Real or fake – it’s in the RAW

Photomouth – real or fake? Photo competitions have always had to deal with advances in digital imaging technology as well as imposters. American photographer Kittiya Pawlowski attempted to dupe the photography world with fake and stolen images of snow leopards in the mountains.

I find myself wondering whether respect for the creative process, and particularly for photography, is diminishing rapidly, maybe even a thing of the past. So what is making me think this? I have to put two hats on to fully answer that; my photographer hat and my Travel Photographer of the Year (TPOTY) hat.

Throughout the history of Travel Photographer of the Year, we’ve seen some incredible images from all over the world. But we’ve also seen some pretty shocking attempts to dupe the award judges with fake or extremely manipulated digital images.

Operating in a digital world

We want to ensure we reward great photography rather than advanced software use and increasingly we’re seeing over-manipulated and montaged images. Basic tweaks and minor digital manipulations are well within the rules of the competition. But we ask finalists to provide RAW files before the winners are chosen so that we can establish quite how much digital manipulation has taken place

Digital cameras offer many benefits to photographers, with very advanced imaging software simplifying or even opening up additional creative processing opportunities.  Photographers have been manipulating images in the darkroom since the advent of photography. It’s just more often a digital darkroom now. However it also opens up temptation to those who are less talented with a camera to exploit photography. If they’re open and honest about the role of digital manipulation in their work, that’s fair enough. It’s when that honesty isn’t disclosed, at least in the context of a photography award, that problems can arise. However there’s also an increasing cynical dimension to this amongst some photographers.

In TPOTY the need for finalists to provide RAW files before the winners are chosen was introduced many years ago. Over the years we’ve noticed that many photographers aren’t as good at manipulating their images as they think they are. Providing RAW files was introduced because TPOTY is primarily a photography lead award, with only limited manipulation permitted. It’s a competition for photography and photographers though rather than for digital manipulation and creation of images. Increasingly we were seeing over-manipulated and montaged images so to ensure we reward great photography, we introduced this control.

The importance of RAW files

Looking at photographers’ RAW files is very revealing. For the most accomplished photographers who fully comprehend the shooting side of the craft, the difference between RAW and final image is often minimal or simply reflects a stylistic preference. What’s perhaps most shocking is the number of people who don’t understand the basics, such as exposure, and rely on the software to dig them out and retrieve a poorly exposed image – seemingly unappreciative that there is a different in colour, tone and highlight/shadow detail between a properly exposed image and a badly exposed one. Software can only recover what’s hidden in the original, and approximate, or at least it could until recently.

In the last few years digital imaging software has got much cleverer with an AI element now present in a number of the packages. Arguably the people who use this software have also got cleverer, or at least better at manipulating their images. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, in the context of photography, so long as integrity underwrites the manipulation, either by staying largely photographic or declaring the image manipulation. After all, photographers have been manipulating images in the darkroom since the advent of photography. It’s just more often a digital darkroom now.

A tip off and a withdrawal

Sadly there are those who set out to deceive us for their own ends. In this year’s award, a portfolio was entered in the Wildlife category which reached the final stages.

It featured a snow leopard in a snowy mountain environment and in three of the four images, the snow leopard was quite small in the frame. The portfolio was refreshingly different: in a category where the most common approach is a close-up portrait of a creature taken with a long lens, we liked how the photographer had chosen to show the animal in its context.

We were suitably impressed. Any photographer who has ever tried to see – let alone photograph – snow leopards as anything other than a distant dot, will tell you how hard it is. Even the BBC Natural History unit, who spent six months trying to film them, freely admit that they only got footage purely by luck. 

Real or fake? And who’s image is it?

RAW files were requested from all the finalists as usual, but none were forthcoming from this entrant, although sometimes the photographer is simply travelling and away from their original files. This is an immediate red flag though for us and this would not be the first time our instincts have proved correct. Several years back a very well known wildlife photographer refused to provide RAW files – draw your own conclusion!

The thing is we, like most major competitions, state what digital manipulation is permitted in the rules. It varies from competition to competition but it is clear before a photographer enters. If nothing else it’s a very good reason to read the rules before entering, and if you aren’t sure, contact the organisers.

Returning to this story, we published a list of the finalist in each category on our website and gave photographers time to get their files to us. Most do it very quickly, unless they are travelling. Nothing came from this particular photographer. At this point, away from the judging which is anonymous, the office start to check photographers websites to verify the images belong to them etc. Somewhat strangely, this particular photographer’s website had only the four entered images on it, plus an ‘on location’ picture of themselves with camera and huge lens, no other pictures! The second red flag.

