Photographer Kittiya Pawlowski even stole the snow leopard photo
As we recently covered, American photographer Kittaya Pawlowski first made headlines in recent weeks. She first went viral by supposedly capturing some truly stunning, superb photos of a snow leopard creeping along high-altitude mountain ridges in the Himalayas of Nepal.
This initial fame caused Pawlowski, the photos themselves and her blog narrative describing she managed to capture them to be extensively covered by numerous media outlets.
The images and their photographer even garnered enough attention to be featured by organizations such as Animal Planet, The Times of London, major camera tech websites and even the American Embassy in Nepal.
Shortly afterward, the French magazine Alpine Mag dug deeper into the details of the images and consulted with a well-known wildlife photographer who had previously captured snow leopards in the wild.
Their initial investigation led them to doubt Pawlowski’s photos and their narrative. After later asking her for unaltered RAW originals of images she had freely shared with them, Pawlowski stopped communicating further with Alpine.
The magazine then published an extensive expose of the snow leopard woman, and in careful detail, explained their reasons for believing the photos to be fake.
Their entire original post can be found here and is worth a read if you’re interested in a case study of how a photographer can fake their work, and how they can later be discovered.
To summarize the basics: Alpine noted that numerous background features of the mountains surrounding her captured snow leopard didn’t correspond to reality. They also cast doubt on the leopard itself being seen in the place where it was supposedly photographed.
To back this up, they quoted their wildlife photography consultant, Vincent Munier, who flatly stated “The implausibility of these photos struck me immediately,”
He also argued “They are called snow leopards, but they almost never venture on to snow, even less into areas of ice and crevasses where there is no prey. They never look for difficulties. They stay on rocky terrain.”
Overall, Alpine Magazine went on to doubt not only the veracity of Pawlowski’s story as a whole but also that the snow leopard in the photos had ever been captured by her in any context.
After all, if she’d gone as far as to fake the entire mountain background behind it with photo composite cutting, why should the animal itself be free of suspicion?
Petapixel, which had initially believed Pawlowski’s claims, later covered its own recap of these accusations too. I covered them here on Shotkit as well and shared Alpine’s opinion that the snow leopard itself had probably been cut in from someone else’s images.
The photographer herself went on the defensive against Alpine and Petapixel, adding a disclaimer to her site page for promoting the photos.
In this disclaimer (added only after she was accused of dishonesty and falsification), she made a convoluted argument in which she said that she never claimed to be a wildlife photographer, and that she has a right to “edit” and modify her photos. She also continued to assert that they were real, and further stated:
“I am getting emails demanding that I provide processing videos, RAW files, etc for all of my images. I am NOT obligated to do that. There are hundreds of photographers that edit their images, change backgrounds, add big ass moons, lightning bolts, blur effects, fog, etc. I will not create detailed videos or add disclaimers to every single image about how every photo was processed. No one else has to do this, why am I the only person in the world required to do this?”
This of course dodged the fact that she had made the photos public as natural and only reasonably edited shots, without ever clearly stating or even alluding to the possibility of them having been grossly composed together from an assortment of unrelated shots.
As it turned out, even the snow leopard was fake in the context of her photos. Not only had Pawlowski faked everything else about its surrounding scenery, she had also stolen the shots of the animal itself from another photographer named Sylvain Cordier.
This too was later uncovered by Alpine Mag in a follow-up to its original expose. It has also definitively ruined both Pawlowski’s entire initial narrative of their having been a real, prolonged Himalayan trek in which she patiently managed to catch a shot of one of these elusive cats, but also her later convoluted defense of her work.
Cordier’s original, real photos were actually captured in Mongolia and usurped by Pawlowski, who then added them into her also cut-together Himalayan mountain scenes.
Bascially, while she may indeed have trekked into the Himalayas, her highly viral photos are entirely fake by any definition.
As Cordier explained to Petapixel, the entire “case is incredible.”
He also (rather generously as the main victim of photographic theft and misattribution here) added, “The end result of Kittiya’s photos is very artistic. One cannot deny the creation but on the other hand, one must denounce the usurpation of the texts and the theft of the images in particular of mine for the panther seen at the closest,”
Cordier explained to Alpine Mag that the photo of the cat is almost certainly his. He clarifies that “She has played about a bit with the spots. She’s taken the underside of my leopard’s belly and put it on the leopard on the left,”
His photos were uncovered on the stock photography website Hemis, where they’re listed as having been taken in 2019 in the Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia.
It’s unsurprising, but worth noting, that Pawlowksi didn’t bother to license the photos from the stock photo site or Cordier himself, or ask permission for their use in her own “nature photography”.
Also worth quoting is a specific quote from her original disclaimer on her site, after the first accusations of fakery:
“the story behind this series is true, all of the images are taken by me.”
Well, no actually.
Alpine Magazine also found that this wasn’t Pawlowski’s first theft of other’s material. In 2020, when she won a prize in the Chromatic Awards Culture category for an image with a tree in Thailand, the photo she passed off as her own work seems to have come from Shutterstock.
Despite initially being very friendly to media outlets publishing samples of her work as examples of superb nature photography, Pawlowski later changed her tune about how she viewed this.
She however only did this after doubt had been cast on her work: In another statement from the disclaimer on her own site, she mentions:
“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.”
The irony of this particular photographer complaining about theft and changed meaning is more than a bit amusing.
Following Alpine Mag’s initial expose and Petapixel’s own publication about her dishonesty, we investigated to find that she had later filed DMCA content removal claims against both sites for using her photos without her permission.
As for her response to these latest revelations about the source of her snow leopards, she hasn’t said anything at all so far.
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