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Fake ‘caption’ to a photo turned into a nightmare

The impala stares defiantly down the camera lens. Inset: Maltese wildlife photographer Alison Buttigieg.

The impala stares defiantly down the camera lens. Inset: Maltese wildlife photographer Alison Buttigieg.

Run down by cheetahs, an impala stares defiantly down a camera lens moments before its death.

Shot by a Maltese wildlife photographer, the striking image went viral around the world last week, accompanied by a haunting story: the impala was sacrificing herself to allow her calves to escape. The photographer, the story said, was driven to depression by what she had witnessed.

That story was a lie.

Alison Buttigieg, a 36-year old photographer living in Finland, was enjoying a quiet day last Saturday when her phone went off. A friend had seen the image, recognised it as hers and was worried about her depression.

At first Ms Buttigieg, who is not depressed, found the situation amusing. But another message followed, and another, and eventually hundreds. Some were friends and family asking about her mental health, others were strangers angry that she had not done anything to save the impala.

Ms Buttigieg had shot the image, which won an international award last year, back in 2013, “on a pretty standard outing” in Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve, she told the Times of Malta.

A highlight of my photography career has turned into a nightmare

The story behind it was dramatic, but not quite as heartwarming. The impala had been brought down by a mother cheetah, teaching her cubs to kill. The cubs struggled with the task, until the mother put the impala out of its misery herself.

The fabrication was more shareable. Ms Buttigieg’s professional LinkedIn profile was tagged, bringing the fake story and her supposed mental health issues to the attention of colleagues and employers.

The story was shared hundreds of thousands of times and was picked up by media as far as India and Sri Lanka. Just yesterday, a Bollywood star shared it on Instagram, giving the story legs again as he was mocked in Indian media for his credulity.

“A highlight of my photography career has turned into a nightmare,” Ms Buttigieg wrote on Facebook, attempting to set the record straight after hours upon hours filing individual reports on each of the shared images.

In 13 years of travelling the world snapping shots of nature’s most majestic creatures, she has had images stolen before, but never have they spread so far and so fast, and never accompanied by such inventions.

While angry about the experience, Ms Buttigieg said she was not looking for any additional attention, but was keen to show just how quickly ‘fake news’ can spread and how distressing it can be for those dragged into its midst.

“I never imagined that this could happen to an ordinary person like me,” she said.

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