How to write a wrong

Due to the recent publicity surrounding Marcio Cabral’s disqualified WPOTY entry, and questions I’ve received asking, “How can I make a difference?”, I’ve decided to share an exchange I had with the Wildlife photographer of the year contest. I think that it’s never the wrong decision to make one’s concerns known, regardless of whether or not there is a follow-up and investigation into the claim. Simply voicing one’s unease with certain photos is an important part of maintaining the integrity of competitions, and wildlife photography as a whole. The burden of proof is typically higher than an online critic can provide, especially where the manipulations are subtle and inferred, based on experience and animal behaviour, nevertheless, it might at the very least provoke the committee to demand more from the competition entrant(s).

Initial Enquiry

“To the Wildlife Photographer of the year office,

As a biologist and wildlife photographer myself, I would like to know what standards are both expected, as well as vetted for, as pertains to ethics in an applicants’ submissions. I ask because a herpetologist will tell you that behaviours and positions of some submissions, and indeed, specifically the entry by XXXX (who has a checkered history of manipulation) are not natural, and are manipulated. This is aesthetics over ethics and deserves greater oversight.


Paul Bertner”


“Dear Paul,

Thank you very much for your email.

We would like to assure you that the WPY Competition has high regards for ethics and their importance comes before aesthetics.

Section 4 of the competition rules outlines what competition ethics entrants must comply with.

We appoint an expert jury that uphold our ethics and that usually detect a scene if they feel it has been manipulated in any way.  As with all images awarded, we interview the photographer, consult with competition judges and take expert advice from a team of scientists at the Natural History Museum to fully examine the images, the behaviour, the methods in its making and its accompanying information.

We certainly take your comments on-board and thank you again for getting in touch, we value your passion for ethical wildlife photography and appreciate your concerns for the competition.

Kind regards,
Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition office”

“To the Wildlife Photographer of the year office,
Thank you for your considered reply and the link to the pertinent contest guidelines.

I am sure that the jury is familiar with the case of the 2011 Nat. Geo. winner Shikei Goh whose winning photograph was found to be a deception. The winner in 2010 of the WPOTY, Jose Luis Rodriguez with his fox jumping over the gate being another unfortunate example. These photos can and do make it to the upper echelons of competitions which is why when I make an allegation such as this, it’s not made lightly. However, I’ve had first-hand experience in the field observing the unethical capture and manipulation by photographers who have been lauded by their peers, and whose manipulated photos have found their way into magazines and competitions alike. Credentials, reputation, and support for good causes I’ve learned are no judge of a person’s behaviour where individual animal welfare is concerned, especially at the cross-section between ethics and aesthetics. Although many of the competitions categories are based on a single photo entry, a look at XXXXXXX’s photos as an aggregate should at the very least be an indicator that there is certainly the possibility, if not the definitiveness of proof for manipulation in this case. Then one has to ask oneself to what extent promoting a photographer (even if their single photo entry is kosher) is not complicity to a system of endemic and systemic abuses. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I look at the rise of photographers like Bence Mate, a multiple award winner, whose photos tick the boxes of manipulation (and potential abuse) and can trace their rise, at least in part, to the publicity garnered from this very competition. I understand the need for impartiality and that there’s a certain burden of proof that must be met to judge either way, but moral probity is never the wrong choice in a community and in a competition which advocates ethical guidelines as one of their pillars. To offer the benefit of the doubt on a photo by photo basis (when the overwhelming proof, in the form of former and current conduct, outside the realm of the competition itself), is an invitation to those that would manipulate and game the system.

 Animal welfare should come first, always. The photographers that are highlighted in this competition are given a spotlight on the world stage, which can then either further support a photographer of dubious report, and legitimize them, or else be a beacon and and an example for other photographers. I follow up because assuaging and respectfully answering one’s concerns is one thing, but it’s another to actually treat the matter. For the continued integrity of the contest and in fairness to the other submissions, I do hope that there is indeed a follow-up.
Thanks for your time in replying, and addressing my concerns.
Best wishes,
Paul Bertner”
It’s important to realize that we are not bystanders, but can and should participate actively to maintain the integrity of our institutions. Otherwise, what we might be left with is a digitized, sensationalized landscape, perverted and then gawped at by pixel-peepers. A mirage which over-saturates our expectations, and the un-burnished natural world, masked, and painted over .