Out of the blue, we received an email from a regular entrant cautioning us to look very closely at this particular photographer’s images. We do anyway, but we appreciated the heads-up. On the same day we received an email from the photographer withdrawing her images.

This turned out to be no coincidence. The story and the images had just been published in a Petapixel article profiling the photographer and her work, and it revealed she had engaged in virtually every deception you could imagine.

Usually incidents like this involve manipulation beyond the rules or a montage of several images. Often they are inadvertent or negligent, or the photographer simply didn’t read the rules closely enough. In this instance, it appears much more cynical.

The images were in fact taken by French photographer Sylvain Cordier (yes, they weren’t even the photographer’s own work!) and were available on the Hemis stock photography website before being manipulated and montaged. According to stellar research undertaken by Alpine Mag, they were not licensed and no permission was sought to use Cordier’s photo. The head of one snow leopard was reversed, spots moved and cold air breath vapour added. But it doesn’t end there! The background mountain used in these images were the snow-covered Himalayan Everest range, a region where snow leopards have never been seen. 

When challenged, the American photographer, Kittiya Pawlowski, claimed that she had travelled to the Himalayas to take the photographs. 

In her blog posts, she details how she’d flown into one of the world’s most dangerous airports and then backpacked into the deep valleys of the Sagarmatha National Park to then climb up to 18,000 feet above sea level.

She claimed trekking 103 miles, camping in the wilderness and waking up at 4am to climb ever higher into the sunlit upper slopes of some of the world’s tallest mountains, she also had to haul along 25lbs of camera gear that included a massive 500mm Nikkor lens. She says: “Squinting through my camera’s telephoto lens, I noticed something in the shadow of Mount Pumori. At first, I thought it was a rock, but it was exactly what I was looking for,”

With such blatant bravado it’s difficult to know what is actually true and what fantasy, or an attempt to deflect once found out.

What the judges said 

Needless to say, TPOTY disqualified the photographer and her images as soon as she refused to provide RAW files. In all fairness, she withdrew them when asked. Maybe that should be the end of it but for photographic awards, actions like this can be devastating. Had we not rumbled this, the damage to the awards could have destroyed 20 years of hard work and professionalism. To say we’re angry is an understatement and issues like this causes strong feeling amongst the photographic community.

TPOTY judge, Keith Berr, is equally enraged. He says “I’ve judged the Travel Photographer of the Year photo competition for a number of years now and the snow leopard images submitted this year were definitely on the top of my favorites for best of show. 

The theft is theft and Kittiya Pawlowski, should pay reparations to the creator Sylvain Cordier. There needs to be an example made of Pawlowski, to aid in discouraging others from image thievery. In my opinion she is a sham that needs to be prosecuted.”

Kittiya Pawlowski has been widely vilified for her actions. Should she have been? In my opinion, yes. It is one thing to create images like this. I don’t consider them as photography, but if the photographer declares that they are not their own images and/or have been digitally created, that’s fair enough. However, to create a whole story around the images and present them repeatedly as her own, even when exposed, is reprehensible. Or maybe she, too, is fictitious. There has been very little honesty or reality in this story, but there has been a victim and we have to recognise that Sylvain Cordier’s hard earned images have been used without his knowledge or permission.

As Alex Baker points out in DIY Photography

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 favour. They are a protected endangered species, and their habitat is under pressure from climate change and other human factors.

Thankfully most photographers are genuine, decent people who love their craft and constantly strive to improve and be their best. It’s what makes photography challenging, exciting and, at times, incredibly frustrating. Like all worthwhile skills, there are no shortcuts. 

In a very digitally driven world, I suspect there will be others who seek to exploit creativity to expand their profile. Can I offer any photographer intending to enter competitions any advice? Shoot RAW, even if with an accompanying jpeg, then you can always show an original without any room for doubt. It is up to us to call out the cheats, for the sake of all who love photography and to prevent dishonesty becoming an acceptable truth. Never more so than with the impending threat posed by AI-generated images.

For photography competitions, actions like these are a real threat. Should one slip through and turn up amongst the winners it can, and probably will, create a PR nightmare, undermining the credibility of awards which have been built up over year – possibly even taking it under. These images were spotted before the final judging, but I’m sure it is only a matter of time before a fake image wins a ‘photography’ award and enrages true the photographic community. It’s up to us all to show we care about the future of real photography.


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.