Girl in a gas mask, holding a koala: The truth behind that viral Australian bush fires photo

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
This digitally altered image, by an Australian photo artist, has gone viral. (Photo: Instagram/@thuie)

The photos and videos of Australia ablaze are incredibly impactful — but there’s one image in particular that’s been stopping people in their tracks, and getting shared at viral levels on social media: In it, a young girl stands in knee-deep water wearing a gas mask and holding a koala as fire rages behind them.

And no, the image is not fully authentic, says the photographer. But thanks to the power of Photoshop, the compelling, not-far-fetched compilation is inspiring empathy across social media.

“Wow this is so powerful!” noted one fan in the comments section of the original Dec. 22 post, by Australia-based photographer, identified only as Thu, of Thousandfold Photography. “With SO many photos of the fires and devastation people become numb to it. This image stops you in your scroll and even if it made one person think, ‘sh**, I can do something to help in some way’ whatever that is then that is amazing!”

Thu, who shoots family portraits through her Thousandfold Photography, based in Sydney and Wollongong, did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s interview request. But she describes herself on her website as “Green hair, tattooed and with a camera in one hand” and “a modern day historian, capturing real emotions.” She also creates more manipulated art shots by using Photoshop, and was clear about taking artistic liberties with the viral post. Thu updated it by noting, “This post has now gone viral please make sure that you mention it is a photoshop edit (this is what my account is known for) Thank you.”

She also responded to commenters asking which parts of the photo were real, explaining, “hi all, this image is photoshop. I live near the fires but not this close so we are not in direct danger. The original image is just of my daughter in the water. I created this piece out of sadness that was and still happening.”

Other manipulated images on her Instagram page, with over 16,600 followers, include magical scenes centered around one of her two daughters, involving everything from sand dunes and a grizzly bear to mountaintops and outer space.

Her latest photo has more than 10K likes on the original post alone, and that’s not counting the many times the image has been reposted by others on Instagram and shared to Facebook and Twitter.

Not all Instagram commenters approved of the photo manipulation, however, with some calling it “doctored,” a “fake photo,” “so wrong,” “in poor taste,” “total misrepresentation,” “irresponsible” and “fake deception.”

But of course the viral photo has plenty of fans. “Regardless of this image being photoshopped it’s not too far from the reality many Australians are experiencing,” noted one commenter, with another adding, “I'm Australian this is art and the message is that we need help support love hope and donations and I think this is an amazing photo art photoshop image that she has created for a good cause.”

Someone else pointed out that “it’s digital art, that is this artist’s medium. pretty obvious it’s not a real image. It’s a symbolic representation and if people are stopping and talking about it, it’s doing it’s intended purpose.” Yet another supporter fired back at the commenters dissing the image as phony, noting, “None of its real??? Are you watching the movie channel instead of the news? The image shows a bushfire. It shows a koala being held. It shows a child in a mask standing in water. All of this is happening.”

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