Does it matter that the viral snow leopard images are fake? Yes, and this is why

Nov 29, 2022

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

Does it matter that the viral snow leopard images are fake? Yes, and this is why

Nov 29, 2022

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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Does it matter that a young woman faked the viral snow leopard images that misled the world? Yes it does, this is why

I do love a bit of a storm in a teacup, especially when it gets the photography world a little bit ignited. This story definitely fits the bill, with salacious references to faking images, fabricating stories, misleading some of the world’s biggest publications, and even accusations of impersonation. Naturally, I am intrigued.

This last month, a photographer named Kittiya Pawlowski (Surely the name should have been a clue?) published some breathtaking images of a snow leopard wandering through the Himalayas. And not just any old Himalayas, but none other than Everest. Yes, one of the world’s rarest and most elusive large cats just happened to stroll in front of the lens of an otherwise unknown photographer in the world’s most remote location. It sounds too good to be true.

There’s a saying in the UK: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Nonetheless, several large media publications, such as The Times and our friends at PetaPixel, picked up the story and published the images. The photographs were accompanied by a lengthy and detailed account of how Kittiya trekked 103 miles through the mountains of Nepal in order to capture these images.

Does it matter that the viral snow leopard images are fake? Yes, and this is why

Clues in the snow

The story was well written and rather captured the imagination. If only it wasn’t just that: imagined. That’s according to French online magazine Alpine Mag at least. They smelled a rat early on and this week published a lengthy argument about why they thought that Pawlowski’s images were fakes.

Alpine Mag gives several reasons for this deduction. After studying various images of the Himalayas, they have allegedly found evidence of the mountains in the snow leopard images being composites. Their article gives several convincing pieces of evidence for this.

The images of the “American photographer” present strange lighting and collage effects that evoke photo-montages. Doubtful in front of this bundle of doubts, we analyzed his images.

– Alpine Mag

The second clue is from wildlife photographer and mountaineer Vincent Munier, who has himself spent years studying snow leopards. He commented to Alpine Mag, saying that “the incredible side to these photos jumped out at me right away.” Despite its name, the snow leopard is apparently not usually seen in snowy regions.

Mountaineers traversing the region for almost three decades have, for the most part never caught a glimpse of it,” states Alpine Mag. “Those who know wildlife photographers passionate about the snow leopard know how difficult the animal is to see.

Indeed, I’m brought back to remember some behind-the-scenes footage at the end of one episode of the BBC’s groundbreaking documentary Planet Earth. The filmmakers literally spent months living in a hut in India, tracking and waiting for a mere glimpse of the beast. They were rewarded with some beautiful footage, eventually. But the cameraman admits just how lucky they were, even with local guides, months of planning, and the use of camera traps, to capture that footage.

Who is Kittiya?

The final part of the puzzle is that of the American photographer herself. Now, if the Bond-girl name wasn’t enough to raise flags, then her social media accounts (which have since been suspended) possibly should have offered some clues. It’s the lack of images on them. There are just the few snow leopard images and a couple of portraits of the photographer on location in the Himalayas, both of which look slightly composited.

On Pawlowski’s website, she has links to images that have won awards or been runners-up in awards such as the Sienna Awards. However, the links to these images are somehow no longer there. There is, however, one beautiful underwater image apparently shot in Indonesia. However, now the veracity of that image is also called into question.

But really, does this all matter?

In a statement on Pawlowski’s website, she has received threats over the images, which of course we can never condone. In response she has removed her social media accounts and retreated, saying that “all my images are edited and processed in Photoshop and Lightroom. Some images are composites, some are not. Some are only lightly retouched. I am NOT a journalist. I never stated my images were not edited anywhere.” She has since apparently donated over $700 to the Snow Leopard Trust.

News and media from around the world stole my images and published them with their own meaning. They did not ask me if they were edited. They interpreted them in their own way and spread them around the world. They told their followers that they were not edited. This is untrue, I always edit my images.

– Kittiya Pawlowski

My opinion is that yes, it actually does matter, for several reasons. Firstly, there is a strong ethical code that should be adhered to with any sort of photojournalism. Pawlowski tries to avoid culpability by denying that these images are photojournalism, however, her ‘story’ implies otherwise. If that story is fiction and the images that accompany it an artistic impression, then that should be clearly stated.

And then we must consider intention. Authenticity is an overused buzz word today, and nothing really sells without a story. Even the supermarket granola cannot exist without relaying its origin story of how in 1947, Aunt Marge discovered that mixing cat litter with raisins actually tasted pretty darn good. It’s a marking ploy, but it can backfire when we discover that it’s just a smokescreen, designed to sell more things.

