We all know the ethical haze around digital photo editing. Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Narciso Contreras ran face first into it when he was being fired by the Associated Press for photoshopping an image of he took during the Syrian conflict in 2012.
The AP has strict rules about altering photographs, specifying that "No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph." Unfortunately for Conteras, that is exactly what he did when removing a cameraman from the corner of the following photo:
(Photo: AP / Narciso Contreras)
Contreras made the alteration simply to get rid of what he saw as a distraction. He considered it benign, but admits it was a terrible decision which he made in a stressful moment. Even his record of success with the AP, and the confirmation that none of his previous work was altered in such a way, was not enough to save his relationship with the news organization. Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon had this to say:
AP's reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code. Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable and we have severed all relations with the freelance photographer in question. He will not work for the AP again in any capacity.
Harsh words, indeed. It could be argued that the AP's actions were severe, and the photographer's past commitment to authentic photojournalism should have merited more delicate action.
But perhaps the AP was right to put their foot down in a way that leaves absolutely no ambiguity on an issue of such great importance. If the door opens even slightly on how altered photos are treated in the context of photojournalism, it could lead to a frightening reality whereby images of the world are further shrouded in doubt and suspicion. It's already hard enough navigating the complex maze of photographic culture as it stands and being able to tell fact from fiction. Without gatekeepers like the Associated Press enforcing such strict standards when it comes to widely circulated images, we might find the nature of photography as "evidence" disfigured beyond repair.