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.

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