The case of the missing camcorder

A photographer lost his job last week. Associated Press cut its ties with Narciso Contreras because the photographer digitally altered a news picture made in Syria. Specifically, Contreras replicated the ground around the camcorder to replace it in the lower left corner of the frame. It wasn’t the focus of action. It was barely in the frame. But, as he told AP, he thought it would be distracting so he removed it.

He shouldn’t have.

Comments in the online world are somewhat mixed about the episode. There are those who believe that if the change doesn’t affect the meaning of the picture then it’s fine. There are those who believe since other parts of the image are manipulated it’s arbitrary to say some changes are OK and others will get you fired. There are those who say changing pictures should get you fired, and some who would extend that to any change.

Altering pictures is as old as photography itself. Some changes are made to create something the camera didn’t see. Other changes are made so we can see what the photographer saw instead of the what the camera saw. Let me explain. In the days of film, and now with digital sensors, as good as the medium is it can’t replicate the range of human vision. Tri-X black and white film wasn’t particularly sensitive to the blue of the sky. A photographer might see a deep blue sky with a few white clouds, but the film couldn’t pick up that contrast with the proper exposure for the rest of the frame. Photographers could give the sky area of a photograph additional exposure so the clouds would be separate from the blue sky and the scene could better represent what the photographer saw. In photojournalism, that kind of alteration to adjust for technical limitations of the medium been considered ethical.

What has not been considered ethical in photojournalism is to add and/or remove things that alter the scene the photographer saw. In this case, removing a camcorder. It doesn’t represent the reality of the moment. Some people see that as an arbitrary judgment. The photograph still shows the fighter with his weapon. Does the missing camcorder really change that? Well, we don’t know do we? Whose camcorder was it and why was it there? More importantly, if that was changed what else was changed?

We’re up against an increasingly cynical world of viewers, I believe, who are more vocal about questioning the photographs they see. In their world, even though they weren’t at the scene the photograph’s truthfulness should be questioned. That’s why for news photographers it’s important to maintain the position that the photograph shows the viewer what was actually there. Yes, kick yourself for not noticing that extraneous thing in the frame and adjusting the camera angle so it doesn’t add a distracting element. Learn from it and grow in your awareness like photographers for decades have done. Don’t change the picture after the fact if you want to maintain your position as a reputable photojournalist.

Unfortunately (as least from my perspective), Narciso Contreras will probably not be the last photographer to manipulate the content of a news photograph. There will be other cases, and debates will continue over what’s acceptable and why. If the ultimate question is the preservation of credibility in news photographs, the standards have to be high. Otherwise, we’re back to artists illustrating what they think the scene looked like.

I could probably have included the before and after photographs as an example of fair use and criticism, but I’ll link to them and the AP announcement of the incident instead. You can see the photographs and read the response on the AP website.

Update: The PDN Pulse blog today has a conversation with the photographer about the incident.

Danny Lyon’s persistence

Danny Lyon jumped into photojournalism in the civil rights era. Not happy with the view he saw in mass-market publications like LIFE, Mr. Lyon set out to produce the unseen parts of the story. He’s receiving attention this month after an appearance at a National Geographic seminar where he talked about his work and career. He’s apparently got some interesting ideas on how he’d edit the magazine.

He’s also the subject of the Lens blog at the New York Times. The main idea is Lyon’s agitation for people to pursue justice and freedom. It’s something he’s been consistent (persistent) about in his career.

Mr. Lyon can be an abrasive character. He says what he thinks. The audience or venue doesn’t really change that. If everyone were like that, we’d have a tough time getting along in the world. But if no one is willing to take that stand, it’s too easy for problems to get papered over. No one wants to shake up or offend anyone, and it becomes too easy for those who should be called out to misdirect the focus.

There are photographers who have set out to shake things up a bit. Don McCullin, W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks all professed to a philosophy of using their cameras as “weapons” to try to shine light on problems and urge people to become involved in changing the situation. We benefit when photographers shine lights in dark corners. I applaud the ones who have the courage to do so.

Read about Danny Lyon and his work on the NY Times Lens blog.

Will visions persist?

I recently saw the 2013 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The story in general is about a guy who daydreams his way through different adventures, in contrast to his non-adventurous life. (I can relate. My mind does tend to wander.) There was an earlier film starring Danny Kaye that I haven’t seen yet. (It’s recorded, but I haven’t seen it yet.)

