The Winning Photo from National Geographic’s Annual Contest is From a Zoo?

When I was young, I used to shiver with excitement when I flipped through the pages of National Geographic.  Hell, to this day I still get goosebumps when I turn the super-thin pages of what has become the world’s greatest nature magazine.  It’s hard not to look through and awe at the wonder of our planet, to be inspired by it, to learn from it.

National Geographic has inspired me to travel, to learn about the world, and to dig beyond the usual views of our planet.  And although I haven’t been a travel photographer for long, ever since I have shot photos, I have dreamed of being able to create an image that is more than just a photo, but a story.

Each year, National Geographic holds a general photo contest.  This year, they received over 22,000 entries.  Each year, I excitedly flip through the images saying things like “wow” and “incredible”, and I often catch myself thinking “I wish I had taken that!

This year I looked at the photos from the award winners and again was left speechless when flipping through them.  Then, as a curious photographer hoping to learn something I read the captions and one in particular from this year’s grand prize winning photo by Ashley Vincent.

“:The subject’s name is Busaba, a well cared for Indochinese Tigress whose home is at Khao Kheow Open Zoo, Thailand. I had taken many portraits of Busaba previously and it was becoming more and more difficult to come up with an image that appeared any different to the others. Which is why I took to observing her more carefully during my visits in the hope of capturing something of a behavioral shot. The opportunity finally presented itself while watching Busaba enjoying her private pool then shaking herself dry. In all humility I have to say that Mother Nature smiled favorably on me that day!Photograph and Quote by Ashley Vincent


Now don’t get me wrong, the photo is absolutely incredible! The photographer’s skill, timing, and creative eye is absolutely mind-blowing.  It is the type of photo that makes me say wow, and I do wish I had taken this photo.  And as I write this, I feel bad for the photographer, and don’t want the photographer to think this is any way a personal slight or a shot against their photography skills.

However, this is a bit of a slight against National Geographic.  What is National Geographic saying by selecting a photo from a zoo as their grand prize winner?  The quote from the photographer alone creates all sorts of issues for me.

I had taken many portraits of Busaba.”

Oh, so this “wild” animal is a model?  That’s fine then.  Rant over.

I took to observing her more carefully during my visits in the hope of capturing something of a behaviorial shot.

The best place to observe an animal in their natural habitat is a zoo, everyone knows that.

I have to say that Mother Nature smiled favorably on me that day!

Well, did she?  Or did captivity toss out a massive middle finger to Mother Nature and say: “See, we don’t need you Mother Nature, National Geographic can get all they need right here! And without the danger.”  This tiger might as well be acting for a L’Oreal “because I’m worth it” shampoo commercial.

In all honesty, I know it sounds like I’m attempting to destroy the credibility of the photographer, that’s not the case at all.  In fact, the quotes don’t really bug me as much as the precedent set by National Geographic, and the overall message it puts out there.

Nature photography can be staged

It’s easy to look at this photo and just say “hey Brendan, it’s a cool photo, get over it.”  However, what if the circumstances were slightly different?  What if for example, one was to capture a white wolf then release it in a beautiful scene of white snow to photograph it?  What if one was to bring in a freshly shot bull elk for that wolf to be photographed eating?  Would you feel different about it then?  Moreover, National Geographic is saying to its photographers out in the field, we don’t really need you out there, just head to a zoo to get the wildlife shots you need.  If I were a National Geographic photographer, I’d be offended by this.  A wildlife photographer spends entire days, from dusk to dawn sometimes, hiding out in the elements of nature, often putting themselves in danger, to get that one shot of true natural beauty.  I have more respect for wildlife photographers than any others in the world, and I have to imagine this feels like a slap in the face to them.

What’s next?  We start staging conflicts to get really cool war photos?

Who needs a story?

Check out the other photo winners from this year’s contest in this post in The Atlantic.  Every other image has a story beyond the beauty of the photo: the Inuit collecting ice, a young cheetah (wild) with mom, a man chained to a post in a mental institution, a fox on the hunt and men fishing on stilts.  They all are so deep and powerful.  They instill a strong bit of imagination into the viewers mind.  They make us think.  Yes, they are all great technical photos as well, but they could be fuzzy and still hold that deep truth that only great photographs hold.  As I look at the other photo entries I think “all these amazing photos and they chose a bloody tiger taking a bath in a zoo???”

Zoos are OK

I don’t hate zoos.  I like visiting zoos as much as the next guy.  I try to, however, only visit zoos that have rescued animals that would have otherwise had to be put down.  In fact, I even love taking photos in zoos.  One of my favourite animal portraits of all time was the lion photo below that I took in a zoo.  However, National Geographic is meant to be a leader in nature and science.  And sure, all that can be found in a zoo, but is it authentic?  Is it the real thing?  Is it right?

Zoo Photos


Who am I to critique National Geographic right?  I’m just a struggling travel writer/photographer with a blog.  While a small part of me feels insulted, the other part of me feels disappointed.  It’s like finding out your favourite athlete was taking drugs (I’m looking at you Lance Amstrong).  But I think the thing that concerns me most is the fact that no one else seems to care.  No one else finds it strange that the “nature photo of the year” of sorts is of an animal in captivity.  The National Geographic I know fights for natural world, it doesn’t exalt the synthetically achieved but the raw wild power it holds.  For me, this photo being chosen as the grand prize winner is the equivalent of the head of the WWF swimming with the dolphins.