The blues singer/songwriter Seasick Steve found out the hard way a few years ago when it was revealed that his hard living on-the-road-ways were actually all made up, and he was a successful LA session musician. Because being a talented but vaguely boring studio musician for hire doesn’t sell. And neither does “I composited some images of mountains together and stuck a snow leopard in it for good measure”.

The actual plight of the snow leopard must also be taken into account. Fabricating a story of discovering one in the wrong habitat does none of those creatures a favor. They are a protected endangered species, and their habitat is under pressure from climate change and other human factors.

Wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen has campaigned for years for wildlife photographers to disclose whether the animals they are photographing are wild or in captivity. His main point is that as human forces encroach more onto wildlife and wild spaces, the need for depicting wild animals in their natural habitats becomes even more important.

How can we possibly appreciate the true beauty of something so fragile if we inherently understand it to be unreal? Why would we fight to preserve such a thing if we cannot acknowledge the reality of its existence?

Let’s take this angle to its extreme: “There’s no need to protect elephants in Africa because hey! I can create a beautiful image of an elephant using Dall-E. The elephants are fine, no cause for concern. Look, there are herds of them in the meta-verse!” This is certainly not the world I intend to leave to my children.

Now we cannot ignore the other elephant in the room, and that is the ease of image manipulation, AI, and deep fakes. We’ve reported recently about AI images winning art competitions, and of the potential for major disruption in the creative industries. Those are other very worthy discussions, but I do want to touch on the point that we are living in a world where we are bombarded with “alternative truths”. Can we not, for once, enjoy something real?

This is the reason why this story didn’t sit well with me. The Godfather of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, once said: “after having been in the reality that is manmade…to behold nature is directly beholding Aphrodite; it’s directly beholding a beauty that’s intense in a way that just could never have been perceived before.

And that is why it matters. You cannot pass off an artistic composite created at your computer and claim that it is a real living wild animal. Photography has long been both an art form and an agent for change, both in the human and natural world. Claiming that a composite image is real, further downgrades the value of photography.

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Alex Baker

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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20 responses to “Does it matter that the viral snow leopard images are fake? Yes, and this is why”

  1. Raphael Vieira Avatar
    Raphael Vieira

    100% agree with the author. Really nice article. Although I’m one of those “do everything in camera” type of guy, I love admiring the work of other photographers who are into photo montages and digital manipulation. But in this case there’s some huge red flags in the way this photographer omitted the truth and distorted the story she wrote about the expedition. Plus the ease of digital manipulation and now AI can really trivialize the experience of photography. You see that stunning landscape photo with gorgeous magical light and wonder if the photographer planned and waited for just the right moment to take his photo, sometimes visiting the location multiple times and waiting for hours, or if he just clicked a few buttons on photoshop to fake lightrays, change colors and distort reality.

  2. Davorin Palijan Avatar
    Davorin Palijan

    Havent seen the image, but here is a 10 second result from AI, with minimal prompt, no detailing at all. There are ramifications of new technologies that we will have to figure out.

  3. CC Wright Avatar
    CC Wright

    Excellent writeup. Thank you for the periodic reminder that the internet has a lot of fibbing in it lol.

  4. Petar Maksimovic Avatar
    Petar Maksimovic

    It doesn’t matter, because the whole thing seems like an elaborate scam. Actually not elaborate at all, my bet is it’s just some random bored designer dude that thought of a way to make some quick bucks. We don’t even know if this girl exists at all, let alone anything else…

  5. Antoine Hart Avatar
    Antoine Hart

    No one cares if the photos are a composite. I like seeing cool composites. The problem is saying that the photos aren’t a composite and claiming they are 100% real is the problem. Just be honest from jump

  6. Craig Pifer Avatar
    Craig Pifer

    These were so viral that the first I saw or heard of them is that they are fake. Pretty sure they are more viral now than ever.

    Frankly, with as many fake images floating around, I really don’t care how someone created their images if it made them and others happy.

  7. Alexander Levy Avatar
    Alexander Levy

    I didn’t know granola was part kitty litter. Now that’s some real news.

  8. John Nevill Avatar
    John Nevill

    The reality is if a scammer is prepared to present an image as real photography when it is a composite then who is to say they even took the original photos? If you’re prepared to mislead, or at least omit the truth, then there is no reason why you wouldn’t just steal someone else’s work to claim as your own.
    There is a world of difference between editing your own images for effect and deliberating creating something purely to mislead people.

