The night raider (Marcio Cabral)
Blog Words : Paul Goldstein | 02 May

Wildlife Photographer of the Year? Get stuffed!

Travel guide, presenter, and award-winning wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein gives his unalloyed views on the recent BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year scandal

A few years ago, the hallowed halls of the Natural History Museum’s BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition were graced with a stupendous image of a Siberian tiger. The photographer had kept lonely vigil in a hide, braving dangerously low temperatures for several months. Finally, one of these desperately endangered predators padded over the snow and across his viewfinder. He took four images before it melted away into the tundra. He won a major award in this prestigious competition. Not only did the photograph have an absurd degree of difficulty and hardship associated to it (critical tenets of any wildlife judging) it was also inescapably wild. I still think of it and have nothing but praise for the enterprising, diligent and stoical photographer.

Last week it turned out that this year’s winner of the ‘animals in their environment’ category (probably the largest) was not what it seemed. The facts: the image was a remarkable night-time one of a termite mound dotted with illuminated ants. There was also a giant anteater poised ready to plunder its dinner. Even more remarkably the image was a half-minute exposure and the mammal was tack sharp. Absurdly no-one smelt any funny ‘stuff’ going on?

It later construed that the anteater had had a stretch at the local taxidermist and was then housed at the gate. Voices of both science and natural history have corroborated this and despite the photographer’s increasingly cloying pleas of innocence, he has had his award rescinded, thus denying the second place the acclaim and recognition this prize brings.

Anteater specimen (Natural History Museum)

Anteater specimen (Natural History Museum)

This competition has form here, unsurprising for one that attracts so many entries, but they are not out of the dock as several years ago they had eggs splattered all over their Bristol faces when the incredible jumping Iberian wolf was found out to be a tame one.

Now just as the humblest student of photography and zoology might work out that a nocturnal anteater is unlikely to stay rigid for half a minute on the threshold of a fertile larder, so most callow lupists might realise that a wolf would surely walk under the gate than leap over it. The kindergarten forensic team the competition employ may need an upgrade and this competition is financially successful enough to warrant it.

Rosamund Kidman Cox’s robust defence of their decision is warranted, but a more gravelling apology would go a lot further in assuaging the outrage of the millions of photographers who would no sooner manufacture an image than would shoplift. It is similar or worse.

The winner of this year’s competition described this scandal as ‘optimistic at best and arrogant at worst’, he was wrong with this lukewarm criticism which does him or the competition no favours! It is arrogant at best and fraudulent at worst. This is an infectious malaise not confined to competitions and finds its roots with less malignant symptoms. Cloning undesirables out of images during processing and keeping quiet about it is related although on a lesser scale as is most extreme Photoshop measures.

Unfortunately, these dubious practices are leavened by acres of pastures in bounteous photographic publications which now seem to view software skills more favourably than actual photographing. Surely the arts of field-craft, patience, imagination, graft and sensitivity are more important than geekish computer abilities. Shooting incarcerated animals and palming them off as wild is more cynical. Anyone seeing images of snow leopards in perfect detail with blue skies and fat bellies should not be fooled. I have seen these displayed in countless publications, sadly even in Ladakh, but all were taken in a bible-belt backwater Montana Menagerie where cats are wheeled out from unspeakable holding facilities to pose for unscrupulous apologies for wildlife photographers.

Disqualified image, titled 'The night raider' (Marcio Cabral)

Disqualified image, titled 'The night raider' (Marcio Cabral)

These cheats stagger me, I cannot understand how they sleep at night knowing the magnitude of their despicable deception. They seemingly feel that with the monstrous advances of digital photography that ethical codes can now be bent and in most cases broken. 'Everyone's doing it' is a common defence mantra. Drugged, caged or domestic animals are not wild, never will be. Nor are stuffed ones.

A true wildlife photographer accepts the hardship, welcomes it in fact, knowing that months of fallow time are necessary to get anywhere near the grail. The genuine exponent is also aware that that moment may never arrive but is prepared for this eventuality. It should never be about an image at any price nor should it be about gung-ho behaviour around their subject or flying ethically questionable drones over their quarry terrorizing them into providing ‘dramatic’ pictures. They don’t cheat, they don’t bend the lines and they don’t stuff animals. They also spend a lot of money in frequently developing countries that really need this income.

The photographer in question is still claiming innocence saying, spuriously, that a mate saw this animal and it had a pulse. He is kindly providing all his other RAW images which, understandably, are genuine yet none contain the now infamous interloper – anyone surprised?

I am glad he has been outed like the wolf man before him, but there are plenty of these charlatans and chancers out there who are utterly hijacked by their cameras and Instagram accounts and will do anything to augment them. Code of ethics? They couldn’t give a stuff.