Distorted Picture  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2007

Distorted Picture   

Thanks to Photoshop, it’s awfully easy to manipulate photographs, as a number of recent scandals make painfully clear. Misuse of the technology poses a serious threat to photojournalism’s credibility.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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If photo sleuths in Ohio hadn't noticed a pair of missing legs, Allan Detrich still would be cruising to assignments in his sleek blue truck, building his reputation as a photographer extraordinaire at the Toledo Blade. In April, the veteran shooter was forced out of the newsroom in disgrace, igniting a scandal that swept the photojournalism community. Coworkers were mystified about why a highly talented, hard worker who had garnered a slew of awards would cheat.

Detrich says that for a time, he felt like the most "reviled journalist in the country." Internet forums buzzed about his misdeeds, and photographers attacked him for sullying the profession. Some even sent hateful e-mail messages. "I wasn't the first to tamper with news photos and, unfortunately, I probably won't be the last," he says. "I screwed up. I got caught."

In his case, he says, he was seduced by software that made altering images so easy that "anyone can do it."

With new technology, faking or doctoring photographs has never been simpler, faster or more difficult to detect. Skilled operators truly are like magicians, except they use tools like Photoshop, the leading digital imaging software, to create their illusions.

Detrich, who had worked for the Blade since 1989, manipulated most of the images while alone in his truck, using a cell phone or WiFi for quick and easy transmission to the photo desk. There was little reason for him to return to the newsroom to process images. Until April 5, no one challenged the veracity of his photographs.

The photographer's downfall underscores a disturbing reality: With readily accessible, relatively inexpensive imaging tools (Photoshop sells for around $650) and a low learning curve, the axiom "seeing is believing" never has been more at risk. That has led to doomsday predictions about documentary photojournalism in this country.

"The public is losing faith in us. Without credibility, we have nothing; we cannot survive," says John Long, chairman of the ethics and standards committee of the National Press Photographers Association. Long pushes for stricter newsroom standards with missionary zeal and believes all journalists are tarnished when someone like Detrich falls from grace.

On June 2, Long, who built a distinguished career in photography at the Hartford Courant before retiring earlier this year, preached to an audience at NPPA's photo summit in Portland, Oregon. If the self-described purist had his way, news photographers would take a vow of abstinence in regard to photo altering; editors would enforce zero-tolerance policies. "The problem is far greater than we fear," Long told the group that afternoon.

There are no statistics on the number of rule-breakers, but indicators within the profession do not bode well for the cherished precept of visual accuracy.

During an NPPA ethics session in Portland, a group of some 50 photographers and photo managers were asked for a show of hands if they believed they had ever worked with peers who routinely crossed ethical boundaries. Nearly every arm flew into the air. "That was a scary thing to see," says Long, who was on the panel. Ethical breaches were the topic of conversation at coffee breaks and during presentations at the photo summit.

Many of the offending photos and illustrations discussed in Portland appear in a rogues' gallery posted by computer scientist Hany Farid (www.cs.dartmouth.edu/farid/research/tampering).

Among the dozens he highlights are Time and Newsweek covers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, images in the Charlotte Observer and Newsday, and a famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln that was discovered to be less than accurate.

The Dartmouth College professor uses the term "digital forensics" to describe pioneering methods to detect image altering. Although not a cure-all, these tools could provide help in the future, says Farid. He predicts that scandals over photo forgeries are "absolutely going to get worse." That notion is underlined by the attention being paid to the problem by media organizations and at conferences.

In August, visual communications expert David Perlmutter will serve on a panel titled "Seeing is Not Believing: Representations and Misrepresentations" at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication gathering in Washington, D.C.

Perlmutter poses the question: "Is the craft I love being murdered, committing suicide or both?"

The Toledo Blade's descent into photo hell began with a telephone call.

On April 4, Ron Royhab, the paper's executive editor, returned home to find a message requesting he phone back, no matter how late. He punched in the number and listened in stunned silence to the voice on the other end. There were suspicions that a photographer had altered a news photo that had run prominently on the Blade's front page four days earlier. The caller was Donald R. Winslow, editor of News Photographer magazine, an NPPA publication.

