Page One: The year of the ‘scandal’
Renowned wildlife photographer Andy Rouse gives his view on the implications of today’s decision to disqualify the winner of the 2009 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition
2009 will be remembered as the year of scandal. First we had our dearly beloved MP?s claiming expenses for duck houses and now even that is being overshadowed by what appears to be the biggest scandal to ever hit the world of wildlife photography.
A Spanish professional photographer seems to have been caught red-handed amid accusations that he cheated to win the most prestigious wildlife photography competition in the world.
This year?s winner of the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, Jose Luis Rodriguez, stands accused of being a fraud, taking an image in captivity and then reporting it to be wild.
He denies the accusation.
The apparent whistleblowers were other Spanish nature photographers concerned at the damage this image would do to their honest reputations.
The Natural History Museum had no choice but to strip the photographer of the award.
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. I heard that the photographer explained everything at the Wild Photos conference and so naturally, like everyone else, I believed him.
Others had their own suspicions, though, and quietly began to gather evidence on the ground in Spain.
Wolf lives in a ‘zoo’
It turns out that the wolf is probably a well-known individual called Ossian from a zoo called Canada Real near Madrid. The facial markings are identical except for a small discrepancy with one ear that could have been attributed to a later fight.
The most compelling evidence, though, comes from the wall and gate over which the wolf is jumping. An identical wall, and more tellingly the strangely shaped tree, can be found in the grounds of the Canada Real zoo where the wolf called Ossian lives.
The photographic evidence seems irrefutable and I find it incredibly arrogant (or naive) that the photographer would not expect everyone to scrutinise such an incredible image. In short it appears to be a trained wolf jumping over a gate in its enclosure!
Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking images of captive animals, and one (of a gorilla) has actually won the competition before. The difference is that the wolf image was entered as a wild image, not one taken in captivity, and the rules of the competition state that no wildlife models (trained animals) can be used.
Now I have to stand up and say that I have good reason to be furious here. I?ve got some stonking tiger pictures. Had I entered them in this year?s WPOTY I am sure that they would have done very well indeed and on a good day might have won.
Charging full speed at the camera, they are incredibly powerful shots and look totally wild. They are perfect tiger shots, except for one thing: they are shot in captivity. My clients and agents do not mind (as they know about it), but I could not even for a second think of entering them in the WPOTY. In fact, it has never entered my mind.
This year I entered two great wild shots of tigers, both of which received Highly Commended awards. I wonder what they would have received had this wolf not been entered.
Picture: Spanish photographer José Luis Rodriguez had entered a photo of an ‘Iberian wolf’ jumping over a gate, shown here in Amateur Photographer‘s report of the results published last autumn
Page Two: Damaged reputations
The fallout from this scandal will continue for a long time and will ultimately affect the photographer, the competition and the reputation of wildlife photographers in general.
Controversy aside, you cannot deny the technical skill that it took to capture the image, and it is a shame that this technical skill will now be lost to the world.
The competition will suffer greatly, both in the eyes of the public and the sponsors, and there is no doubt that its reputation will be tarnished. To be fair to the competition judges, though, they are not at fault here; they merely picked the image, on ?aesthetic? grounds, that they thought was the rightful winner.
I know from talking to them that they also had suspicions about the image during the judging and sought reassurance from the photographer.
One thing that is for sure is that next year?s winner will have to be damn good and damn straight as the reputation of the competition depends on it.
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.
For us, wildlife photography is a passion from the heart and a desire to spend more time at one with nature. Let?s try to remember that and hope that this whole sorry episode was an exception, and not the start of a trend.