A weasel using a woodpecker as its own private convertible; a wolf stuffing its snout in another wolf’s mouth; a reindeer comically failing to camouflage itself with some leaves. The internet has an insatiable appetite for bizarre wildlife pictures. But, like anything that brings us joy on the internet, these photos always came with the condition that they might not be entirely real. Truths Behind Fake Nature Photography, a Facebook page created by concerned nature enthusiasts, is trying to educate the public by calling out fakes when they spot them.
The page, created in 2015, features a bright-green banner bearing the wordy tagline, "Say no to staged photos with bullshit stories." The admins (it’s unclear how many there are) post viral photographs, often sourced from places like the Daily Mail, and then list the giveaways that these photos are fake.
Take the above photo of a frog riding a beetle. According to a post on the TBFNP page, the photo is unreliable for several reasons: the frog is nocturnal, for one, and its fingers are placed in an unnatural, manipulated position. TBFNP also does "background" research on the offending photographers themselves. Admins deduced that the person who took the frog photo apparently has several pet frogs, which raised suspicions. The members describe themselves as "nature enthusiasts," but their work is closer to fact-checking: they talk to photography experts and compile information for the public.
I initially reached out to the page’s admins because I love a conspiracy theory, but aside from a general furtiveness, the admins didn’t sound like prosthelytizers, just concerned citizens. Truths Behind Fake Nature Photography is a public community page, but the members would only speak to me over Facebook chat and refused to disclose their names due to the "sensitive" nature of their work. We discussed the signs of a fake photo, how the public is easily duped into believing these photos are real, and how the internet contributes to the problem.
How do you decide if a photo is fake?
Every fake photo could be different. We are nature enthusiasts ourselves, and can sense when certain scenes are biologically not possible or incredibly unlikely to occur naturally. We spread the word by selecting popular faked scenes and consulting with the relevant experts on the subjects to explain why the scenes are unlikely or impossible, and compile an article to factually explain so with every effort to avoid getting personal. We do keep further evidence such as the subject being a pet, etc. But would refrain from using them and would prefer a scientific explanation instead.
What are some signs that a photo is 'shopped?
Fake nature photography is not just about digitally edited photos. It includes subjects in staged settings and unnatural environments, or what we call faux nature. So perhaps we could be asking how one would tell that a photo is not natural. Unfortunately, there is no obvious way that a layman can accurately do it — that is why the general public is easily duped with any story that goes with the photo. For us, we have vast experience in the field and can recognize situations in the photo that are biologically impossible or ridiculously improbable. The photos are then brought to the experts in that taxon for comments and verification.
Do you contact photographers if you think their photos are fake?
We have tried to contact them on Facebook but no response was received even though their accounts were active.
Who are some big offenders when it comes to fake nature photography?
It wouldn't be right to categorize any of them by country or region, but there are some individuals with a good number of such photos. We're not saying that all their photos are fake — many are authentic but there are many examples of staged shots.
Do you think the internet has made it easier for fake nature photography to spread?
Definitely. We also suspect that online publishing platforms such as Daily Mail help to proliferate fake stories. It is possible that some of the rubbish stories were created by DM to sensationalize the articles.
What do you hope to achieve with the Facebook group?
Stop glorifying fake nature photos. We also wish to promote true nature photography that documents nature and not creating faux-nature situations for the sake of making an interesting photo.