“The only think [sic] you have in the industry is your name. The moment your name gets tainted, your credibility gets shot.” -Johann ‘Slang’ Hattingh, speaking to Mail & Guardian
Ordinarily, when a manipulated image makes its way into a news publication, the photographer or editor responsible for the ethical transgression is swiftly fired and shamed out of the industry. In this recent case involving the Citizen, a South African newspaper, a photographer was fired for writing publicly that the cover image was manipulated. Read that again. A news photographer has been fired for pointing out that his publication published a doctored photo. Photographer Johann ‘Slang’ Hattingh tweeted about an image on the cover of the Citizen of the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan. The image was manipulated to remove from the picture the bodies of two South Africans killed in the blast.
I suppose it’s understandable that a news organization doesn’t want to be publicly criticized by one of its employees; most publications and companies have social media policies of some sort, and this was likely a violation. But this case is such an ironic twist on a newspaper photo manipulation case that it demands public attention. The newspaper, the Citizen of South Africa, has acted unethically in publishing the image and has punished the photographer for trying to uphold his, and his paper’s, ethics. Asked by another South African publication whether he would publicly out the manipulated image again, Hattingh said he would, adding, “The only think [sic] you have in the industry is your name. The moment your name gets tainted, your credibility gets shot.” The newspaper has issued a release stating that Hattingh was fired for, “1. Bringing the company name into disrepute by making defamatory comments on Twitter on or around September 19. [and] 2. Irretrievably damaging the trust relationship between employer and employee.”
Ethical discussions of photography are always a bit tricky. Countries and cultures have varying standards for what can and can’t be done to a news photograph. The NPPA’s Code of Ethics, followed by many American newspapers, is a fairly conservative set of guidelines compared to, for instance, the sort of toning we often see in European publications or, especially, the international photo contests. And cover images are usually given more latitude than images accompanying articles inside a magazine or newspaper (though Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic have come under fire for particularly egregious cover manipulations). However, this image clearly misrepresents the facts of the scene documented in the image and it’s presented as a news image rather than an advertisement for content inside.
Kudos to Johann ‘Slang’ Hattingh for pointing out the manipulation of the image and best of luck to him as he moves past this unfortunate incident.