Tuesday, March 14, 2006

National Geographic's Fish Story

When you think of magazine photography, the first thing that comes to mind is National Geographic magazine, the Mount Everest of editorial photography.

Well, apparently someone pulled the wool over their eyes (or the whale blubber, as it were). It seems that this time, the editors at National Geographic Adventure (NGA) were asleep at the wheel.

In the February 2006 issue of NGA, they ran a photo of a Humpback Whale breaching the water, with a female swimmer close by. The photo was apparently shot in Hawaii.

Turns out the photo, which was a stock image from Getty Images, was not a true photograph but a composite. According to NGA they weren't aware of this when they published the image.

In their March 2006 issue they ran this correction:

Early in the selection process we were assured by the photographer and his agency that the photo was real. While Hawaii is a place where magical things happen, further technical analysis proved - and the photographer eventually admitted - that the image was a digital composite.

I'm sure if they would have known it was a composite they would have labeled it as such when they ran it. But they didn't.

If they would have looked closely at the image (hell, even if they would have just looked at the image from across the hall), it would have raised a few red flags.

For one thing, the breaching whale did not cause any wake or splashing water. For another, the size of the whale and the size of the swimmer were all out of proportion. In the image, the swimmer looks to be a few yards away from the whale. At that distance, the whale would have been huge compared to the swimmer. It was not.

But the largest red flag that should have been waving in the NGA offices when they decided to run this photo is this one: in Hawaii, it's illegal for humans to swim with or even approach within 100 yards of a whale. You can swim with the dolphins, but not the whales. The only way someone could legally get that close to a whale in the open ocean is if a whale happened to swim by. Once they saw the photo they should have known it was a fake. An illustration. A digital composite. Call it what you will, but they should have asked if it was authentic or a composite.

Apparently they didn't. Apparently the photographer didn't volunteer that information either.

Which brings up the question, was the photographer trying to pull one over on them? Or did he (or she) think no one could be stupid enough to think the photo was real. If that was the case, the photographer obviously underestimated the stupidity of the NGA photo editors.

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