Tamsin Constable

Wolf photo disqualified, a storybook scandal?

One of the captions that I drafted for the 2009 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition was that of the winning image – Storybook Wolf – by Spanish photographer José Luis Rodríguez. He beat more than 43,000 entrants to scoop the prestigious international award last October with this stunning image.

Wolf pic: real or stunt?

Wolf pic: real or stunt?

The Natural History Museum, which runs the competition in conjunction with BBC Worldwide, stripped Rodríguez of his title because it believes that the image, ‘Storybook Wolf’, a stunning, powerful and evocative image of a rare Iberian wolf leaping over a rustic farm gate, was probably not, as the photographer claimed, of a wild wolf.

It’s an animal model.

The judges had quizzed Rodriguez before awarding the prize, to check the authenticity of the photo, because the rules clearly state that “photographs of animal models may not be entered into the competition”.

You can read the Natural History Museum’s full statement here.

If the museum’s investigation is right (and Rodríguez denies any wrong-doing), the wolf isn’t a nervous, elusive creature roaming the Spanish wilds, not a flighty, persecuted echo of ancient fables that the photographer gently and patiently habituated with bait until it was close enough to photograph.

Oh no. It lives, they now think, in a zoo near Madrid. It’s even got a name: Ossian (which means ‘little gazelle’…) Ossian is hired out for photography and stunts. He looks suspiciously like the ‘wild’ wolf in the photograph. A location in the zoo looks very similar to the background in the winning image (minus the ‘rustic gate’ prop). The whole thing, the museum believes, was elaborately staged.

Here is part of the text that accompanied the image.

“…His chance came when he found a landowner who was happy to have both the wolves and José Luis on his property, and also had the ideal setting: a copse and an ancient, disused cattle corral. José Luis started by placing meat in the corral. Once he knew a male wolf was visiting regularly, jumping the gate, he began to introduce the bits of equipment needed to set up a camera trap. At first, the wolf didn’t like the flash triggered by the trip beam, but after a few weeks he took no notice of the light or the clicks of the hidden digital camera…”

Wildlife photographers, on the whole, are an ethical bunch. They tend to be passionate conservationists, deeply committed to green issues. Most of them want nothing more than to help spread the word about the environment through their craft – after all, the natural world is their livelihood. They’re good people. Thousands of them, every year, enter the competition and fully respect its rules.

So what to do? Get better at catching out those who try to catch it out? Tighten rules, introduce an atmosphere of suspicion, ask for ‘proof’, investigate statements? Or hope that most people will play fair, even if sometimes they don’t. The professional stakes are high for those who cheat – and get caught. Rodriguez, whatever the real story, is assured of a place in history as far as wildlife photography is concerned. The competition has also tightened up its rules.

So, for the first time in the competition’s 46- history, there is no 2009 winner. The Storybook Wolf image has now been removed from the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, as well as from all the travelling exhibitions.

It is, however, too late to edit it out of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year book. Which means that I have am in possession of a rare and valuable book…

What’s a story?

Remember the Wizard of Oz? What happens?

Answer 1: The events

Well, let’s think, there’s a girl in a gingham dress with a nasal voice called Dorothy, living in Kansas with her Aunt Em, and Toto her yappy ankle-biting dog. There’s a terrible tornado, and Dorothy, instead of getting flattened and putting us all out of our misery, gets whipped off up into the sky, and lands in a magical place called Oz. It’s dazzling and colourful and magical, and it frequently makes her raise her hands and ‘O’ her pouty lips in disbelief, flick her pigtails and skip. But Dorothy yearns desperately to go home. Dorothy is told that the only person who can help her is the Wizard of Oz, a local witch doctor/ fortune teller/ soothsayer/ medium/ homeopathist/ coach/ personal development guru. It’s a gruelling journey. Lots of scary things get in the way. When Dorothy finally finds him, the Wizard turns out to be all fluff and bluff. He tells her to that all she has to do is click her heels together. She does, and pops off back home to grey old Kansas and grey old Aunt Em.

Again: What happens to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz?

Answer 2: The story

Dorothy thought she needed others to solve her problem. She went on a learning journey. She discovered that she could solve it all by herself.

A story exists when something changes. It’s a powerful concept, and once you start looking, there are stories everywhere.