Environmental NGO WWF Finland has apologised for using a retouched photo of a polar bear and cub standing on a tiny ice floe, apparently adrift in an ocean. However, the organisation’s communications head, Anne Brax, also defended use of the image as an advertising tool commonly used as shorthand for climate change and its impact on arctic regions, rather than as a news item.
The photo was used as part of an anti-climate change fundraising campaign aimed at students participating in Finland’s annual "taksvärkki" or "day’s work" programme, where middle schoolers work for a day to collect money for worthy causes.
The image used in the campaign was originally shot by nature photographer Steven Kazlowski and depicts a polar bear and a cub. In the original photo, however, the polar bears are set against an icy landscape with no ocean in sight.
Alongside the manipulated image used in the WWF Finland campaign is the text "sulaa hulluutta kun ilmasto lämpenee", which roughly translated means "pure madness as the climate warms", with a play on the word "sulaa”, which also means "to melt" in Finnish.
WWF Finland: "We made a mistake"
Tabloid daily Iltalehti first reported on the social media dust-up the image caused, following which Yle spoke with WWF Finland’s Anne Brax. She stressed that the photo was used for advertising and not for news purposes.
"Like all other organisations, we used a composite picture in the ad. Collages or composite pictures or otherwise manipulated photos are used in marketing to emphasise a message and for visual impact," she commented.
"In our advertising, ice hockey players, polar bears and Saimaa ringed seals have been used on the same ice floe to [signal] that we should preserve our snowy and icy winters," the comms chief added.
Brax noted that the polar bear image came from WWF’s international image bank and that agreements are always made with photographers regarding the use of their material.
However she admitted that the NGO made a mistake in assuming that the photo would be seen as an advertising image rather than an actual situation.
"We have made a mistake and we deeply regret it," she said, adding that advertising photos should clearly indicate that it they have been retouched.
"We are sorry that the photo used in our ad did not make this clear enough," Brax observed.
NGO: Polar bear a symbol of climate change
Brax said that in future, WWF Finland will indicate that photos used in similar campaigns have been manipulated .
"We have already added this in digital versions of the photo in question."
She stressed that an advertising photo is not misleading because the polar bear is a widely used symbol of climate change and the resulting distress experienced in arctic regions.
Yle pointed out that many people are sceptical about climate change and that some even claim the entire theory is a hoax and asked whether facts rather than manipulated photos should be used to counter their views.
"We are constantly presenting facts in our news communications – for example in our messaging about the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change. We have done this awareness building for years. Even school children can find facts on our website and we are constantly answering people’s questions about climate change on social media. We wanted to use the polar bear ad to lead people to seek facts on our website and to remember the relevant sources," Brax countered.