destruction of wildlife habitat. I agree! People will do anything for the shot. And they will cross over the line by manipulating a photograph. But the line must be drawn by the competition judges. Or maybe offering two different submittal options.

    I also know photographers who mislead people astray so no one finds where they are shooting, and also photographers who pretend to be your great friends so that they can be a part of your shooting, even though you have worked very hard to find the wildlife. They don’t want to work hard! They want your ashots!! 😉 There are no scruples or ethics with these people. It’s all about GETTING the shot. It’s too competitive for me. I want to enjoy it all, along with the peace of nature.

    And there are alot of good guides, but many feel the pressure to compete, and stoop to baiting for their success. I guess this isn’t all new, but I pretty much know when somethings been bated, but photography judges do not.

    And with all the over manipulation and saturation of photos, a normal beautiful landscape just doesn’t cut it anymore. Maybe all of the “over-do’s” will calm down some day, and judges can get back to quality of the moment captured.

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