The narrative behind the viral photo of a polar bear starving, reportedly thanks to climate change, has been called into question by the National Geographic photographer who took it in the first place.
In an article for the August issue of National Geographic titled “Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong,” Cristina Mittermeier talks about the intended message of the image versus the message that was received.
“We had lost control of the narrative,” she said.
“Photographer Paul Nicklen and I are on a mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change. Documenting its effects on wildlife hasn’t been easy,” she wrote in the article. “With this image, we thought we had found a way to help people imagine what the future of climate change might look like. We were, perhaps, naive. The picture went viral — and people took it literally.”
The image she is referencing shows an emaciated polar bear with hardly any fur covering its bony frame. In a video that was also taken of the bear, it can be seen slowly moving through the terrain, rummaging through an empty can.
Mittermeier goes on to say that it was the language put out by the publication that led to the message being misconstrued.
“The first line of the National Geographic video said, ‘This is what climate change looks like’ — with ‘climate change’ then highlighted in the brand’s distinctive yellow. In retrospect, National Geographic went too far with the caption.”
She estimated that 2.5 billion people saw the footage: “It became the most viewed video on National Geographic’s website — ever,” she said.
From there, social media and news outlets erupted over the message that was being portrayed.
Some experts suggested a number of reason besides climate change that could’ve led to the animal’s condition, including age, illness or even injury.
Mittermeier admits that she couldn’t “say that this bear was starving because of climate change.”
“Perhaps we made a mistake in not telling the full story — that we were looking for a picture that foretold the future and that we didn’t know what had happened to this particular polar bear.”
The photographer says that her image became another example of "environmentalist exaggeration,” but added that her intentions were “clear” and that if she had the opportunity to share “a scene like this one” again, she would.