I’ve never been one to rant on this blog, and I promise you that these moments are few and far between, but I needed an outlet and this was my microphone.

As for your thoughts, I want to hear them in the comments.  Am I right?  Am I being overly dramatic?  Was this just a contest for “the coolest photo of the year” and I saw it as something else?  Let me know!

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. Totally agree…I am surprised this photo was allowed, let alone won. Many notable nature photo contests used to explicitly state that photos from zoos and aquariums are not allowed. Perhaps that has changed over the years?
    Great photo, just feels a bit tainted.

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    • Red, It’s basically for amateurs so anything goes. I’m sure the image was placed in the category of “nature” though which doesn’t make sense. Most reputable photo contest specify no cages, no tame animals, and no baiting as well as no zoos. I am a little angry over this haha.

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    • I too agree with your take on this one…The goal of all nature photographers is the challenge of the chase the “moment” of that special pose, the light, the background, everything perfect for that dream shot….Only to arrive and the gates and the zoo will not open for two more hours?

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  2. I agree with many of your points here Brendan. Plus, I agree with your caption on your last photo in your post.

    Yet, did you notice the tigress’ “crazy eye” poking out from the beads of water in the centre of the shot? I think there might be an underlying, unintentional, factor here.

    The “crazy eye” partnered with the tigress’ shaking gesture and the sprays of water resonated something more. It’s as if the tigress is trying to shake off the zoo from her fur, almost like she’s trying to break herself free from the restraints of her simulated environment.

    I know this was not the intention of the photographer and I’m not sure if National Geographic saw the photo in the same light as me. Though, I hope they did.

    If the photo is published more in the future, sans photographer’s blurb, then my perception will definitely be lost…

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    • Agree with the crazy eyes Justine. However, unless you read the caption that it was taken in the zoo the whole “shaking free of the zoo” story isn’t evident at all. Maybe if there were cages present in the shot. Otherwise, we’re just looking for a story based on a story when the image should speak for itself.
      As for the fact that it wasn’t the intention of the photographer, many great captures happen on accident… so even if it was on accident, I wouldn’t have an issue with that.

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  3. Welcome to the modern world, “not what it is, but what it just looks like”. Max.

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    • Well said Max!

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  4. Nothing wrong from my perspective, provided the photographer is not claiming it to be something else (in the wild). Sadly, there are 7 billion reasons why there are only a few thousand tigers left in the wild. This shot may inspire some viewers to think about that, or consider the beauty of an animal whose best hope for the future lies in total, or semi-captivity. Near me, we have a foundation whose sole purposes are preservation of species through captive breeding, coupled with reintegration to the wild (plus education, of course) – surely all inarguably noble causes?
    Don’t get me wrong, I would find a ‘wild’ shot like this much more impressive, but those opportunities grow thinner and thinner.
    As long as the photographer is honest about how the shot was arrived at, then I’m cool with that. Better than many of those ‘camera trap’ wild shots. I’ll not get started on those…. 😉

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    • Alec – I agree with you, and as I mentioned I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the photo either. Zoo’s, when maintained right, inspire people to help preserve the natural world. My issue is that it’s the winner of a National Geographic photo contest that would have been placed under the category “nature”. It doesn’t tell a story beyond being a great image.

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  5. I was quite shocked and disappointed reading that this picture was taken in a zoo too, Brendan. My image of National Geographic just does not correspond with that. For me National Geographic Magazine stands for a magazine that shows pictures of wildlife in their natural habitat, or clearly showing the circumstances they are in – if in a zoo, a shelter or whatever. On the other hand, it is great that you can also win this contest without having to go far. But then still I don’t think it should be in NG… Great shot of the lion btw!

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    • I have the same feeling Lydian. I understand that tiger is one of only 350 left in the world… but seriously.

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  6. Zoos are a pretty contrived environment as it is, but even considering that, the idea of continuing to shoot the same subject, even visiting more than once, still seems pretty unnatural.

    I’m just waiting for a Human Rights group to get hold of the fact that National Geographic also selected that photo from the mental institution. The literal similarities between institutions and zoos becomes all the more clear in that photo. I’m not expecting the magazine to be any sort of moral crusader, but come on NG, have some taste!

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    • Sarah – This is my point. The mental institution photo shows a caged human being in a brutal circumstance… it tells a story of this person’s suffering. The photo of the tiger looks like its living the dream.

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  7. There was similar outrage recently when David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet documentary crew shot some footage of polar bears in a zoo.

    In that case I think Attenborough was more concerned about creating an interesting and engaging program so that more people would be interested in animals and so care about their welfare.

    In the case of the zoo shot more than anything else for me it just feels like cheating. It’s so much easier to take a shot of an animal that’s just sitting there, than one that’s moving around all the time.

