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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