"I was speechless; I couldn't collect my thoughts. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach," recalls Royhab. "I got off the phone and thought, 'Not at my newspaper. It can't be!'"

By noon the next day, Detrich, 44, was being questioned in the newsroom. He admitted altering the photograph but said it was for his personal use, a copy he intended to hang on an office wall. He claimed he had mistakenly transmitted the wrong version on deadline. He told Photo District News, "that's not something I would do."

The paper's editors decided to review all of the photos that Detrich, twice named Ohio Photographer of the Year and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998, had submitted for publication this year. They didn't like what they found. By April 7, he had resigned. If he had not, he would have been fired, says Royhab.

The episode began on March 30, when Bluffton University's baseball team played for the first time since five of its athletes had been killed in a bus accident earlier that month. Photographers jostled for position as players knelt in front of banners bearing the names and uniform numbers of the dead.

When similar photos appeared in Cleveland's Plain Dealer, the Dayton Daily News and Ohio's Lima News the following day, a pair of legs clad in blue jeans was visible from behind one of the banners hanging from a fence. In Detrich's version, there was only grass under the banner, although he shot from roughly the same angle. Ohio photographers brought the mysterious disappearance to Winslow's attention.

A review of Detrich's original digital files revealed that he had habitually erased unwanted elements in photos, including people, tree limbs, utility poles, electrical wires, light switches and cabinet knobs. In some instances, he added tree branches or shrubbery. In one sports shot he added a hockey puck; in another he inserted a basketball.

Detrich submitted 947 photographs for publication from January through March of 2007. Editors found that 79 clearly had been doctored. The paper apologized to readers and Detrich posted a mea culpa on his Web site (www.detrichpix.typepad.com/allandetrich_picturethis). The investigation found that Detrich had altered photos as far back as 2002. The Blade noted that no evidence of tampering was discovered on Detrich's award-winning photos, and there were no alterations in earlier years, when he was shooting on film and editing and processing in the newsroom.

In the May issue of News Photographer, Winslow ran a report on the situation at the Blade and labeled Detrich a "serial digital manipulator," the most prolific to surface in newspaper history.

As for the legs, it turned out they belonged to freelancer Madalyn Ruggiero, who was shooting in Bluffton for the Chicago Tribune and had positioned herself behind the fence in search of a different angle.

Brian Walski had covered war in the Balkans, famine in Africa and conflict in Kashmir before he made a fateful decision while on assignment in Iraq for the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago native was fired via satellite phone on April 1, 2003, after it was discovered he used his computer to combine two images, taken seconds apart, into a composite that ran on page one of the Times on March 31. The subject was a British soldier helping Iraqi civilians find cover outside Basra.

After the photos appeared, an employee at the Hartford Courant noticed that several Iraqis in the background appeared twice (see Drop Cap, May 2003). The Courant, which like the Times is owned by the Tribune Co., had also published the picture.

In an e-mail to the newspaper's photo staff, Walski, who had been with the Times since 1998 and had won Photographer of the Year honors in California, wrote: "This was after an extremely long, hot and stressful day but I offer no excuses here... I have always maintained the highest ethical standards throughout my career and cannot truly explain my complete breakdown in judgment at this time. That will only come in the many sleepless nights that are ahead."

Colin Crawford, the L.A. Times' assistant managing editor for photography, calls Walski "incredibly experienced and talented" and says there was no hint of wrongdoing before the lapse. A review of his work found no other evidence of tampering.

"It's hard for me to get into the head of someone who is risking his life every day," says Crawford, who acknowledges the pressures Walski was under on the battlefield. Still, "I can't imagine in my wildest dreams why he would ever do it." After leaving the Times, Walski started Colorado Visions, a commercial photo business.

In another war-zone episode, Adnan Hajj, a Lebanese freelancer on assignment for Reuters, was fired for doctoring images during the August 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In one photo, Hajj darkened and cloned plumes of smoke rising from buildings the Israelis bombed in Beirut, amplifying the devastation. In another, he altered the image of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet to make it appear that it was firing several missiles instead of a single flare, as the original photo of the plane shows.