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    • Will – I feel like it only seems like cheating if you go around telling people you shot it in the wild. I think it’s a great photo and a beautiful capture. But not something that Nat Geo should be naming the winner.

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  8. Hey Brandan;

    If the photo falls within the rules of the contest you have no complaint.

    As for your opinion with it being a NG contest, a zoo photo was a winner, and that a NG photographer should be offended, allow me to introduce you to Joel Sartore. He is a legendary NG photographer, some 30 stories in NG, some of which have saved complete national parks. A photographer who goes so deep to get his photos when on assignment, he almost actually died. PBS did a whole movie on him. He’s also been named an NG Fellow. You want to talk NG photographer ? He’s the walking definition of it. Now go and check out his site and look up the photo ark project. And learn of it’s mission. Learn of the important role zoos play. He has no issue with shooting images in a zoo. Nor does his peers, NG, or the mission he’s on – to build awareness around the diversity of animals including those who are endangered.

    Enough said,

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    • Oops, noticed I misspelled your name. My apologies.

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      • no worries mate… I’ll respond to just about anything haha

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    • Hey Victor, thanks for your opinion.
      I know of Joel Sartore, he is brilliant and inspiring. I love the ark project as well. I love that zoos can inspire children/adults to care about endangered species. I love the fact that some zoos help recover endangered animal populations.
      But I guess my point isn’t that zoos are bad, but rather should a photo taken in a zoo be considered “nature” or “wildlife”. Should the rules for this contest be different? I would have had no problem with a photo being taken in a zoo if it had a story to it. For example, if this rare tiger had just given birth to a cub, the first recorded birth in years… and there was a picture of the two of them. Cool. But this is a photo of a tiger in a bath… there’s no story to it.

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  9. I also think the photo is underexposed by a 1/2 stop.

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  10. Hello Brendan,

    1. From what I’ve gathered it does sound like the objections are mostly because ‘zoo’ isn’t as glamorous as “I camped on a rocky outcrop for 10 days, my leg froze off and I had to eat my camping buddy to survive and then I got this photo.”

    Yeah that’s undeniably true. I mean the second one is definitely better copy. Especially if he had to eat his camping buddy.

    I kind of agree slightly but then I also think the photo shouldn’t win just for good copy.

    2. Category seems correct to me: it is nature and it is wildlife. The tiger isn’t a man-made object and she certainly isn’t tame. I don’t know under what other category it should come under?

    You could argue that if its in a zoo it can’t be wildlife but considering the way we are headed all wildlife in the future might be in a zoo.

    Also not everyone can afford to go to a nature reserve for many months to try and get a shot. He got a good shot where he could.

    On the other hand I did enjoy your rant.

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    • Hey mate, I have no problem with the photo. I think it’s brilliant. But maybe the category “animals”. If someone submitted a photo of their dog playing their bath that was a really great capture would it have won? I guess to me “nature” means a natural setting, not a natural being. And “Wildlife” means “wild”.
      The zoo thing gets me, but what really put me over the top was going through and seeing the other runner ups and editor choices which all had so much more power than this. Anyways, I’m glad you liked the rant, and glad I had a place to voice it haha.

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      • The dog would have to be doing something beyond AMAZING, but I do not see why it couldn’t win… within the parameters of that category.

        The problem here seems to be that you’re not making a distinction (as NatGeo is) between “Nature” and “Wildlife” photography. This image was amazing, and well within the boundaries of the category, had this photographer tried to mislead the judges and enter in the “Wildlife” category, she wouldn’t have won, or would have been stripped of the win (José Luis Rodriguez comes to mind), furthermore, had NatGeo given a win to a staged photo in the wildlife category, and stood by it, then I would agree with you that this is an insult to “WILDLIFE” photographers.

        As it stands, it is just a rant based on the understanding/context of the use of “nature” as a word for this category.

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  11. Hey Brendan,

    Thanks for bringing attention to this! I hadn’t seen the contest results released. And like you I’m horrified for all the above mentioned reasons. You did an excellent job covering the issues and concerns with the precedent National Geographic is setting. I’m deeply disappointed in the editors who chose this photo and the editors who let the final results go to print. And I’m very disturbed that their showcase photo is showcasing an animal in captivity. Proper sanctuaries have their place, but zoos I have a hard time getting behind. Wild animals should be wild. Sanctuaries are appropriate places to rehabiliate/care for animals that can’t go back to the wild/and help protect endangered species. There was an amazing and heartbreaking piece in the Seattle Times a month ago detailing the grim reality for elephants in zoos.

    It’s a brilliant piece of investigative journalism and one of the many great articles out there showing how zoos are not the kind, fuzzy places we’re told they are.

    The runner’s up had such powerful messages in addition to great photography – sad and frustrated to see NatGeo miss the boat badly on this one.

    PS, loved the two photos you posted. Gorgeous work!

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  12. Hey Brendan, it’s a cool photo, get over it.

    I understand the bitterness but even a cat in my garden is “nature”. If the shot’s good it’s good. The wildlife category is a different story.

