Above: Marcio Cabral's discredited-as-fake photo of an anteater feeding from a glowing termite mound at night in Brazil. Credit: Marcio Cabral.
Each year the Natural History Museum in London supports the Wildlife Photographer of the Year photography prizes-and-exhibition (£12.50 entrance for one adult). The agreed aim is to portray in a visually arresting manner, some aspect, or species, of the animal kingdom. The photos entered often tend towards typical National Geographic magazine style: corny (SOED: ridiculously old-fashioned; trite; banal; mawkishly sentimental), and hyper-aestheticized. The awards are the most prestigious in this branch of photography with "50,000 entries from professionals and amateurs across 92 countries."
For the 2017 awards, Brazilian photographer Marcio Cabral entered a photo into the Animals in their Environment section. The picture caught the judges attention and went on to win in that category. Cabral was informed, and the photo--titled The Night Raider--went on display in London on 20 October, 2017. The award-winning photo depicts one of the famous (UNESCO-recognized) glowing termite mounds of Emas National Park (in Brazil) at night with the glowing points-of-light emanating from the termite hill being echoed in the stars of the night sky above ("stunning"). To cap it all off, in Cabral's photo there is an anteater feeding from the termite mound in the foreground.
Soon after the photo exhibition opened, it was noticed that Cabral's anteater was astonishingly similar in every detail to a stuffed anteater that is on permanent display near one of the Park entrances. An extraordinary adjudicator panel was convened ("two mammal experts and a taxidermy specialist from the museum along with an external South American mammals expert, and an external anteater researcher"), and soon concluded: fake. The stuffed anteater from the entrance had been used in the photo.
Apart from Cabral's Night Raider being in the exact same bio-mechanical position as the stuffed one, there was also the matter of Cabral having only the one photo on his memory card--the anteater had darted off before he could capture a range of different pictures of it, he claimed. This treachery is definitely memorable for the intrinsically comical scene which must have led up to the deception proper: a middle-aged man moving slowly, furtively, at night, through woodland, hefting a two-metre-long taxidermied giant anteater, a pro-camera-bag, and a tripod.
For me, the photo as stone-cold authentic Nat Geog schmaltz is uninteresting (a photographer setting out to make a cliche, and succeeding, with the photo existing as evidence of a rather pointless exercise in banality). But, the photo as fraudulent, deceptive and fake becomes a compelling and inspired act of subversion. The photo and the photographer will be forever remembered (by me at least) for this seditionist act.
The WPY judges demand authenticity, which seems ironic, and amusingly paradoxical. Their requirement may be stated thus: "all submitted cliches must be truthful" or "your platitude must have integrity."
(4 May 2018)