This time, bloggers acted as sheriff. According to news reports, Charles Johnson, who runs a blog called Little Green Footballs ( www.littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog) sounded the alarm about the Beirut photo. Another conservative political blog, The Java Report (www.mypetjawa.mu.nu), drew attention to the phony missiles.

Bloggers also played a role in uncovering a USA Today misstep. (Disclosure: My husband, Frank Folwell, is a deputy managing editor who oversees photography and graphics for USA Today.) On October 26, 2005, WorldNetDaily.com reported that the newspaper pulled a photograph of Condoleezza Rice from its Web site after a blog called The Pen (www.fromthepen.com) revealed it had been manipulated, giving the secretary of state a menacing stare. The blog used the original version of the Associated Press photo to show the image had been doctored.

The altered photo circulated on other blogs, drawing a firestorm of public protest. USA Today explained in an editor's note that "after sharpening the photo for clarity," a portion of Rice's face was brightened, "giving her eyes an unnatural appearance." The distortion violated the paper's editorial standards, the note said.

One of the most ballyhooed examples of photo manipulation was Time magazine's June 27, 1994, cover. Time darkened the skin and added a five o'clock shadow to a mug shot of O.J. Simpson, making him look more sinister. On its December 1, 1997, cover, Newsweek glamorized Bobbi McCaughey, the Iowa mother of septuplets, by straightening her teeth. The magazine superimposed Martha Stewart's head on a model's body for the March 7, 2005, cover, when Stewart was released from prison.

The credit explaining the super-imposed photo of Stewart appeared inside the magazine. Since then, Newsweek's attribution policy has changed. When a photo illustration runs on the front of the magazine, the credit also appears on the cover, says Simon Barnett, Newsweek's director of photography. That provides "an additional layer of information, so if anyone is in any doubt whatsoever, it's there to confirm what they see as being an illustration," he wrote in an e-mail interview.

As for news photos, "We do nothing beyond what has traditionally been done in the photographic darkroom," says Barnett, who took over as photo director in July 2003.

Barnett says the advent of Photoshop has increased the push to create flawless magazine covers. "As digital technology has evolved, art directors at major magazines have forgotten how and when to say 'enough.' This tweaking and buffing and polishing down to the last pixel has frequently had the consequence of changing the photograph into something that at a minimum is plastic, and at worst inaccurate," says Barnett, who counts himself among a minority that appreciates the natural imperfections that real photography brings. "It adds to authenticity," he says.

Time's readers are accustomed to finding the credit for covers on the table of contents, says spokesman Daniel Kile. If the photograph has been altered, the image is clearly labeled a "photo-illustration." That was the case on March 15, when Time illustrated a story, "How the Right Went Wrong," on the cover with a photo of Ronald Reagan crying. The inside credits noted: "Photograph by David Hume Kennerly. Tear by Tim O'Brien." (See "Finding a Niche," April/May.)

But no matter how pure the intention, NPPA's John Long doesn't buy attribution as a substitute for authenticity. "No amount of captioning can ever cover for a visual lie or distortion. If it looks real in a news context, then it better be real," says Long, who maintains there should be the same respect for visual accuracy that there is for the written word in journalism.

Long points out that some photos are doctored with the sole intent of doing harm. In February 2004, a photograph showing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry with actress Jane Fonda at a 1971 anti-Vietnam war rally swept the Internet. Two photos, taken a year part, were merged into one and carried a phony AP credit line.

Ken Light, who took the original Kerry photograph sans Fonda, raised a key question in a March 11, 2004, New York Times article about faked images: "What if that photo had floated around two days before the general election and there wasn't time to say it's not true?"

The story noted that image tampering did not begin in 1989, with John Knoll's creation of Photoshop.

On the cusp of the digital revolution in 1991, ethicist Paul Lester documented the history of forgeries in a book, "Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach." He noted that Hippolyte Bayard made the first known counterfeit photograph more than 160 years ago, and during the Civil War soldiers were instructed to play dead and corpses were moved for dramatic impact. In World War I, photos were forged for propaganda purposes, including one of Kaiser Wilhelm cutting off the hands of babies.