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  13. Excellent points. I thought I was all wet when I first looked at this year’s winners and thought along the same lines. I think my first thought was “Really, the winning picture is from a zoo?? That seems un-National Geographic like”
    Something about it just feels wrong. Neat picture and I am jealous I have never gotten a shot like that but still doesn’t seem right to win

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  14. Realmente, nós aqui da Amazõnia que estamos acostumados com animais livres na natureza e como é difícil fotografa-los, não concordamos que uma imagem de um animal preso numa jaula vá ganhar um concurso de fotografia, em vez de uma imagem de um animal selvagem na natureza. Por que dois pesos e duas medidas no julgamento da NG?

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  15. Although the image is stunning, and no slight to the photographer as you said, I agree that you have some very valid points here. It’s a slippery slope. If it’s just about the beauty of the image that is one thing, but it seems that NatGeo should be looking for more. Nice thought-provoking post, Brendan!

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  16. I agree with you. I cringed at the photographers caption before having even read your response. Zoos, while sometimes providing a safe haven to wildlife whose survival would otherwise be unlikely, make me sad. The same way circuses make me sad. If these magnificent creatures had a say, even knowing the risks, I believe they would certainly choose to roam free. Yeah, yeah…I know this isn’t a discussion about zoos and animal rights, but just saying.

    It’s a stunningly beautiful photo. But c’mon, it does not belong in National Geographic.

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  17. Must say that I like the photo, which is what the competitions about really. If it was best photo of animals in the wild, then I think your rant is a fair one.

    As for staged photos, I think BBC’s Planet Earth did something similar with Polar Bears. It caused a great fuss because they shot video of a mother with her cubs in her nest in a zoo. Made for great images that didn’t result in the death of a cameraman.

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  18. Hi Brendan,

    Though clearly we don’t see eye to eye on certain matters, we’re not entirely dissimilar, for example: we’ve both been greatly inspired by National Geographic Magazine from an early age; we share a healthy curiosity; a thirst for knowledge; a passion for our natural world; we like to travel; love photography; we have a strong desire to capture moments in time that will not only hold others in awe, but have them drawn in with curious minds asking all sorts of questions. And, as will become evident, we apparently both have an ability and willingness to express our thoughts candidly in writing!

    To hopefully set your mind at ease, in no way am I upset or feel slighted by the opinions you’ve shared here, so please don’t feel bad my friend. Then again, perhaps me saying this is kind of redundant, as no sooner had you attempted to placate me (in case I came across this and was upset), than you dived straight in to tell us what you really felt with no holds barred.

    If I may, I’ll take the liberty of following your lead in picking apart things that you wrote:

    “Oh, so this ‘wild’ animal is a model? That’s fine then. Rant over.”

    Honestly not exactly sure what you meant with this part of your “Rant”, but it seems as if you’re suggesting it’s not possible to take a portrait of a wild animal, only animals confined to enclosures or in studio set-ups. Well, I won’t drop names here, but I will say that much of my work has been inspired by many photographers who have taken what I consider to be marvellous portraits of animals in their natural habitats, so if this is the point you are trying to make, personally it’s not one I agree with at all.

    “The best place to observe an animal in their natural habitat is a zoo, everyone knows that.”

    Laying it on a little thick with the sarcasm there aren’t we? Taking it for granted that you mean the exact opposite, it seems you’re trying to suggest that once animals are in captivity it’s no longer possible to learn anything about their natural behaviour through hours of careful observation, as if suddenly by virtue of the fact the are no longer out in the wild, they somehow miraculously lose all ability to function as they previously did and show either an entirely different set of behavioural traits or, perhaps, become blogs of jelly or turn to stone.

    While admittedly I’m surely only aware of the tip of the iceberg in this regard, as I understand it mountains of knowledge has been gathered over the years by way of constant and careful observation of animals in captivity, and much of that knowledge has directly led to helping conservation of wild animal populations, some of which has directly led to the reintroduction of rescued and even hand-raised animal into the wild.

    In answer to my closing line, “I have to say that Mother Nature smiled favourably on that day!”, you wrote:

    “Well, did she? Or did captivity toss out a massive middle finger to Mother Nature and say: ‘See, we don’t need you Mother Nature, National Geographic can get all they need right here! And without the danger.’ This tiger might as well be acting for a L’Oreal ‘because I’m worth it’ shampoo commercial.”

    I really think the primary cause of your anger is down to the perspective you’ve chosen to regard the National Geographic photo contest from, as evidently you either somehow missed or ignored their terms and conditions for entries into their nature category. It seems that you’ve come up with a succinct belief with respect to what National Geographic is all about, though clearly by their choice of “The Explosion!” you’ve managed to get something wrong and, unwilling to accept that just maybe your perception should be a little more broad, to allow for the possibility that National Geographic may have a more diverse set of parameters they wish to lead by, your personal expectations have not been lived up to.

    That’s kind of like me getting wound up about how unfair it is that my favourite camera manufacturer always seems to hold back on adding the newest technology when they launch a new model, as I’m certain they had that knowledge at the time and the capacity to add the latest advances but simply chose not to, as it makes better commercial sense for them to wait and make me want to buy the next one they come out with.

