AP's swift dismissal of Pulitzer-winning photographer necessary to protect profession's integrity

NarcisoContrerasPhotoComparison As journalists, it's essential that we understand our own brand of power in the form of the entry our profession grants us. We have the privilege of access to people, places and events that the general public doesn't.

If we are to claim that our first and greatest obligation is truth seeking on behalf of the public interest, then we owe it to our audience to, at the very least, not actively try to deceive them.

And deliberate deception is exactly what seems to have taken place in the case of an Associated Press photographer fired this week after digitally altering one of his images.

The Associated Press announced Wednesday that it had "severed ties" with freelance photographer Narciso Contreras, who was found to have digitally altered one of his photographs of the war in Syria. This swift and brutal retribution comes as no surprise in an industry that, though fraught with ethical debates, has remained firm in its stance against such calculated misdirection.

In the original image of a Syrian resistance fighter, another journalist's camera is visible in the lower left corner. In the doctored version, Contreras "cloned" part of the background and used it to cover the offending piece of equipment, the AP revealed in a press release.

This comparison shows the two versions of Contreras’ photo. In the original, another journalist’s camera is visible in the bottom left corner. In the second version, the camera has been digitally removed.This comparison shows the two versions of Contreras’ photo. In the original, another journalist’s camera is visible in the bottom left corner. In the second version, the camera has been digitally removed.

Photo courtesy of AP, by Narciso Contreras

Contreras – who was quoted by AP as saying that he is ashamed of his decision – was part of a group of AP photographers who shared a Pulitzer Prize for their work in Syria in 2013.

Though he may have previously had an acclaimed career, all of the praise in the world isn't going to make up for his lapse in judgment. Not only has Contreras damaged his own credibility and prospects for future employment, he has also given those who already lack faith in journalism one more reason to doubt the integrity of the profession as a whole.

Graeme Roy, director of news photography at the Canadian Press — the AP's north-of-the-border equivalent — said it's unfortunate that a photojournalist would feel the need to do something like this.

"They're in a stressful position and a stressful place, and sometimes people make mistakes," he said. "But in my opinion, you have to have rules that protect the validity of the report that you distribute. People have to have faith that the photos that you are distributing are faithful reproductions of exactly what was seen at the time."

While there is debate in the world of photojournalism over exactly how much editing should be allowed in news photography — most ethics codes tend to draw the line at cropping and minor corrections for exposure and colour balance — digitally adding or removing any element of a photo is pretty much universally unacceptable.

Alteration after the fact has been a part of photography since its invention. But with the advent of digital editing software, it has almost become too easy for any hack with a computer to take a mediocre (but accurate) picture and twist it into an elegant, artistic, visually appealing lie.

But a lie it remains.

Contreras may have been documenting a high-pressure situation with understandably minimal time to compose his shots, but that doesn't give him the right to change the reality of his sur-roundings just to make a prettier picture. The exact nature of any "truth" — including the truths routinely sought by journalists — is open for argument and interpretation, but one thing remains certain: outright lies deliberately intended to mislead audiences are not okay.

Just as print reporters are forbidden from fabricating sources, photojournalists may not alter their work to create a better-composed photograph.

 "You have to have rules that protect the validity of the report that you distribute."
--Graeme Roy

The removal of a camera may seem minor, but if the AP were to let this incident slide, it would be only a short step away from allowing manipulations that completely change the context of the photographs it publishes.

If a camera can be zapped out of a picture for the crime of disrupting its composition, why not a person? If photographers are given an inch for those few clicks of a mouse that stand between them and that perfect shot, it won't be long before the ruthless among them take a mile.

Journalists love to dish the dirt on authority figures that aren't upholding a certain standard of practice — it's part of our job. But if we're going to demand accountability and transparency from those we report on, it's only right that we demand the same of ourselves. By publicly announcing Contreras' ethics breach and parting ways with him, the Associated Press has demonstrated an admirable commitment to the most basic ethical principles of journalism.

Editor's note: This story is also being published online on j-source.ca.

Calgary Journal reporter Madison Farkas is exploring media ethics as part of the Bachelor of Communication-Journalism degree at Mount Royal University.

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What do you think? Was the AP right in firing their photographer for digitally altering his photograph? 


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