Lester included a classic example from 1982 often cited as the beginning of the steep challenge for photojournalism in the digital age. When National Geographic employed what was considered computer wizardry to squeeze together Egypt's pyramids of Giza for the perfect cover shot, tremors shot through the photo community. Many bemoaned the onset of an era when tampering with photos would be effortless.

In his book, Lester quoted Tom Kennedy, photo director at the Geographic from 1987 to 1997, who laid down new rules for the magazine. Technology no longer would be used to manipulate elements in a photo simply to achieve a more compelling graphic effect, Kennedy said. As for the pyramids, "We regarded that afterwards as a mistake, and we wouldn't repeat that mistake today."

Writing for the New York Times in 1990, acclaimed photo critic Andy Grundberg predicted, "In the future, readers of newspapers and magazines will probably view news pictures more as illustrations than as reportage, since they will be aware that they can no longer distinguish between a genuine image and one that has been manipulated." History has given weight to his prophecy as photo managers search for answers.

"Fundamentally, there is only so much you can do. You hope and pray and respect your staff... You trust that they're not going to do this kind of thing," says the L.A. Times' Crawford, who, like many others interviewed for this story, sees setting clear, strict policies as critical for quality control. He believes that, despite the Walski incident, the Times has had a solid system in place. "You do the best you can, talking to your staff and making sure they understand what your ethics are," he says.

Since the Detrich episode, the Toledo Blade is spot-checking more photos and scheduling more one-on-one time with photographers to go over their work. "With the ability to send electronically, it is easy to feel isolated from the rest of the photo department, so we will try harder to establish a sense of team," says Luann Sharp, the Blade's assistant managing editor for administration.

Santiago Lyon, the AP's director of photography, oversees the wire service's vast army of 300 shooters plus 700 others operating on a freelance or contract basis. The AP handles about three-quarters of a million images a year, leaving ample potential for error.

Lyon has turned to the Poynter Institute, NPPA, the White House News Photographers Association and other media groups for guidance as he updates and fine-tunes the wire service's standards.

"We're looking at their ethical guidelines and our own and coming up with wordage and phraseology more in tune with the changing world out there," says Lyon, who attended Photoshop training sessions for about 200 AP photographers and photo editors throughout the U.S. in 2006. At each stop, he hammered home the guidelines for responsible use of imaging tools and repeatedly stressed that "credibility is the most important thing we have at the AP and journalism in general."

Lyon says a handful of photographers have been fired for tampering with pictures over the years. He views the core of experienced photo editors at AP's editing hubs around the globe as a first line of defense for detecting phony images.

There are certain clues photo monitors look for. According to experts, the most common signs are differences in color or shadows, variations in graininess or pixilation, blurred images or elements in the photo that are too bright or much sharper than the rest.

Dartmouth College professor Farid is developing computer algorithms, or mathematical formulas, that can detect altered images. Lyon and Farid have met to discuss possibilities for the future, and Lyon has had the professor analyze old photos the AP had on file and knew had been altered to test the reliability of the detection software. It worked in all but one case, Lyon says.

But for now, the method is too cumbersome, given that the AP receives between 2,000 and 3,000 pictures each day. "To work for us, that type of process would have to be instantaneous, or close to it," says Lyon.

Farid doesn't promote his detection software as a magic formula. "The technology is getting better and better. It's getting easier to manipulate, and it is affordable. Everybody has it. At least we might slow [the forger] down, make it more challenging, more difficult," says the computer scientist, who likens the scramble for improved safeguards to an arms race.

"I guarantee you there will be people out there developing anti-forgery detection software or software that makes better forgeries," says Farid.

Beyond stopping cheaters, there also is the thorny issue of defining the limits of what is and is not acceptable. Photo editors commonly say that the only appropriate techniques with Photoshop are those analogous to what was acceptable in the traditional darkroom. That might ring hollow to a generation of photographers who have always processed images on computers and transmitted them to the photo desk from the nearest Starbucks. Still, one rule is clear: Removing visual content from a photo or adding it crosses the divide.

Lyon warns that using words to describe visual nuances in guidelines is very complicated. "How do you define the correct use of tonal differences — lightening or darkening aspects of a picture in a way that accurately reflects what the photographer saw?"