    I may be correct in this assumption, but I have to allow there’s at least an equal possibility that there are any number of other reasons that I’m simply ignorant of, as thus far I’ve never been invited to sit in on decision-making meeting … perhaps something that will now change in light of my win!

    “In all honesty, I know it sounds like I’m attempting to destroy the credibility of the photographer, that’s not the case at all.”

    I think it would be more truthful for you to have said, “Now that I’ve attempted to destroy the credibility of the photographer, with what I regard as a fair degree of success, let’s see how well I can do now with a much larger organisation that disappointed me so greatly.”

    “In fact, the quotes don’t really bug me as much as …… ”

    Ah-ha! Now that’s much more honest: my words did in fact bug you!

    “ … the precedent set by National Geographic, and the overall message it puts out there.”

    Again, this is your feeling based on your perception of what National Geographic is supposed to be about. Have you written to any of the photo editors and judges of this contest? Have you asked them to explain explicitly why they feel a captive animal is perfectly fine as a subject for their nature category and/or what messages they are looking to put “out there” with their selection?

    I’ll hazard a guess and say no, you haven’t. And why haven’t you? Because to my mind it’s much easier for you to protect your current beliefs by going public with your rants in the hope that you’ll at least win a number over to camp to console you in your hour of apparent grief.

    In answer to your “Nature photography can be staged” and remark of, “If I were a National Geographic photographer, I’d be offended by this.” You might want to do a Google search on the name Joel Sartore!

    Oh, and why you’ve got Google fired up, in light of your “What’s next?” question, you might want to read up a little on the famous yet somewhat controversial photograph taken by Robert Capa called “The Falling Soldier”; I know this isn’t exactly the same as staging conflicts to “get really cool war photos”, but it’s a starting point for you nevertheless.

    “Who needs a story?”

    As it happens, though I won’t attempt to bore you with it, to me there is indeed a story within “The Explosion!”, but I accept that you fail to see anything more than a cat shaking off water and, because I stated this clearly, it’s a cat shaking off water in a zoo. Thing is, if we don’t want to see anything deeper, then chances are we won’t. Conversely, as an old mentor of mine once said, “Isn’t it amazing that we can close our eyes and say, ‘Awww, I see!’” Unless I volunteer the information or you ask me and I respond, which of course is not something you thought to do … hang on a mo ……… nope, just checked my inbox and nothing there from you yet … how can you possibly open your mind to seeing what I see, whether you end up seeing things the same way or not?

    Perhaps most important of all is what this image means to me; what thoughts go through my mind as I look at it? Would I like for everyone who views my work to see a story or message held within? Certainly yes. Am I able to achieve such a thing with every shot I take? If only I could!

    Much as I love to create compelling images of beautiful animals (and clearly I make no distinction between the beauty of animals in the wild or those I find in captivity) that other people will be touched by, appreciate, and value – and if the comments people share on my 500px and Facebook pages are anything to go by I guess I do manage to achieve this at least some of the time – one of the greatest rewards for me is in capturing something of my subject’s personality and at times capturing a moment where I have their undivided attention (though without causing them any distress), which evokes a feeling of connection that I love.

    In your (let’s face it!) derogatory comment of how you regard “The Explosion!”, you simply see a “f$#cking tiger taking a bath in a zoo”, and I honestly – and I do mean honestly – don’t hold that against you; it’s your opinion, that you apparently value, and you are welcome to it. Though plainly you have no interest in my feelings about “The Explosion!”, I can assure you that I do indeed have them.

    I appreciate your noble reasons for only visiting zoos that have rescued animals, so you should be pleased to know that Khao Kheow Open Zoo – home of my Tigress – here in Thailand, does in fact dedicate much of their time and resources to their Second Chance project and animal hospital that caters to and cares for all sorts of species of rescued animals. They also have highly successful breeding programmes that have gone a long way toward conserving vulnerable and endangered species, and they work in close collabouration with renowned and highly regarded orgnaisations such as the Smithsonian Institute, Point Defiance Zoo in Seattle, and Nashville Zoo to name but a few.

    I also appreciate your honesty inasmuch as your admission to loving taking photos in zoos; as it happens, I very much like your magnificent Lion (dare I say!) portrait, though I know unfortunately some may discount it for being a captive animal shot, and perhaps still a little more composition-wise for the possibly less ascetically pleasing greater amount of negative space behind the subject’s head, rather than in front of it’s face for it to “look into”, but personally I like this a lot, for whatever that may be worth to you!

    “Is is authentic? Is it the real thing? Is is right?”

    In my honest opinion, yes to all three … and thank you for asking!

    As to your summary conclusions:

    “Who am I to critique National Geographic right?”

    You could have thrown me a bone there by slipping in “or the photographer” between “Geographic” and “right?”, but happy to let that one slide!

    Though I may not genuinely appreciate your critical remarks about what you quoted me as having said or, for that matter your whole approach with this, I do feel you have every right to your opinions Brendan, as well as your right to free speech.

