Celebrated Wildlife Photographer Exposed as Fraud in Sweden

September 14, 2011 9:42 pm Last Updated: October 1, 2015 3:38 pm

This picture from Swedish website Flashback.org shows how famous photographer Terje Helleso made one of his over 90 faked pictures of wild lynxes by cutting and pasting from stock photos. (flashback.org)
This picture from Swedish website Flashback.org shows how famous photographer Terje Helleso made one of his over 90 faked pictures of wild lynxes by cutting and pasting from stock photos. (flashback.org)
Two unrelated but strangely similar cases of deception are currently getting a lot of ink in Norway and Sweden. A famous wildlife photographer who faked his photos and a TV personality and author who faked his life in the wilderness are both examples of how things are not always what they seem, even in businesses where authenticity is everything.

Award-winning wildlife photographer Terje Helleso has become one of this week’s least popular people in Sweden since it was discovered that he faked hundreds of photos over the course of several years.

Helleso, 47, who lives in the small town of Mullsjo in southern Sweden, was awarded Photographer of the Year by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, and has been involved in an ongoing project in documenting the lynx. In late August, a local official for a hunter’s association accused Helleso of doctoring photos, after being tipped off by Internet users.

The official, Gunnar Gloersen, noted that one of the lynxes in a summer photo had winter fur, and after that several discrepancies turned up. Flashback.org, a Swedish website and forum, started examining Helleso’s pictures and soon found even more. They have since dedicated an entire website to the photographer’s fakery.

Norwegian-born Helleso, who is famous not only for his art, but also for being a strong advocate of keeping digital photography real and speaking out against manipulation or theft of material, denied everything initially.

But as evidence mounted, including GIF animations showing exactly how animals from stock photos on the net turned up in his pictures, Helleso admitted to everything on Sept. 3.

Since then, daily updates have appeared in national media detailing the famous photographer’s disgrace, and several foreign media, especially photographer’s magazines, have also picked up on the story.

On Wednesday, a deeply regretful Helleso spoke to local radio. He gave economic problems as a reason, but mostly it was about his own unreasonably high demands on himself to be successful, he said.

“I was under pressure, mostly from myself, and I gave in to temptation. Looking back, I’m surprised that I got away with it for so long, and that I managed to keep up appearances to my wife and everyone else,” he said.

Helleso has now been stripped of his award, had charges of fraud filed against him, been expelled from the Wildlife Photographers Association and his career is likely over. Added to that, an Internet movement where people make their own Terje-style pictures has appeared, with badly stuffed animals in winter landscapes or a lynx in the famous picture of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

On a curiously similar note, another Norwegian, successful author and TV personality Kristian Clausen, admitted to faking his primitive life in the wilderness. In 2009 and 2010, Clausen, 34, starred in his own TV documentary show, where he lived a primitive life in the forest, surviving completely on hunting, fishing, and foraging with no contact with society.

Or so people thought. In reality, Clausen resorted to cheating on several occasions. He spent several days at a hotel at one time, and another time he went shopping in a town while writing in this blog that he was subsisting on seaweed. For at least a month he lived in a small hut, and not outside in the woods. Clausen is now regretful, as expected.

"If I was the only one to suffer for my actions, it would have been fine, but there is also my family and friends and my fans. I’ve made a fool of myself, basically, and I’m going to have to live it down," he told Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.

Apart from selling some 10,000 copies of his book about his wilderness adventure, Clausen also won an award for it. It is not yet clear if he will get to keep the award.