In an attempt to clarify standards, Kenny F. Irby, the Poynter Institute's photo expert, confessed in a September 2003 report that he had "dodged" (to lighten) and "burned" (to darken) elements in his pictures throughout his career. He maintained there was nothing sinful about his actions because he did not take those techniques to extremes.

Irby listed notables such as Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith among the many great photojournalists who employed the same techniques. When, then, do photographers slip into the abyss?

On August 15, 2003, Patrick Schneider of the Charlotte Observer was suspended for three days without pay for excessive adjustments in Photoshop. The North Carolina Press Photographers Association stripped Schneider of the awards he had won for the photos in question. Its investigation found that details such as parking lots, fences and people had been removed from pictures.

At the time, Schneider told Irby, "I used the tools that for decades have been used in the darkroom, and now, in Photoshop, I do them with more precision. My goal is to bring more impact to my images, to stop the readers and draw their attention."

The award-winning photographer was fired in July 2006 for an image of a firefighter on a ladder, silhouetted against a vivid sunlit sky. The Observer explained in an editor's note that in the original, the sky was brownish-gray. Enhanced with photo-editing software, the sky became a deep red, and the sun took on a more distinct halo. In the judgment of his bosses, Schneider had violated the paper's rules.

While the photo establishment buzzes over scandals like those of Schneider and Detrich, others ask, "So what?"

The Toledo Blade's Royhab was surprised when some readers questioned the ruckus raised over Detrich's misdeeds and asked what was wrong with changing the content of a photograph in a newspaper. "The answer is simple: It is dishonest," Royhab wrote in an April 15 column.

On SportsShooter.com, a Web site run by USA Today photographer Robert Hanashiro, some attacked Detrich for his duplicity while others defended his right to stay in journalism. That did not sit well with Bob DeMay, chairman of the board of the Ohio News Photographers Association and an acquaintance of Detrich's.

"I find it very scary that some people didn't find fault at all," says DeMay, photo editor at the Akron Beacon Journal. "There used to be an old saying, 'Pictures don't lie.' Well, they do now. Once that seed of doubt is put in somebody's mind, it's frightening."

Like many others, DeMay sees the troubled state of newspapers playing into the equation. Pushed to the limits by layoffs and hiring freezes, many photo departments have fewer bodies to do more work. Three photo staffers at the Beacon Journal were laid off last year, taking a toll on quality, says DeMay. As travel budgets are slashed, there is more reliance on freelancers who file photos from a distance, without the backstop of newsroom accountability or ethics codes. And the competition for newspaper space has never been fiercer, increasing the pressure for dramatic images.

There also has been a cultural change in how photo departments operate. In the past, photographers often worked together in the darkroom; there was more collaboration and more oversight from photo desks. Today, it is common to transmit images from the field via laptop computers, with only occasional newsroom visits.

Opportunities for misdeeds are boundless, warns Larry Gross, coeditor of the book "Image Ethics in the Digital Age." Once photographers step over the line, there is very little they can't do, and, if they are skilled enough, they may leave little or no trace, says Gross. Years ago, editors could ask for the photo negative to make comparisons, but digital images can be changed so that there's no original left, no way to track back to an initial state. Adding to the angst of photo watchdogs, new and better versions of Photoshop are on the horizon, which is likely to widen the scope of fakeries.

NPPA's Winslow wonders if the ethics quandary in photojournalism is akin to the problem professional baseball has with steroids. "Are there lots of people doing what Detrich did without editors and managers realizing the extent of the problem?" he asked in his May article. "Or do they suspect, but do nothing about it?"

Not everyone sees a dim future. Author David Perlmutter believes that, by some standards, this is the golden age of photojournalistic ethics.

"If you are caught faking a picture today, you are fired. Fifty years ago, it was just part of the business. Now most people have gone to journalism school and learned ethics. Newsrooms are taking these things more seriously. Standards are higher than ever," Perlmutter says. "On the other hand, it has become so much easier to get away with the crime."

Ricchiardi has written about coverage of the war in Iraq and the Virginia Tech massacre in recent issues of AJR.

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