Did this photo push the photographer into depression?
A picture of a helpless antelope surrounded by three bloodthirsty and hungry cheetahs has been widely shared, in various languages, alongside claims that it shows a deer who sacrificed her life to save her fawns.
The posts further claim that witnessing the scene pushed the photographer into depression.
However, Alison Buttigieg, the photographer behind the lens, told AFP that there was no truth at all to this story. She expressed frustration that the false story is still circulating, even though she spoke out to set the record straight years ago.
One of the posts, which we’ve archived here, has been shared more than 1,500 times since it was published on Facebook on July 5, 2018. Among the 1,800 comments, many readers appeared moved by the story of a mother’s unconditional love.
“This photo won the award for best photo of the decade and led the photographer into depression. The cheetahs chased a mother deer and her two fawns (baby deer). The mother could have easily out run cheetahs but instead she offered herself to cheetahs so her young ones could manage to run to safety. In this picture she is seen looking at her babies running safely as she is about to be torn to pieces😢😢…There is no unconditional love like a mother’s love,there’s no tender care than a mother’s care and there’s no one in this world who sacrifices more than a mother do…” the caption reads.
A reverse image search using the online tool TinEye located the image on this blog owned by Alison Buttigieg, a Maltese wildlife photographer based in Finland.
Buttigieg told AFP via email that the social media posts were inaccurate, adding that it was frustrating that despite clarifying what was happening in the picture years ago, the misleading version of the story seems to be what attracts online users.
She took the picture in September 2013 at the Maasai Mara national reserve in Kenya.
“This photo has now been viral for over 2.5 years — always with the same fake story,” said Buttigieg, who had set the record straight in a February 2017 Facebook post.
“Despite clarifying many times what is the true story, people prefer to spread the fake version — as it’s sensational and gets a lot of ‘likes’. As a wildlife conservation photographer this is irritating because I strive to spread factually correct information about animal behaviour,” she said.
Buttigieg expressed disgust at how mental illness was being used to spread a false narrative.
“The depression part — I have no words for that. To use a fake mental illness statement to make a story more viral is insensitive to me (it caused me problems in my workplace) as well as the people suffering from this disease.”
She is also frustrated that social media posts are sharing her image without permission. The watermark that originally appeared in the top right-hand corner of the photograph, identifying it as her work, has been cropped out in the version that has been shared alongside the false stories.
Because images are so easily shared on the internet, professional photographers like Buttigieg often mark their work with their name or website address. This means that their work can at least be recognised as theirs, even when the image is shared — as is so often the case — without their permission. In this case, however, Buttigieg is not even being credited as the person who took the picture.
“It is disturbing that this day and age misinformation spreads faster than facts and people feel free to steal images, embellishing them with false stories and share them. I have been harassed by some of these pages when I dared to report them to have the image taken down, “ she told AFP.
Buttigieg gave us permission to use her image for this fact-check.
The wildlife photographer directed AFP to her blog, wherein a series of nine pictures, she explains how a mother cheetah was teaching her young ones to hunt down an impala.
An impala is a type of antelope found in eastern and southern Africa. It’s not a deer, despite being described as such in the false social media posts.
“I witnessed this Cheetah kill in September 2013 in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Narasha, the cheetah mom, was teaching her youngsters how to kill prey. However, they were a bit slow on the uptake and they were playing with the hapless Impala prey instead of killing it. Narasha, the cheetah mom is the one that is grabbing the impala by the neck in all the photos,” the first paragraph of the blog reads.
There is no mention of the impala sacrificing herself to save her babies — this narrative was invented.
While it’s also not true that the image won the prize for “best photo of the decade”, it did earn Buttigieg an award.
As mentioned on her blog, she won a prize for the photograph at the Siena International Photo Awards in November 2016.