“A picture on May 5 with the continuation of a front-page article about the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the strategic advantages it offers to Taliban insurgents fighting American troops, showed a silhouetted Taliban logistics tactician, who was interviewed for the article, holding a rifle, creating the impression that the weapon belonged to him. The Times subsequently learned from the photographer that the rifle belonged to the owner of a home in Pakistan where the interview took place, and that the Taliban tactician had held the weapon only for the purpose of the photograph.
“Had The Times known this information at the time of publication, it would not have used the photograph to illustrate the article.” –New York Times editors’ note
The photo was removed from the Times website, but since the initial report of the ethical breach, the photographer’s identity was ferreted out, as was the photo in question. PDNPulse’s report included this line to readers, “Do you think this is over the line?” and others online have argued that this isn’t a big issue. This is wrong.
Unlike the other recent photo manipulation charge to hit photoblogs, Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christensen‘s overzealous color correction that led to disqualification in a photo contest, Canepari’s transgression purports to show visual facts that are not true. The photo misleads viewers of the photo into thinking that this particular military strategy on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border involves more armament than it actually does. There’s a temptation to discount the complaints about the photo because the photo doesn’t look manipulated and because the facts aren’t far off from what the photo shows. That is, guns are likely involved in this particular operation, as they are in most military operations, so who cares whether or not this particular person actually carries a weapon or not?
Photo manipulation is most harmful to a reporter/photographer/publication’s credibility precisely when it is most subtle. We can all laugh at the more blatant photoshop disasters, but no one mistakes the obvious manipulations of images as representations of fact. The Danish photographer’s pictures may push the bounds of acceptable journalistic post production practices, but the cartoonish colors in the image obviously stem from artistic impulses rather than an intent to mislead and misinform. One can reasonbly expect a layman to realize that the colors have been consistently pumped up a bit just because one rarely encounters such vivid colorization in reality.
But, when a picture looks like the truth (i.e., when what looks like a documentary image is, in fact posed, or when a basketball is cloned into a picture of a high school match), viewers believe that it is the truth. Guys with guns are the norm in pictures from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. A layman could not reasonably discern the manipulation in Canepari’s picture as a falsehood or artistic interpretation in a portrait situation. The image, which was presented by the photographer as a documentary account of the Taliban logistics tactician as he normally operates, is a deception. If an image that looks very real is fake, what guarantees that any images in a newspaper show the facts as they are?
The New York Times acted correctly in retracting the photo.