  9. Lino Montuno Avatar
    Lino Montuno

    Of course.

  10. Tim Fuchs Avatar
    Tim Fuchs

    Cough cough, Peter Lik, cough cough…… see no one cares.

  11. Seeker for Truth Avatar
    Seeker for Truth

    “… My name is Kittiya Pawlowski. I’m a leisure time photographer mainly interested in landscapes and animals. So I went to Nepal and shot a couple backplates that I used for a montage with stock footage of a snow leopard. You can also buy prints from my homepage if you like. I’ll perhaps even donate some of the revenue to the Snow Leopard Trust. …”.

    So how does that sound like? If it sounds the same or if you would still buy her images and/or feature them as a title story, it does not matter if the images have been doctored. If you feel betrayed, it does.

  12. Seeker for Truth Avatar
    Seeker for Truth

    It can obviously be done in camera: However needs a bit more patience than just hacking together a couple stock images in PS.

    Peter Lik? Well. His clouds-behind-moon goof caused quite some stir, probably even financially.

    ‘shopping and staging aka. “Visual Storytelling” definitely has hurt Steve McCurry’s career a bit. Not sure though if it was just the fact that he doctored those images (lame standard excuse: “The assistant did it!”) or more how he dealt with it.

    Anyone remembers Ben Sheehan? Yup, the guy with the dogs: His website? Down.

    Also a good read: The curious case of (former) “Spiegel” journalist Claas Relotius. Publications since he was busted: None.

    See: People care.

  13. Daniel D. Teoli Jr Avatar
    Daniel D. Teoli Jr

    On a TV nature show they did a special on coming clean or how they entice some of the animal shots. If something is about 80% factual it is good enough for me. I can see how it would be hard to get the animals to cooperate.

    Now, either a thing is mainly true or not true. It is one thing if you use bait to get the photo of the animal. But if you start photoshopping things in, then it is more art than factual. Still, everything can have documentary and historical value. Just depends on how much.

    Hierarchy of Documentary Photography*

    1. Candid events unfolding as they happen.

    2. If it cannot be perfected or obtained as a candid, then the photo must be posed.

    3. If it cannot be perfected or obtained as a posed photo, then it must be staged with the proviso it is a recreation of past events, preferably with the actual persons reenacting the events.

    4. Figments of the imagination. Varies in documentary value. Can be based on pure speculation or a recount of events.

    *Created by Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

    Office 1950

    Selection from Mimeograph Archive – Daniel D. Teoli Jr. Archival Collection / National Archives

  14. Jakub Olaf Strumiłło - Fotograf Headshot Avatar
    Jakub Olaf Strumiłło – Fotograf Headshot

    Its not “fake”, its composed. Final image is final image. No matter the process, only final results should matter. Photographer been there, shoot those pictures and create amazing final results

  15. Jan Doe Avatar
    Jan Doe

    Ethical, what exactly does that mean in a WOKE society?

  16. l duvall Avatar
    l duvall

    The arrival of digital photography has tainted the ‘activity’. I am sure photographers said the same thing with the initial appearance/attempts at color photography. I am put off by the manipulation of colors that are popular with some. But tones and shadows and detail were manipulated when I was playing with developing black and white images. But giving an image a phony backstory is still a lie.

  17. John Beatty Avatar
    John Beatty

    Just another social media child who is in need of a virtual binkie to feel acceptance in life.

  18. Carlos André Viana Avatar
    Carlos André Viana

    Ask always for RAWs. No more cheaters!

  19. Dan Watson Avatar
    Dan Watson

    I’ve always been ok with some photo manipulation, maybe the weather was bad that day, lighting was off, distractioning elements like tree branches were in the shot, I’m good with those edits. But if you didn’t actually photograph the animal, that’s an outright lie, especially when you provide a backstory. Posed shots are also acceptable for me so baiting an animal to a particular area or staging certain things when possible. But you can’t make up a story about something that didn’t happen

  20. Lara leonor Avatar
    Lara leonor

    Kittiya Pawlowski sells wildlife photographs online that she presents as her own, but they are montages of photographs stolen to others, without permission or pay fees.
    How could this not be a problem?
    I was stupid enough to buy a photograph on her website. When I received it, the print was of very poor quality, and I wanted to send it back, but she flatly refused to refund me.
    She does not deserve the name of photographer, or artist. She just wants to make money.