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 in this very competition, 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 .


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The forest for the trees, and the trees for the tractors

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There are obviously a huge number of concerns which face our planet. Some are global and imminent, others are local and long-term. However, appealing to the lowest common denominator of our concerns (so-called behemoth problems) is a sure way to skirt important, and relevant issues, which one might be able to address in a much more substantive matter than the larger, more encompassing issues. Logging around Harrison hot springs, British Columbia, Canada.

“Climate change, habitat loss, poaching these are the important issues, so why do you choose to focus on these small-scale ethical breaches and turn on fellow photographers? Cant’ you see the good they’re doing? Do you want to be responsible for damaging their reputation, and consequently the conservation cause? Did you have to be so public, so aggressive, so vociferous in your accusations? What have you done in comparison?”

These are some of the arguments which have come up in response to one of my recent postings with respect to abuses which I observed by tour leaders at Tropical Herping during one of their tours at Sani lodge. Now, it’s important to answer these questions, or at least address the sentiment behind them, because photography is an image-based industry. So what happens when consumer and viewer confidence in those images is eroded? This is to my mind a foundational problem which can undermine the legitimacy of all wildlife photographers, and the causes into which they have become assimilated. Belittling or avoiding the problem is a sure way to continue along an ultimately self-destructive path.

The line of adversarial questioning I led with, cycles through a series of argumentative techniques which do nothing to address the original questions and concerns raised, and seem to either justify or downplay the abuse, in exchange for emotional points scored, and a kind of consequentialism (the moral basis for right and wrong is based solely on the ultimate outcome, rather than one’s actual conduct ie. the ends justify the means). This isn’t to say that they aren’t valid questions, but they fall outside the realm of the discourse on abuse. Most of these arguments are common forms of argumentative denial, or avoidance, and have even been given their proper expressions within the field of dialectics (the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions). A great illustration of argumentative merit, is exemplified by Paul Graham’s ‘hierarchy of disagreement’*.


The computer scientist Paul Graham has come up with a ‘hierarchy of disagreement’ which illustrates clearly the progression from convincing disagreement, to the lowest form of argumentative response. Diagram from Wikipedia.

Even at the upper levels of discourse, exemplified by refutation and counterargument, there are still opposing arguments which don’t address the central tenet or thesis of the author, but appear to shore up the credibility of the opponent by offering the guise of a reasoned response. These wayward opposing arguments aren’t always intentional, as an opponent to the argument may have missed the point being made, or else might not have a problem with the central point, but rather supporting or peripheral points. Several of these arguments are common enough that they have their own, rather evocative names:

The Strawman argument – Refuting an argument other than the one which was originally presented as a substitute for dealing with the original argument. The greater the semblance of the two arguments, the higher the likelihood of convincing one’s audience.

Red herring argument – A diversionary argument constructed in order to divert attention away from the original argument.