In this version, our hero works in the photographic archives of LIFE magazine. The magazine is facing its final issue, having been bought by another company with designs on taking the publication online. Walter has been sent a roll of film by one of the publication’s famous conflict photographers. A search for a specific negative provides the basis for Walter to break out of his daydreams and actually pursue an adventure or two. The film includes many scenes supposedly of the LIFE offices, including one where we see Walter running past enlarged pictures of notable LIFE covers, until he runs past one where he’s been substituted as the astronaut.

Still photograph from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

This isn’t meant to be a film criticism. I enjoyed the film, but there were parts that more than strained believability. However, it was fun to have my own daydream about Walter’s job. Working in a photographic archive like LIFE’s would be amazing. Keeping track of and preserving the visual record amassed by those photographers would be an awesome responsibility. I’m just a few decades too late to find myself doing much in a working archive of negatives, slides and prints.

Today’s agencies, publications and archives are likely to work with digital materials rather than physical ones, but the purpose of cataloging and preserving those files is just as necessary. There are new dangers though. Prints and negatives certainly degrade if not properly cared for, but they often can still be viewed and their message received. Digital files can be corrupted by media failures, transient voltage anomalies, magnetism, etc., and the disruption can render the entire file unreadable. As software and hardware change, file formats and media can become obsolete and unreadable. Those images, unlike the physical ones, are likely lost.

Preserving the digital files is important, but it takes effort to monitor file status and to update formats and media from time to time. Unfortunately, in many publications the people who would most likely be devoted to that are being cut. Librarian and archivist positions are dwindling within individual publications. At the same time, photographer positions are disappearing too, leaving more photographers to work independently. Digital file management is more involved than putting prints and negatives in a box with a date and assignment title. Photographers, and the people who do research with photographs, need more training to make sure their files will be accessible in both the near and the distant futures. Without it, visions of who we are and what we’ve done will disappear.

Persistent increases in restriction lead to limited vision

One of the issues that got attention late in 2013 was photographers’ access to the president and the White House in general. Photographers covering President Obama became more active in their protests of being excluded from covering events involving the president. During both Obama administrations, many events involving the president have been covered by White House photographer Pete Souza. Photographs have then been distributed to media organizations and posted on the White House flickr account. To their credit, the White House communication staff has provided more photographs than preceding administrations, but it’s the official view.

So what’s the difference? Does it matter who takes a picture of the president meeting with the speaker of the House? Or a diplomat from another country? Photographers and reporters don’t get to sit in on the meetings anyway, and the picture session is pretty predictable. Does it matter whether the picture is made by a photojournalist working for a news organization or a photographer working for the White House as long as the public gets to see it?

For the photographers, and media in general, the issue is one of independently witnessing the activities involving the elected leader of the country. When the president meets other politicians or dignitaries or takes part in events, those who routinely cover the president want to witness and record the activities and share the images with the public. The desire reflects the role media has played as independent witnesses/recorders of government. Without that independent witness, there’s no accountability for the information that’s distributed. With no other photographs to depict the moment, there’s no way to know whether the official photographs are reflective of the reality of the event.

I’m a little dismayed that this became an issue at the end of 2013. I’m not dismayed because of the issue, I’m dismayed that the practice is still going on this far into President Obama’s second term. The practice of excluding photographers and distributing pictures made by the White House photographer started on the day of his first inauguration. To be fair though, attention to image control has increased throughout the last century and into this one. Photographers and reporters had more access to FDR, but there were rules about how he could be photographed. Eisenhower decreased access in his second term. JFK didn’t change access as much as he just didn’t present himself to the cameras until he was ready. An official in the Nixon administration coined the phrase “photo opportunity.” Reagan’s team was extremely attentive to controlling access and the angles photographers would have, and successive administrations have expanded the practices.

So it’s not just the current photographers and the current administration. It’s something that’s been an issue for decades to some degree. Is it important? I believe so. I can understand the perspective of those who question whether it matters that multiple photographers get to record politicians meeting. How many different pictures from roughly the same position do we need to see? The answer is, more than one. Partially because the existence of multiple photographs supports veracity of any one, or calls into question those that don’t quite match up. But more importantly, every additional restriction on access to seemingly innocuous events like official greetings opens the door to restrictions to other events. How long is it before access to official events is restricted? At what point is the public left with only the official version of events? That’s the real issue. And that’s why news organizations have to push back and work to regain access to show the public the activities of their leaders.