When is a photograph accurate?

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

A month before the world took notice of Australia’s wildfires—and hundreds of miles away from the worst blazes—Tahnee Passmore-Barns took photographs and a video of a woman and a kangaroo hugging at a tranquil sanctuary.

However, in the past few weeks, Passmore-Barns told us she found her work mislabeled by strangers, who claimed the woman saved the kangaroo from the bushfies. That’s one of many photographs and videos that have been popularly mis-captioned or photoshopped by people seeing to gain clicks—and/or dollars—from Australia's heart-tugging environmental disaster.

Both Passmore-Barns and her human subject, InStyle Editor-in-Chief Laura Brown, have repeatedly tried to clarify the viral kangaroo-hugging images ripped off by others. “It’s the ignorant and mercenary way things are sold off the back of it that offends me,” Brown told the Washington Post. “And from the look of it, others too.”

They're not alone. Photographer Stuart Palley told colleague David Beard that posters took and misrepresented two of his California wildfire photos as being from Australia. When the erroneous Facebook posts went viral, Palley was forced to comment on the posts to try to set the record straight.

In a world of memes and misinformation, with technical changes making fakes harder to detect, visual journalists stand at the crosshairs between their truth and others’ fabrications. Visual artists who photoshop images for effect also see their work hijacked by people who seek to misrepresent, particularly in highly emotional stories such as Australia’s bushfires. One such artist, Thu Pham-Moore, had to go on Instagram to clarify that her work—a photoshop mashup of a fire and a girl with a koala—had been misused and mislabeled.

For a photo consumer, one word of advice: caution. When in doubt, do a reverse-image search or put the photo through a smartphone app before sharing it. Or check the source of the information—although even the best sources can be fooled. One last thing: ALWAYS be wary of shark photos.

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Your Instagram photo of the day

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Cinematic: India, says photographer Sara Hylton, “reveals itself in layers and with great patience.” Hylton was reminded of this several months ago outside of Ghum Railway Station in West Bengal. “I’d almost given up on the day, annoyed at myself for not being able to tap into my craft. I put my camera away, and just as I surrendered, this cinematic scene appeared before me. Slowing down, and letting a place reveal itself to you is all part of the process."

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The big takeaway

What motivates photographers? Challenging assumptions, for one. And finding lonely heroes, connecting cultures, or simply profiling the young. Those are reasons given by four photographers and visual artists at a storytelling conference at Nat Geo headquarters this week:

Citlali Fabián focused on two questions as she made images of the food, music and dancing of fellow members of the Mexican Zapotec community in Los Angeles: How do we keep our cultural identity hundred of miles from home? How can we preserve it in images? Her goal: understanding. “That understanding is the first step to appreciate and respect other cultures,” she says.

Meghan Dhaliwal is documenting pregnant women on America’s southern border, many of whom are fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence and facing tightened immigration controls. Dhaliwal says she is inspired by midwives, who she calls the lonely allies of the new mothers, who have governments against them.

Esther Ruth Mbabazi, of Uganda, has found joy in profiling young people who have left African nations for Europe. They left for different reasons, she tells me, “looking for safety, fleeing dictators and conflicts, or seeking something better.” In Europe, her subjects do find change, but it often includes racism and other limits.

—Visual artist Bayeté Ross Smith enjoys challenging preconceived notions of identity. His advice: Be experimental, take risks, and don’t be limited by outdated notions of storytelling. Also: “People don’t want you telling them what to think. ... Give people the freedom to act on their perceptions—and question their preexisting beliefs."

Overheard at Nat Geo

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Wut? “So, Adam Driver plays me in the movie.” I’m standing in the Nat Geo cafeteria next to photographer Rick Smolen, who covered a woman’s nine-month, cross-country trek across Australia for National Geographic. Smolen, also known for his Day in the Life book series, was talking to me about TRACKS, the "pretty good" film adaptation of the amazing Outback journey of Robyn Davidson (pictured above), accompanied by four camels and a dog. More than four decades after the 1977 trip and a half dozen years after the film with Driver and Mia Wasikowska, Smolen acknowledged that he had become smitten by Davidson by the end of the journey—but noted that she, alas, had become smitten with novelist Salman Rushdie, with whom she embarked upon a three-year relationship.

Photo tip of the week

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One last glimpse

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From the archives: 'The Long, Lonely Leap' (published December 1960)

In 1960, U.S. Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger, Jr. set the record for the highest parachute jump, falling 102,800 feet and landing in New Mexico. NGS staff photographer Volkmar Wentzel rigged a camera to the inside of the gondola, capturing the moment Kittinger leapt and began his fall. The record held until 2012, when Felix Baumgartner jumped from 127,852 feet. Kittinger was on Baumgartner's Red Bull engineering team, and a mentor to Baumgartner throughout the 2012 mission.

Read: Joseph Kittinger on his original space dive

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Eslah Attar selected the photographs. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at Thanks for reading!