    As to my photo having been “synthetically achieved”, once again way I see it you’re unnecessarily discounting the the value of this photo; for the many scores or even hundreds of animals-shaking-water-off photos that must have been captured over the years, and all of those that the National Geographic judges must have surely seen, I believe there was something of a natural moment here that had the added bonus of at least one element that made this picture totally unique; something the judges don’t believe has ever been captured in exactly the same way before and highly unlikely it will ever be captured this way again.

    How you’ve come to the opinion that this moment was “synthetically achieved” is beyond my comprehension, then again, to my mind you nailed it in part by saying “raw wild power” as I think that would be one great way to describe “The Explosion!”, but of course that’s not the way you meant it.

    Brendan, I know this is your blog and I could well understand you not liking some if not all of the things that I’ve said and, because of that, I could also understand you not feeling inclined to include my response to what you wrote. However, you signed off saying, “As for your thoughts, I want to hear them in the comments …… ”

    You will hopefully appreciate that I have not attacked you, merely stated my case in turn, and respectfully at that. Therefore, I am hoping you will be fair-minded enough about this to allow other people to read things from my point of view, seeing as to one degree or another you have also chosen to make my photo and me a topic for open conversation and debate.

    Thank you for your consideration whatever you may decide.

    Kind regards,


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    • Ashley, first of all, congratulations with your prize ! Whether or not people think it should have won a NG competition won’t change anything about it.

      I cannot speak for Brendan – but in my point of view, you’ve shot a beautiful picture … of a captive animal. An excellent one indeed – but in my point of view, hardly better than an excellent shot of a dog or a cat (actually, dogs and cats usually roam more freely than a zoo animal !).

      Now I know that NG is much more about people than it is about the natural world – but still, I cannot grasp how the rules can allow a shot of a captive animal to enter the competition – let alone how a jury can select one to win it !

      Don’t get me wrong – you did nothing wrong, on the contrary (and you’ve been honest about your shot, which often is not the case!) – but the rules & jury just aren’t right. This has so little to do with nature … and even less with wildlife. A crucial part of the definition of wildlife in nature, is that the animals are freely roaming. Well, guess what – it’s not the case of zoo animals. Zoo animals have different habits, ranges, looks, feed differently, eat different things, even have different lifespans, …, … from the real wildlife counterpart. There is no way you can call a zoo animal part of either wildlife or nature – unless you don’t know nature or wildlife.

      And that’s just the point of all the ‘ranting’: NG should promote nature & wildlife in it’s ‘nature competition’. By choosing a shot of an animal in a closed unnatural environment, feeding and behaving differently than the animal in it’s natural environment, NG is certainly not doing so.

      PS : as for the claim that zoo shots allow everyone to participate – even those who are not being able to travel & go to remote places to observe wild animals :

      1) wildlife is within reach of 99,9% of people – be it a grasshopper, a coot on a lake, or a fox. Of course, if you want to have a shot of an elephant or a tiger – you have to go in it’s natural environment. Which is not possible for a lot of people, but likewise, very few African or Asian photographers can shoot European coots !

      2) the idea that everyone should be able to send pictures of about any animal (and therefore zoo animals should be allowed) is just absurd ! If you don’t have a Formula 1 car, you cannot participate in a F1 race. Likewise, if you don’t have wildlife pictures, you shouldn’t participate in a wildlife photo competition.

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  19. Photography can lie, but what I think is important here is that Ashley, the photographer, didn’t. I have larger concerns about last year’s winner, who blatantly lied about how his image was captured, and the caption was “altered” and quickly brushed under the rug.

    I think you make a lot of valuable points here, which is why I responded to the piece, and addressed last year’s issues in a “rant” of my own on my site (

    And in response to your comment about “staging conflicts to get really cool war photos” — Unfortunately (and I don’t mean to assume you don’t know this, because you probably do) but photographers have been doing that from the civil war until today, whether it’s staging bodies as done by the historical greats like Alexander Gardner or modern editorial photographers trying to capture that photo that will sell despite it’s loose representation of the actual truth. Authenticity is a fine line.

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  20. ha ha… I had fun reading this post. This photo was up against some stiff competition. Gotta love that fox trying to catch a mouse in the snow shot. Timing was priceless.

    I agree w/ you about NG’s standards and how they should consder photos which are more authentic and capture animals in their element. I keep looking at the shot and think– to top it off, what if she just had her camera on automatic too. lol. Giving the photographer the benefit of the doubt though. But wouldn’t that be a kicker.

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  21. My respects to the photographer. Its a great shot. What it is, is an offence to the other photographers who ventured into the wild and brought their images to this prestigious contest. Im one of them.

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  22. Great shot Ashley! My respect to you as a photographer.
    One presumes that the venture into the wild forms part of the overall criteria of a judge. I presumed that and I even mentioned the danger I endured in obtaining my entry shot. NG should be specific. The problem is, too many specifics dont inspire 20,000 entries. NG has lost alot of prestige with this one. I understand but a hell of alot of people dont.

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  23. On your FB site you’re are talking about a ‘f***ing tiger’? Don’t you have any respect for wild animals? If you don’t agree with the winning picture because it’s taken in a zoo you have to write to the organization and don’t put a negative blog about the photographer on the internet. To me you seem a pathetic jealous guy who can only dream of making shots like that.

