Zero-Tolerance For Photoshop

Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Narciso Contreras has confessed to doctoring one of the photos he took in Syria for the Associated Press:

When it comes to major Photoshop alterations, serious news organizations have a zero-tolerance policy, as AP freelance photographer Narciso Contreras recently discovered. After admitting that he had cloned out a piece of a Syrian conflict image, the news agency was forced to ‘sever ties’ with the Pulitzer Prize winner. The photo in question was taken in September of last year, and shows a Syrian opposition fighter taking cover during a firefight with government forces. In the original, a colleague’s camera can be seen in the bottom left corner of the image, a camera that Contreras decided to clone out before sending the picture in.

The AP flipped its shit; not only did the agency fire Contreras, it removed the entire library of his work from its public record. Yannick LeJacq questions whether that was the right call:

This final point about removing Contreras’s work from the visible archive of the AP’s history is particularly compelling. The AP, it seems, acted so swiftly and harshly because it has a reputation to uphold. It’s not only “the definitive source,” by its own description, but also “the world’s most trusted news organization.” And to its credit, the AP acted with commendable transparency by openly reporting on its own snafu.

But still: did it have to strike all of his work from the public record?

Roger Tooth, the Guardian’s head of photography, explains why the zero-tolerance policy matters:

Sacking someone, albeit a freelance, seems very draconian. It was a first offence after all – AP has carefully checked all Contreras’s 494 other photographs on their archive. A warning would have been more suitable, surely? Except that the major wire agencies and their clients rely on their images being totally authentic; that’s why news organisations like the Guardian spend many thousand of pounds each year on their contracts. In a news environment it’s all about a chain of trust: from the photographers through to the agencies, newspapers and websites, and then to the readers. If that chain is broken, any picture could be suspect, and that can’t be allowed to happen.

Adam Weinstein points out that other forms of manipulation, sometimes more egregious, are just fine with the AP and other news agencies:

Most news agencies have no interest in a photograph whose truth is messier, whose truth doesn’t hit a special emotional chord in our cockles. Crop it? Sure. Lighten it? Yeah, just a bit. Use this mid-action frame, and not the dozen before or after it? Yep. Add a caption to tell viewers exactly what they should get out of the image? Of course.

But good God, don’t Photoshop anything out! It’s laudable that the AP’s standard pays lip service to “truth and accuracy.” By its standards, Contreras absolutely made an unpardonable sin. But the “objective” news industry’s pretense to sinlessness is just as unpardonable.

James Estrin notes that this “type of ethical lapse happens with alarming frequency despite the clarity of the rules and the severe consequences that have befallen transgressors”:

In one of the most notorious cases, Brian Walski of The Los Angeles Timeswas fired in 2003 for combining elements of two images into one composite. Adnan Hajj, a freelance photographer working for Reuters was let go in 2006 after doctoring smoke in an image of an Israeli airstrike in Beirut. But unlike previous occurrences in which the violation was discovered by readers, bloggers or other photographers, this week’s case had a twist: Mr. Contreras — facing a moral dilemma and knowing the consequences — turned himself in.