Firing of AP freelance photographer highlights perils in altering images

Associated Press | Politico | NPR

In a photo taken on Sept. 29, 2013, a Syrian opposition fighter takes cover during an exchange of fire with government forces in Telata village in Syria. In the original image (top photo), a fellow journalist’s video camera is visible on the ground in the left corner of the frame. Freelance photographer Narciso Contreras altered the image (lower photo) by “cloning”€ other pieces of the background and pasting them over the camera, before sending it to an AP photo desk. The Associated Press has severed ties with the freelance photographer, who it says violated its ethical standards by altering the photo. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras)

First it was there and then it was gone — and so was the Associated Press career of a freelance photographer who was once part of a Pultizer Prize-winning team.

The Associated Press announced Wednesday that it had fired photojournalist Narciso Contreras after he digitally removed a colleague’s video camera from a photo of a Syrian opposition fighter by cloning background images to cover it up.

Dylan Beyers wrote in Politico:

Though a seemingly benign alteration, it fell beneath the guidelines of the AP’s News Values & Principles, which state that AP pictures “must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way. … No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph.”

In its story on the firing, the wire service said Contreras took the photo in September while covering the fighting between rebels and government forces in the village of Telata.

“I took the wrong decision when I removed the camera … I feel ashamed about that,” Contreras said in the AP story. “You can go through my archives and you can find that this is a single case that happened probably at one very stressed moment, at one very difficult situation, but yeah, it happened to me, so I have to assume the consequences.”

Poynter’s senior faculty Kenny Irby called the incident extremely unfortunate for both Contreras who “made photographic coverage contributions on the Syrian conflict” and for AP, which has “led the way in upholding and enforcing the highest standards of photographic credibility in the journalistic space.”

But among photojournalists, the cloning of visual information is unacceptable and clearly violates AP ethics guidelines, Irby said.

“While I would like to believe Contreras who has said that this is the first such incident, his body of work certainly will be called into question,” Irby said. Beyond AP’s own review of Contreras’ portfolio, “you can bet that many pixel sleuths in blogosphere, armed with new photo-forensics tools, are busy vetting his work.”

In a parallel universe of photography, another controversy has sprouted around Vogue magazine’s manipulation of actress Lena Dunham’s photo. NPR asks if it matters that Vogue changed the image, making her slimmer and her neckline lower. Clearly, strict photojournalism standards don’t apply as they did in Contreras’ case.

“It is an interesting contrast to Lena Dunham’s manipulated photograph in Vogue,” Irby said. “The viewing public certainly needs clarity and transparency from the publication to make better sense of what they are viewing as credible vs. created imagery.”

To read more on photo forensic resources or to try out some tools, Irby suggests:
TinEye reverse image search
FourMatch Demo
Hany Farid’s research

Related: L.A. Times Photographer Fired Over Altered Image

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  • klmiller-mckinnon

    Isn’t part of the job of a professional photographer to keep “crap like that [the camera]” OUT of the pics in the first place? Take more pics, get different angles, move the camera, take Hail Mary shots in hopes the offending “crap” not be in every shot. There are loads of other options than to take the easy, Photoshop way out.

  • klmiller-mckinnon

    I beg to differ– the photo of this nature IS documentation–it’s JOURNALISM. If one wants to set a mood, go into wedding photography. The ethical breach is just as stated in the news piece: now NONE of this photographer’s work can be trusted. Lie to me once…everything else you tell me is now suspect.

    Seems odd to wage such a huge price for such a goofy thing as removing a camera: crop it, take a gazillion others or choose from the gazillion others professional photographers usually shoot, especially now that the cost of film is no longer an issue.

  • OnyxE

    Obviously they have a glut of journalists if they would fire someone for this. I think a warning would have sufficed and had I looked at a photo like that and seen a camera in it I would have been wondering if the guy with the gun owned the camera. Sometimes taking out crap like that in a photo makes it easier to understand what the photo is supposed to be about.

  • Alfred Ingram

    Do I really care that a camera was removed from this picture? Is this material to any interpretation promoted in the story in which it appeared. As long as I am told a picture has been altered and if the changes are meaningful, I’m not sure I mind. The picture is not a lie because with or without the camera it really isn’t a fact. It’s a mood. It’s an illustration not a documentation. He violatewd his contract but I don’t see a great ethical breach, unless it lies in pretending a image that sets a mood is documenting something vital and significant. Seems there’s a lot of that going around lately.