March 17, 2010


Spanish photographer José Luis Rodriguez has been stripped of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year title by London's Museum of Natural History after the judges decided that his prize-winning photograph depicted a tame wolf called Ossian rather than a wild animal on its way to supper in a farmer's paddock. According to Chris Gomersall, a wildlife photographer involved in judging who was quoted by the Guardian, "In wildlife photography there are ethical guidelines and there has always been an explicit understanding that if you take pictures of a captive subject, you declare it on your caption". Rodriguez denies the allegations, but apparently other Spanish photographers have recognised the wolf, while animal behaviourists have suggested that a wild animal would be far more likely to squeeze between the bars of the gate than indulge in balletic leaps.

In retrospect, the photograph really does look too perfect, too dramatic, as though Gregory Crewdson and a cast of dozens had spent a week setting it up. Maybe the image's original title, "Storybook Wolf", should have set alarm bells ringing. But is this really a problem? It is, after all, an extremely striking image. And as art critic Jonathan Jones asked in his blog, "Is José Luis Rodriguez's use of a tame animal for his award-winning wildlife shot really so criminal? At least he didn't use Photoshop".

The answer, as ever in issues of photographic authenticity, is that it depends almost entirely on context. In the very specific context of wildlife photography, the image is a lie, because it breaches the explicit understanding between photographer and viewer that images will involve the minimum possible artifice; while it is understood that the photographic depiction of a wild animal by a human is even more vulnerable to distortion of all kinds than most forms of representation, deliberate fraud cannot be countenanced here any more than it is, or should be, in reportage. On the other hand, had Rodriguez exhibited his image in a gallery, he would almost certainly be gathering plaudits and critical acclaim. Time for a paradigm shift, or just a career move?

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