Keep it real! Wildlife Photographer of the Year title stripped

This will clearly be the year’s biggest photography news:

BBC News has confirmed that the winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award has been disqualified after judges ruled that the featured wolf was probably a “model”.

The 2009 winning image, dubbed the storybook wolf, was taken by photographer Jose Luis Rodriguez. Mr Rodriguez strongly denied that the wolf was a trained animal, according to a statement from the organisers.

His photograph was chosen out of more than 43,000 competition entries in October 2009.

Louise Emerson from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition office explained that the judging panel had been “reconvened” and had concluded that it was likely that the wolf featured in the image was an animal model that could be “hired for photographic purposes”.  This, she said, was in breach of the competition rules which are made available to all entrants.

“The judging panel looked at a range of evidence and took specialist advice from panel judges who have extensive experience of photographing wildlife including wolves,” continued Ms Emerson.

Wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine was one of the competition judges. He told BBC News that this was the first time in its 46 year history that there would not be a winner. Mr, Carwardine explained that he and his fellow judges had gathered evidence and sought the opinions of wolf experts in order to reach their decision.

The experts compared the winning picture to pictures of Ossian, a tame wolf that lives at a zoological park near Madrid called Canada Real. “You can see several very distinctive markings and the experts all agreed that, yes, it’s the same wolf,” said Mr Carwardine.

“We disqualified [Mr Rodriguez] and banned him for life from entering the competition again, so I think that sends a strong message.”

The disqualified photograph will be removed from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which is being held at the Natural History Museum in London. The exhibition tour will also take place without a winning image.

The annual competition is owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine.

The Image in Question - The Story Book Wolf

This is a really sad moment in photography, but not unexpected.  The world is changing rapidly, opening many options to the photographer.  In my area, many photographers visit a local wolf preserve, the Lakota Wolf Preserve to shoot.  There are similar parks and zoos for many species of animals.  I visited Lion Park in Johannesburg that offered many photo opportunities.  In Texas, I have heard that Fossil Rim is a place to shoot and, of course, the San Diego Wildlife Park is world famous.  Workshops are held at many of these places.  There is nothing wrong with shooting at these locations or at your local zoo.  I repeat … nothing wrong with it.

One can also create their own reality with photo post processing in Photoshop© or similar tools.  Some look very realistic.  There is nothing wrong with this either.  I repeat, there is nothing wrong with using tools to create photos.

There is something wrong with lying or cheating.  While I actually endorse some of the above methods for taking personal shots or creating art, I hate the idea that someone would use these type images to present as works they have taken in the wild.  If you enter competition play it straight.  Read the rules and obey them.

Beyond lying/cheating being just plain terrible attributes in a person, this behavior also undermines great work by folks that drive thousands of miles, get up before daylight on miserable days and endeavor seasickness day after day to try and get good shots.  As a photographer, I know how hard it is to get a real winner image.

Feedback on the discrediting of the ‘storybook wolf’ has been quick.  Here are a few selected comments by some famed photographers:

  • From Andy Biggs’ blog, TheGlobalPhotographer: As you may recall, I have had two winning images in the past few years in the competition. In 2008 I won the Landscape category with my aerial image of the Skeleton Coast off of the Namibian cost of Africa. The recent events really ticks me off, and I hope the photographer goes and crawls into a hole and never comes out. It puts all of us hardworking photographers that have morals into a position where we have to defend our images as people may suspect that they were taken in circumastances that are not so honorable.

Really pisses me off. Way to go, ‘winner’. You need a kick in the ass. Big time.

  • From Andy Rouse’s article at Amateur Photographer:  When I first saw the image I was amazed. To my knowledge no image has ever been taken like this of the Iberian Wolf. It is an incredibly rare and shy animal, avoiding human contact at all costs and highly suspicious due to years of persecution in its homeland.To get this close, to get the lighting so perfect and the timing so exquisite was just incredible and I was slightly in awe of the photographer. For me this kind of image of a wild wolf would be a dream, as I have only photographed wild wolves twice.As an incredibly experienced wildlife photographer I know what can and cannot be achieved. I therefore also had my suspicions that something was not right. I began to wonder why a wild wolf would jump over a gate, and why it would do it repeated times (enough for the photographer to see its tracks). My suspicions kept nagging at me. Thinking I was alone and that to raise my head above the parapet would get it shot off, I kept quiet.

But perhaps the greatest long-term damage is to wildlife photography itself. I am no angel and have learnt from the mistakes I made at the start of my career. Now I fully disclose everything.

As a professional photographer I act as a role model to amateur photographers, guiding them with ethics and conservation-minded photography. In my considered opinion it is the responsibility of all professional photographers to do this.

What message does this send to the photographic community? It seems to reflect a ‘win at all costs’ mentality that I have seen creeping into wildlife photography over the past few years, and this could encourage others to follow. For me these are very worrying times as ultimately it is photography, and its public reputation, that will suffer.

Our images will now face questions and doubt from the public, which is a shame for the vast proportion of amateur and professional wildlife photographers out there who will be as shocked as I am by this.

  • Bob Keefer of Keefer Photography: This is a sad state of affairs on so very many levels. But the weirdest thing is, the winning photograph is awful.  … Whether “real” or staged, it’s utterly cheesy, the kind of demented nature porn that has come to dominate the nature photography market around the world. Who cares if it’s a picture of Ossian? It’s boring, overwrought and melodramatic. . . . The judges knew this when they picked it, referring to its “fairy tale” qualities. The judges should be fired, both for choosing the photograph in the first place and then for their handling of the complaints about it.

This is just a small sampling.  I am sure a quick internet search will find many more comments.  I guess all I can advise, is to be honest.  If you enter a wildlife competition, keep it real.  Otherwise, you lower stature of all of your fellow photographers.

EDIT 14 MAR 2010 – Worth a read: recent article in Autobon Magazine on ‘model’ animals one can photography.

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