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    • Mate, thanks for the comment. Loads of respect for the animal…. and I think if you had respect for it you wouldn’t want to see it stuck in a zoo either. I’m not jealous at all of the photo, I am not concerned that it’s a tiger, my issue is with Nat Geo allowing photos taken in zoos as a part of their contest. If this photo was taken in the wild I would have said “bloody brilliant best wild tiger shot I have ever seen.” Also to quote you: “Don’t you have any respect for wild animals?” Absolutely, but this animal is not WILD, it is in a ZOO! Hence my rant. I have more respect for WILD animals than anyone, that’s why I have an issue with Nat Geo allowing zoo photos (CAPTIVE animals) to be accepted within the contest.
      P.S. read the article, the blog isn’t about the photographer AT ALL, it’s about Nat Geo…

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  24. Brendan,

    If “the blog isn’t about the photographer AT ALL” then why did you write, “The quote from the photographer alone creates all sorts of issues for me.” and then go on to pick everything I’d written apart in a clear attempt to ridicule the things I’d written?

    As to your thought, ” … but this animal is not WILD” boy how I’d love to see you in the same enclosure with Busaba to test your belief on this – LOL ;^)

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    • Mate,
      I used your quotes to point out my issues with the general thesis of the argument. They in no way degrade you as a person… get over that.
      As for the last quote “As to your thought, ” … but this animal is not WILD” boy how I’d love to see you in the same enclosure with Busaba to test your belief on this – LOL ;^)” The fact that he is behind an enclosure makes it not wild. The fact there is something stopping it from attacking you in the first place ensures it is not wild.
      Your concept of wild is very humanistic.
      Wild means that the animal is completely unrestricted in anyway. No fence, no cage, nothing but themselves and nature. If this animal WAS wild, it likely would have attacked you after taking this photo.
      Enjoy your success with the photo. I really do wish you all the best in the future. We don’t agree on what is “Wild” but I do think that your work is excellent. I’m not sure how many times I can tell you that my issues are not with you or your photo, but the rules Nat Geo has put in place.
      As you know, I’ve offered you the ability to write an article for my blog describing your view of the zoo and wildlife photography in general. You’ve turned that down since you’ve become too busy with interviews and such. However, if you change your mind… please shoot me a message as my microphone is always open.

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  25. I keep with my statement. Your blog puts more a finger at the photographer in the first place then at National Geographic. You made all of his writing about how the picture is made ridiculous. If you have more respect for wild animals then anyone else as you say you won’t call it a fucking tiger or a model for L’Oreal. As much as it hurts me too it is also necessary to have animals in captivity. When men goes on with wildlife as they do right now there will be no tigers anymore or a lot of other animals. If you took the trouble to read about the animal program of this zoo and the breathing program the have and also the fact that a lot of animals in the zoo not even are showed to the public so they not will be become stressed, your comment will look quiet different.
    You only visit zoo’s where rescued animals are living? That’s impossible. We have a zoo with abused bears who are rescued but it cost a lot of money and the money comes from the visitors who also want to see other animals who are in captivity and not are abused. Otherwise no visitor will pay a lot of money to look just at some bears for a while.
    And yes I read your blog over and over again and even visit your FB site but I stay with my conclusion. I feel sorry for you, sorry that you need the agreement of how you think about things from all your internet ‘friends’. If you had confident in yourself and about where you stand in life you wouldn’t wrote this kind of blogs.

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  26. Hi,just seen this blog and felt the need to comment about the winning photograph.
    Ok,the photo in mention,is great,a fantastic shot of this tiger in the water.However,and here I will proberly get slammed for saying this,what the heck does it matter if it was taken in a zoo.?
    Is photography getting “snobby”,where only photographers who can afford to take long,expensive vacations in certain climates and terrains allowed to submit photos to these contests?OR,is it for everyone else who happens to own a decent camera?
    From the vast array of replies above,it seriously sounds to me,that unless youre taking mammoth ,expensive trips to photograph some animal,then the rest of the camera population are just not worthy.
    The photographer stated it was taken in a zoo,and didnt lie about this,like he couldve.Perhaps you would all have prefered if he had wrote that he spent 12 days trekking thru forests or jungles,before stalking him out,and waiting??Get real people.
    I can bet fr sure,that some of the other photographs over the years are not exactly as they happened.At least this guy said where it was.
    I thought that in these photography contests,the actual photograph itself was the thing in question,not where was it taken.
    So am I to assume that unless we are all serious photographers,spending thousands on vacations and trips,spending days or even weeks to get one shot,then the rest of us might as well not bother.Hmmmmm,a serious case of photography snobbery methinks.who knows,maybe next year someone might win with their photo taken with a P&S camera,heaven forbid that!
    At the end of the day guys,it should all be about the actual photograph,NOT where they took it,or what they took it with.But the quality and excellance of the image.
    Now I think I will retire to the sides and put on my hard hat to await the onslaught of negative comments etc I will more than likely get.

