The Sacramento Bee has suspended an award-winning photographer for combining two photos of an egret eating a frog into one image, an ethical violation that Sean Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association, called a “betrayal.”
Elliot said cases of photo manipulation like this chip away at all photojournalists’ credibility with the public.
“If this photographer in Sacramento can diddle around with a photograph of an egret, how can I know that any photograph I look at is trustworthy?” he asked. “It feels like a betrayal. … It violates a feeling of trust I think we have with all of our members.”
The Bee didn’t identify the photographer in question; Community Affairs Director Pam Dinsmore told me that the paper wasn’t able to do so, or discuss the paper’s response, because “it’s not yet resolved.”
However, a local TV station said it was Bryan Patrick, which Elliot confirmed. Patrick took the other images in the Bee’s photo gallery of the Galt Winter Bird Festival. (I was unsuccessful in reaching Patrick by email and phone.)
Kenny Irby, Poynter’s faculty for photojournalism and diversity, said after looking at the photo that it wasn’t hard to tell that it had been Photoshopped. “The vegetation in the image is what’s a giveaway.”
A reader noticed something amiss and emailed the paper on Sunday or Monday, Dinsmore said. A newsroom meeting was held Wednesday to discuss the issue, and the paper posted the correction Wednesday night.
Irby and Elliot said this case of photo manipulation reminded them of what happened with former Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski, who combined two photos of a British soldier and Iraqi citizens. (That case was revealed after people noticed duplicate portions of the image.)
But this case is more befuddling, Elliot said, because “the photographer hadn’t spent three or four sleepless nights in the back of an Army Humvee racing down desert roads with live ammunition going off all around as an excuse for why his brain misfired.”
Patrick has won numerous awards for his work; Elliot said he was in second place for the NPPA’s Region 10 still clip contest. “This is the kind of thing that unfortunately casts a shadow over every one of those awards, because you have to wonder,” he said.
He wondered whether the pressure of being an award-winner may have had something to do with the manipulation.
“When you’ve won lots of awards and everyone expects you to come back with great photos every time, maybe you feel this overwhelming need to make every photo perfect even when it’s not,” Elliot said. “I don’t want to put thoughts into anybody’s head. In my mind there is no way to explain it.”
Irby suggested something similar. “The reality of this moment in one of those frames is compelling and memorable,” Irby said, “but it’s not perfect in the mind of the artist.”
The Bee, which is a Guild newspaper, said that it was investigating the case. Ed Fletcher, a reporter at the newspaper and the Newspaper Guild’s co-chair there, said Patrick was told that he could be represented by the Guild, but so far he hasn’t chosen to. “Until he asks us to, we’re not involved.”
While the Guild contract doesn’t expressly require that the newspaper suspend an employee while it investigates possible wrongdoing, Fletcher said he’d be surprised if the paper were so strident as to fire someone immediately.
There have been other cases of ethical breaches there. “It’s not something that’s tolerated or pushed under rug at the Bee,” he said. “There is a culture that takes these things very seriously, and rightfully so.”
Irby said that news organizations need to “relieve people of their service” to show that they’re committed to journalism ethics. Once NPPA learns what happened, Elliot said, it could consider penalizing the photographer by rescinding awards or membership.
Elliot said he’s been talking about photojournalism ethics “nonstop” since criticizing The Washington Post’s use of an HDR photo on its front page last month. He said he’s argued that if people doubt one image, they will start to doubt all of them. “This feels malicious, whereas what the Post did I consider a mistake; maybe others didn’t.”
“If the public isn’t going to trust our images — I’m not even going to go there. It’s very frustrating.”
Correction: Dinsmore said that a reader called the paper to raise questions about the photo, but the Bee said later that the reader had emailed. This post has been corrected to reflect the accurate information.