It has become one of the most well-known wildlife photographs in the world: A jet black monkey with piercing red eyes smiles tentatively into the camera, revealing its yellow teeth.
But when British wildlife photographer David Slater took the photo in 2011, there was no way he could have foreseen why the image would eventually be splashed across every news outlet from the United States to Russia.
The story behind the selfie is one that started in the forests of Sulawesi, and is currently languishing in the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Along the way, the narrative has become convoluted, stretched, and tangled, but at the heart of it, there remains one central question: Can a monkey own the copyright on a photograph?
It all began when Slater traveled the world to Indonesia in order to take photos of crested black macaques to raise awareness of their plight.
Spending three days with the monkeys, Slater eventually gained the troop's trust. “It wasn’t easy,” he tells IFLScience. “They were going through quite dense tangly forests, off the path, under fallen trees, over fallen branches, really hard stuff. But slowly they began to accept me.”
“By the second day, it was clear that they had absolutely accepted me into their group. When we sat down together, they would come over and start jumping on me and playing with me.”
It was during these moments of play that the origins of the monkey selfie began to emerge. Originally, Slater just wanted to take some photos of himself among the troop, setting the camera up on a log. It was not long, however, until the shiny lens attracted the attention of the monkeys themselves, and they tried to steal it.
When the monkey selfie first did the rounds, many incorrectly reported that it was at this point that the monkey pressed the shutter release and took the image, but Slater says this is not so. After seeing their interest in the camera, he actually decided to set it up on a tripod in the forest, attach a shutter release cable to it, and then lie on the floor and hold the tripod legs to stop it from tipping over.