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    • Hi Suey,
      Don’t worry, you’re not going to get slammed for this.
      I agree with you on many accounts. I appreciate the photographer’s honesty about where it was taken. I’m ashamed that some photographers lie about whether their subject was captive/trained or wild. You’re right that zoos give more people a chance to shoot photos, but that’s a pretty humanistic approach isn’t it? Would you feel different if a person was captured and left in an enclosure for people to photograph? I know that’s a drastic example, but I feel like Nat Geo should be promoting wild nature and not captive nature.
      Moreover, you don’t need a fancy camera to take wildlife photography. I’ve seen amazing wildlife images from a P&S as well as iPhones. The point is that animals should not be on display for our photographic perposes. Not everyone has the ability to take all types of photos. I’m in west Africa so I can’t take photos of Northern Lights or snow as much as I would like to from time to time. If I were to “re-create” that nature here it would be seen as phoney. Now, I understand I’m getting off-topic again.
      My point is that we in society have a very humanistic view of the world. The argument that zoos give people a chance to take photos like this doesn’t resonate with me because it seems like the photo is more important than the animal, which isn’t the case. Also, if in the wild even the best wildlife photographer would not likely ever get a photo like this so the point is fairly irrelevant.
      I do agree with you that the photo is of excellent quality and was supurbly taken. It’s a great image and deserves a great amount of admiration and merit. I just don’t agree with Nat Geo endorsing the captivity of this animal, or other animals, with their selection.
      Anyways, we might not see eye to eye, but at least we can both appreciate the quality of the image.
      Thanks for your comment!

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  27. Hey Brendan,

    As a traveler and archaeologist, I just googled travel magazines to write for, and I came across yours and now have spent a good amount of time on this blog, reading all the comments on this particular post. You hit the nail on the head when you stated to the NG winner that their concept of “wild” is very humanistic. In the archaeology world that I am entering as a career NatGeo is praised for bringing to the public all that is glamourous about cave diving in cenotes in the Yucatan and such, but the reality is those shots and videos in many cases are a result of scientifically trained divers spending days in the deep dark recesses of an underwater cave. I found it interesting that the winning pic came from a freaking zoo which is seriously, NOT in the wild, but NatGeo has scientists who risk their lives and happen to have camera people along for the dive to catch the moment. Perhaps its a liability issue, ie., the magazine doesnt want a bunch of newbies running around in the wild and hurting themselves? As ludicrous as that sounds, it sounds like such a cowardly, self-centered world I am afraid some of us are heading towards. Kind of like the commercial I see on TV where a father and son are going to “rough it” and the camera pulls back to reveal their tent is located in their backyard. As beautiful as the photo was, revealing that it was taken in a zoo, even a humane one, made me question the editorial contest staff’s judgement. Keep up the great work, BTW!

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    • Hey mate, Thanks for the support! I love your comparison. I guess people can claim that this was an “amateur contest” though. The other argument I heard was that it allows more people to participate. Well, if that’s the case than shouldn’t the contest be free too? Perhaps a money grab by NatGeo which is shameful… anyways. haha.
      Look, I’m not sure if you spotted it but I own a small travel magazine myself Vagabundo Magazine. We don’t pay much (note the point in the article where I admit to be struggling haha), but we do pay. We’d love to see a pitch from you sometime!

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      • Thanks for the info! Checking out your magazine and will be in touch…

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  28. Perhaps the photo is better suited to winning a prize from Better Homes & Gardens than National Geographic. NatGeo just sank a little in my book. 🙁

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  29. You raise some really interesting points in this post Brendan. It is true the photo is amazing, but I also agree with you in feeling that something is lost when the photo hasn’t been taken out in the wild. Surely wildlife photography needs to be “in the wild”?

    Alternatively, Zoos do have their place in this world. Gone are the days (in most countries at least) where zoos were simply about putting animals on show. These days they serve such an important role in worldwide animal conservation and protection, so perhaps the fact that the photo was taken at a zoo, and has spurned the kind of discussion that is happening on this post for example, is a good thing?

    Pros and cons with no real answer I suppose.

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  30. Thank-you for writing this article.

    I feel the same way – on Instagram they have the competitions – you don’t win anything but its the notoriety of winning. People are opting for images that have clearly been taken in a controlled environment ie. Zoo. Where as mine has been taken on a boat in the middle of the Chobe river – wondering if this is where we are heading? Is this the future – taking photos at a zoo. Would really appreciate your comments/ view on this.

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  31. I agree completely, and you’ll notice that National Geographic (Your Shot) no longer allows shots from zoos or aquariums, as should be the case and maybe due to this article. I was not too pleased when I saw this photo won. All due credit to the photographer as the shot itself is fabulous. But a big let down from Nat Geo for using it as a winning shot when they are all about “wild” and “nature” which is not what a zoo is. A zoo is a prison, no animal belongs in a prison for any reason.

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    • Wow! I’m glad to hear that. Good on National Geographic for making the change! Thanks for your comment.

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      • Here I was, so excited to purchase a zoo membership, in order to spend hours on end observing animals and documenting their wonderful behavior with my humble camera. Inspired, motivated, and forward thinking… until I read your article. Why not let all the animals out of the zoo, close their gates. Be free, gentle giants! Roam about the earth amongst the predators, until you are no more.

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