The Fraudulent Chicanery of the Professional Wildlife Photographer

Josh Clark

A Norwegian wildlife photographer living and working in Sweden has had a rough few weeks, though deservedly. The photog, Terje Helleso, was cold busted using Photoshop to doctor his photos. Apparently, he would shoot an exotic locale to use as a backdrop and cut and pasted images of lynxes he grabbed from stock photo websites. Were Helleso just some photographer, this would be a big deal, tantamount to a writer from the Toledo Blade blatantly plagiarizing another reporter's work. But Helleso is not just some photographer. He is the 2010 Swedish Photographer of the Year and a part of a program to document the plight of the lynx in Sweden to better protect it. This makes this a HUGE deal, which is why a photography website Flashback.org created a site dedicated to documenting evidence of Helleso's fraud.

The photographer's ignorance of his subjects was his downfall. Questions about Hellese were first raised by a hunter who spotted one of the photos of a lynx shown in the summer but sporting its winter coat. I don't know if you know much about the fluctuations in the density and appearance of the coats of lynxes, but the scene depicted in Helleso's photograph was unusual and strange enough to root him out as a fraud. Within a couple weeks, Flashback.org was on board against him and on September 3, Helleso fessed up. Large chunks of his career, he admitted were fraudulent.

While contrite, he also said, "I'm surprised I got away with it for so long," and mentioned that he defrauded everyone, including his wife, reports the Daily Mail in an hilariously-titled article on the subject, "Missing Lynx," which informed most of the first part of this post.

While flagrant, Helleso isn't alone in his fraud. Last year, Utne Reader reprinted an article originally published in Audubon magazine. This is not the fraud part; Utne gets permission for such things. Instead, the article itself chronicled a trend among wildlife photographers of capturing amazing photos of majestic beasts in their wild habitats, that are actually not in their wild habitats at all. The animals shown are, instead, models, often tame ones, who are rented by wildlife photographers who aren't interested in waiting in the cold snow or muggy jungle for hours and days on end to do their jobs.

Before you foolishly demand the money paid for your subscription to National Geographic magazine be refunded to you, you should know that while there are plenty of instances where the image you're seeing is fraudulent, using wildlife models is subject to professional scorn. Being a reputable establishment, National Geographic won't accept these game-farm photos, nor does Audubon. And Smithsonian will, on occasion, but they will include that information in the photo caption so suckers like you can't get your money back if you try.

Where you will find these photos are on places like that wildlife calendar you prize and whose unnamed photographers' heroics you admire every weekday when you encounter it in your cubicle. But these photographers are all unnamed because they are frauds and you can't take your calendar back and demand your money be returned because you bought it at a Borders and they don't exist anymore.