Author Topic: Truth and Consequences for a War Photographer  (Read 1739 times)

Md. Anikuzzaman

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Truth and Consequences for a War Photographer
« on: June 03, 2018, 10:51:00 AM »
The ethical commandments on the digital manipulation of photographs in journalism are simple and direct: you do not add or subtract any element of an image in post processing. Ever. If a photo didn’t turn out exactly how you had imagined, there is no laptop digital do-over.

These standards are accepted by the major international wire services and most newspapers in the United States.

On Wednesday, The Associated Press announced that it had severed its relationship with Narciso Contreras, a Pulitzer prize-winning freelance photographer who has covered the Syrian war extensively. The cause was a single image in which the photographer digitally removed a video camera from a corner of the frame.

This type of ethical lapse happens with alarming frequency despite the clarity of the rules and the severe consequences that have befallen transgressors.

In one of the most notorious cases, Brian Walski of The Los Angeles Times was fired in 2003 for combining elements of two images into one composite. Adnan Hajj, a freelance photographer working for Reuters was let go in 2006 after doctoring smoke in an image of an Israeli airstrike in Beirut.

But unlike previous occurrences in which the violation was discovered by readers, bloggers or other photographers, this week’s case had a twist: Mr. Contreras — facing a moral dilemma and knowing the consequences — turned himself in.

During an interview Thursday, he was apologetic but not defensive. “I made a horrible mistake and I accept full responsibility for it,” he said. “I’m ashamed about that, but I’m not ashamed about doing what I believe is my duty: showing the suffering of the Syrian people caused by the war.”

He added: “This is a golden example for anyone who aspires to being a photojournalist. This was the wrong decision to make.”

The A.P. was the first to report the issue on Wednesday when it announced that it had ended its relationship with Mr. Contreras and removed all of his images from its publicly available archive, including his contribution to the news wire’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning entry on the Syrian conflict.

Mr. Contreras insisted that this was the “only time” he has ever manipulated a photo. After checking all of the nearly 500 photographs he has submitted to The A.P., the news service uncovered no other altered images, according to Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography.

Mr. Contreras also worked on assignment in Egypt in 2013 for The New York Times. Michele McNally, the paper’s assistant managing editor for photography, said all of the images he filed to The Times were being carefully analyzed.

“At first pass, we don’t see any manipulation,” she said. “But we are having our production people intensely scrutinize each photo that we published and in our system. Of course, my immediate inclination is to not use him again, and I say that with no reservations. It is sad, because he did not need to enhance his pictures at all.”

Mr. Contreras was not a conflict photographer before the Syrian war. But over the last two years he has worked in Syria at great personal risk, first on his own and later for European magazines and more recently for The A.P.

In the last six months, conditions have become more dangerous for photographers in most of Syria. A dramatic increase in kidnappings of western journalists since last summer has prevented outside photographers from covering most of the country. But Mr. Contreras entered Syria on assignment for The A.P. in the middle of September and stayed for a month to cover the conflict.

In an interview with Lens earlier this month, he said it was relatively easy to move into the country in 2012 and the first half of 2013.

“You were facing the threat of bombing or shelling or getting shot by snipers, but of course it is a war and you take this risk under consideration all the time — but kidnapping changed this dramatically,” he said.

He said he was impressed by the intensive safety measures and support that The A.P. provided him, compared with being essentially on his own while working on short assignments for magazines.

“At first I was unsure about doing the assignment but when I saw the investment and the 24-hour-a-day backing, I felt we were reducing the risk as far as possible,” he said. “I did this assignment when no news agency wanted to send staff journalists into Syria.”

Before his self-inflicted professional wound, Mr. Contreras did strong work for The A.P. in Syria under very difficult circumstances, which in some ways makes his actions all the more difficult to comprehend. It raises two questions: Why would he make such a clear-cut ethical mistake, and why would he then turn himself in when he might otherwise have gotten away with it?

On Wednesday, Mr. Contreras said every photojournalist knows the ethical constraints. Yet, while accepting full responsibility for his actions, Mr. Contreras said he was under extreme pressure. He had been living in a cave in an area that was experiencing particularly heavy fighting. On Sept. 29, he and a freelance video cameraman also working for The Associated Press were traveling with rebel forces and got caught in an exchange of fire on a hilltop in the village of Telata.

“From the beginning I was conscious of the camera in the frame, but it was difficult to move to make a picture,” he said. “I wanted to get all the tension from the frame. When I was processing the image I thought it would detract viewers from the essence of the situation. I thought about whether it was correct to remove the camera from the frame, for some time. But I removed it. I couldn’t handle this in a very stressful moment, but I can’t blame anyone for this mistake but myself.”

Mr. Contreras, who is from Mexico City, also described telling his editor about his actions when they were in Mexico reviewing pictures to be entered into contests.

“When we came to this one, I told him that this picture was manipulated or altered and I requested that they remove the picture and don’t use it,” he said. “This was the moment everything changed.”

His editors met behind closed doors. He was not surprised by their decision.

“I know the general rules for photojournalism and understand the rules exist for very specific reasons,” he said. “That’s why I talked to them before they tried to use these pictures for any other purpose.”

By his reckoning, it would have been worse to have kept silent.

“What would happen if I said nothing to them — if the picture was ever moved more widely it could bring more serious consequences,” he said. “It would put in doubt the credibility of me who shot the picture and A.P. who was distributing the picture.”

“It has serious consequences — but it’s for me,” he said. “I broke up my working relationship with A.P., but I was able to bring to light a mistake that I did.”