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A Fake Makes it to the Smithsonian’s Photo Contest Finalists

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I was surprised to see this as a finalist in the Smithsonian’s 2012 Photo Contest:

Photograph by Eko Adiyanto. The Smithsonian's caption reads:"The photographer, armed with his Nikon D70, was compelled to take this photo because he had never seen ants exhibiting their strength in this way. 'It’s a unique and rare moment,' Adiyanto says."

I was surprised because, to this ant biologist’s eyes, the scene is obviously faked. Ants don’t do that.

And why would they? They’re not herbivores, this species, and that’s an extraordinarily inefficient way to transport food, anyway. The image is probably compelling for that reason. It is a wholly unnatural arrangement of ants doing something, well, “unique and rare.”

The fakery does not involve photoshop. Given what I know of this species, I suspect the insects were posed as follows.

Oecophylla smaragdina, the Asian weaver ant, is not shy about attacking intruders to its treetop territories. The scene can be set by taunting guard ants, who stand to attention and look around for something to bite. If you hand an ant something into which she can sink her toothy jaws, she will grab and hold; this species is unusually tenacious and the guards will cling to offending items for some time. The strategy works well to deter attack by other ants, for example.

Weaver ants are strong- that part isn’t faked. The ants build nests by pulling living tree leaves together and binding them with larval silk. The strength and grip involved in bending leaves and stems is unusual even among ants.

The patient observer can cajole the angry-but-not-terribly-bright insects into a pattern like that seen in Mr. Adiyanto’s photo. It’s clever. And I’d be fine with the image if the photographer weren’t trying to pass off a manufactured pose as natural ant behavior.

Mr. Adiyanto’s circus ants might have a place in the Smithsonian’s “Altered Images” category. But they certainly don’t belong among the “Natural World” offerings.

update (3/13/2013): The Smithsonian has contacted the photographer, who admits to staging the photographs exactly as I describe above:

Adiyato explains that he fed seeds from different plants to the ants and lifted, placed, and stacked the ants on the branch himself. Once the ants were in these positions, he took the photograph. He writes, in an email, that he has been observing and studying ants because of their outsized power.

We also asked Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History entomologist Ted Schultz about the scene. “Like Alex Wild says, they wouldn’t really be carrying these things for any reason. On top of that, they wouldn’t really be hanging upside down holding them like that. It is not like they are going to eat those things, those [seeds] are not food for them.”

Further reading:




Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Capularis 11:39 am 03/8/2013

    I noticed that. Surely the Smithsonian has the experts to vet these images?

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  2. 2. Sean McCann 11:41 am 03/8/2013

    They have probably been laid off.

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  3. 3. beakgeek 1:22 pm 03/8/2013

    Bravo! As a photographer this seems to be happening more and more. People with no real knowledge of a species they are photographing get images of animals behaving in ways they never would in the wild.

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  4. 4. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 1:55 pm 03/8/2013

    Over on facebook, my friend Katherine Chi left this very insightful comment (which I hope she does not mind my borrowing):

    “The disappointing thing about all of these “manipulated photographs” is that it seems to say nature isn’t sufficiently interesting or splendid on its own, and requires some intervention to provide a worthy subject…”

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  5. 5. jh443 5:04 pm 03/8/2013

    Hey, it’s a tradition with a noble (and often unknown) past. For example, Disney got away with faking lemming suicide.

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  6. 6. The Ethical Skeptic 5:17 pm 03/8/2013

    So it is a staged photo, not a faked photo. This is a photo of real ants, doing an actual ant thing, just not a pose of natural habituation. Fair enough and GREAT catch! Wow.

    – TES

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  7. 7. jbeekman 9:34 pm 03/8/2013

    Just science correcting itself. Sometimes it is immediately corrected, sometimes it takes longer.

    Nothing to see here, move along.

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  8. 8. mtmellen 12:29 am 03/10/2013

    I would not call this image a “fake”, but “staged with a misleading description”. It is true that these critters do not behave this way but the photo does not appear to be a product of photo manipulation; it seems to be an actual capture. The scene before the camera was certainly manipulated. “A unique and rare moment” only because the situation was set up to appear that way!

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  9. 9. ingleslenobel 5:49 pm 12/15/2013

    No mtmellen, it is a fake, only because of the way it was described. Had the photographer explained how it had been staged, then fine – staging images for a certain effect is not entirely unknown. But to pass it off as natural… that’s dishonest, a fake. One of the things about photography competitions etc is that when they stipulate natural then that’s what it has to be, there’s no room for error. There are other categories for images like this… it’s a splendid image, but a fake ‘natural’ image :)

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