While on the surface these arguments might appear to have some validity, when de-constructed, one can begin to see the cracks or logical fallacies. Eg. A lawyer argues in a courtroom, “Yes your honour, my client may have robbed a convenience store, but he did so in order to feed the hungry”. In both cases, there’s an attempt at legitimization of wrongs through a self-ascribed nobility of purpose, despite the fact that the means for achieving the result is in contravention to either the law or ethical norms. Moreover, the wrongful action creates a domino effect of potential damaging outcomes, all of which the thief of the example, would ultimately be responsible for (What if the cashier had a gun and defended the store? What if a bystander had a concealed weapon? Any consequence has the client as its root).  Applied to wildlife photography, small-scale abuses can 1) Create and/or perpetuate a culture or normalization of abuse 2) Erode one’s own respect for wildlife, and those of impressionable witnesses (especially where one’s position of status, academic or otherwise, confers a degree of authority) 3) Over time, small abuses can increase in frequency and degree of severity ie. desensitization 4) It can encourage others who do not have the same context, understanding or training to engage in similar behaviours with potentially even greater consequences 5) Create an atmosphere of distrust between the viewer and the photographer. This extends not only to the abuser’s own base of followers, but as a kind of general disenfranchisement towards everyone in the industry, thereby affecting one’s fellow photographers, and destabilizing the industry as a whole. 6) Complicity through silence, inaction, and avoidance degrades the moral fabric of institutions, and those who are stewards and ambassadors for wildlife. People whose very function is the protection of those animals, are forced to live with guilt (regardless of the size and scale of the abuse) for being put into a situation  of sinful omission to the public, by the abusers (an excellent NYtimes article on the complexities of complicity). 7) Small abuses can have larger, unintended consequences. Eg. White background photography has its merits, but it is particularly prone to abuse. I had mentioned earlier Tropical Herping’s ‘Assembly-lining’ of collected subjects (to be fair, this poor practice is common amongst herpetologists, as well as most photographers using this methodology, I myself assembly-lined arthropods to increase efficiency). Quickly cycling through these collected subjects is the most efficient means of shooting white backgrounds. However, imagine a scenario in which an amphibian infected with chytridiomycosis is placed on the white board (or ‘waiting area’ like a plastic bag/pen/etc…) and is then exchanged soon after with another amphibian, and then another, all within a relatively short period of time. One may have unintentionally contributed to the spread of an extremely virulent pathogen, proven responsible for amphibian declines worldwide, and in this case, may have introduced the disease into additional populations, and locations. This is a hypothetical to be sure, but a plausible one, and certainly deserving of consideration.

I hope that I’ve managed to convey why it’s important to confront abusive behaviours in wildlife photography, which can carry unintended consequences, and harm more than just the wildlife, but also bystanders in the industry, not to mention the very cause for which the abusers supposedly stand. Since I have used Tropical Herping as an example of the symptoms of the the systemic problems within the industry, I think that it’s fair at this point, to indicate some of the genuine good which they do, which their advocates rightly laud.

Firstly, their research represents important contributions to the body of scientific knowledge as a whole, but also buttresses conservation efforts. By helping to provide scientific evidence for the creation and maintenance of protected areas, especially those which are particularly vulnerable, like Ecuador’s Pacific coastal rainforests, they are an active advocate for conservation, and the money they are able to raise has real, concrete benefits and results.

Their posters and books provide beautiful images which not only serve to engage the public, but also to inform and inspire perhaps a younger and more responsible generation, and galvanize them into the field of conservation. Their guidebooks represent some of the clearest, cleanest representations I’ve seen, and are undoubtedly helpful for professionals, and amateurs alike.

It gives me great pleasure to enthusiastically endorse these positive elements of their business, nevertheless, I can’t allow these very positive, and encouraging achievements to blind me to the very real, and troubling problems with their business model. I am heartened to hear that many of their friends haven’t experienced the same problems that I have, and hope that that’s an indicator that what I witnessed was an exception. But as I have mentioned before, these abuses are symptoms of a larger, systemic, industry-wide problem. Look no further than the recent disqualification announcement of Marcio Cabral, who used a taxidermy specimen in his wildlife photographer of the year (category winner) and Asferico competition winning entry. The full article can be accessed HERE. This now represents two winning and then subsequently disqualified entries into the most prestigious wildlife competition in the world (the first being the notorious ‘loan wolf’ 2009 grand prize winner Jose Luis Rodriguez, whose use of a tame subject violated competition rules). Both contestants have denied the allegations, but regardless, have been stripped of their prizes following an investigation by the competition committee. One has to ask oneself, if these elaborate deceptions are making it to the upper echelons of prestigious competitions, then just how many are circulating amongst us, in an environment which demands no accountability, and rewards a man-made concept of beauty, masquerading as natural?


Maybe a better, more promising future can be built, if we allow ourselves to stop pretending that we live somewhere over the rainbow, and look at the reality underfoot. Logging around Slate lake, British Columbia, Canada.

*Thanks to Gil Wizen for putting me on the track of Graham’s hierarchy of Disagreement.

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