Photo Manipulation Scandal Follows Same Old Script

The Sacramento Bee image at the center of the latest doctored news image scandal.

Surely we all know the script by now: A newspaper photographer gets caught manipulating a photo, the paper runs an apology with a statement about the newspaper’s zero-tolerance policy and a notice that the photographer has been fired; a trade organization villifies the photographer to warn others and keep the whole profession from going down a slippery slope to perdition. Along the way, a contrarian pundit may or may not weigh in.

So let’s fill in the blanks. The newspaper this time is The Sacramento Bee. The photographer is Bryan Patrick. The offending image showed a snowy egret gobbling a frog it had just snatched from a great egret. It was created from two images of the scene, one of which was the decisive moment of the theft, and the other of which had the better view of the frog in the snowy egret’s bill.

The paper published all three images an online correction and apology Feb 1, with reference to policy against photo manipulation, followed by a “to our readers” notice on Feb 4 announcing Patrick had been fired for violating the paper’s ethics policy. The note concluded with a recitation of the paper’s policy against the manipulation of photographs.

The president of NPPA called Patrick’s action a “betrayal” (in a story published by Poynter): “If this photographer in Sacramento can diddle around with a photograph of an egret, how can I know that any photograph I look at is trustworthy?” he asked.

The contrarian this time is On the Media host Bob Garfield, writing for The Guardian. He satirizes Patrick as “the Great Satan” and says “let him suffer the fate of the frog!” He then raises that pesky question: “Don’t all journalists alter reality?” Finally, he asks this rhetorical humdinger: “[d]id he [Patrick] misrepresent the story, or did he perhaps just make it clearer?”

But wait. The ritual isn’t over until Patrick’s peers pile on, either for him or against him. Readers?

33 Responses to “Photo Manipulation Scandal Follows Same Old Script”

  1. Philippe Says:

    As the composite doesn’t alter the event in any way, I have no problems with it. I would be curious to know that the Sacramento Bee policy regarding manipulated pictures in advertising is.

  2. Tiredofalltheoldrethoric Says:

    As journalists, of course our job is to tell the truth. We all get it. If it was labelled a “composite” no harm done. It wasn’t. He apologized. The Bee apologized. Blah, blah, blah…
    But firing him… That’s worse. How many lives were destroyed from a doctored frog photo? In this economy firing someone for this is deplorable.

  3. Kathy Says:

    I have mixed feeling….I do not feel he did it to harm anyone or mislead folks….but to tell the story…maybe the way he did it was wrong…but to fire him over it….does ruining life’s…over a picture? really?
    As a photographer….It does make it harder on us…because people tend to look at your “amazing” shoots and say…was that fixed….what did you do it…
    I wish Mr. Patrick good luck…and thank you for the apology!

  4. Ted Says:

    I don’t think any harm was done whatsoever, this was simply a nature photo, not a global political faux-pas.
    This is no different than doing an eye or a face swap on a family portrait.
    The Bee’s actions were too harsh.

  5. doug Says:

    I started with the authors view of semi-subjectively guiding to me supporting the photographer. The more I look at this, ( many minutes not mere seconds ) the more I realize all the things he has done wrong here. I am not talking about; the frog being belly up flesh colored or high contrast black, or the Identical plants repeating in a picture, or, that the actual event happened. Aside from how badly he merged two pictures, it is WRONG. Look at the Great Egret’s neck position, in the publish merge, he is OFFERING the frog, with an extended neck, in the ACTUAL scene, he has retracted his neck and protected his catch. The merged pictured GREATLY misrepresents the events.

    I can draw with crayons a picture of a bird trying to grab a frog from a bird,, this is NOT art, this is a photograph, being used to represent reality.

    He deserves to be fired, as the postures are greatly wrong,, I don’t care about a frog more clear or a bunch of plants duplicated, the merged picture TOTALLY misrepresents the event as it happened.,, Imagine this was a OCCUPY protest,, and I had a protestor,, and a policeman, and merged an action not to the right reaction.,,, then you would say it is wrong.

  6. doug Says:

    I started with the authors view of semi-subjectively guiding to me supporting the photographer. The more I look at this, ( many minutes not mere seconds ) the more I realize all the things he has done wrong here. I am not talking about; the frog being belly up flesh colored or high contrast black, or the Identical plants repeating in a picture, or, that the actual event happened. Aside from how badly he merged two pictures, it is WRONG. Look at the Great Egret’s neck position, in the publish merge, he is OFFERING the frog, with an extended neck, in the ACTUAL scene, he has retracted his neck and protected his catch. The merged pictured GREATLY misrepresents the events.

    I can draw with crayons a picture of a bird trying to grab a frog from a bird,, this is NOT art, this is a photograph, being used to represent reality.

    He deserves to be fired, as the postures are greatly wrong,, I don’t care about a frog more clear or a bunch of plants duplicated, the merged picture TOTALLY misrepresents the event as it happened.,, Imagine this was a OCCUPY protest,, and I had a protestor,, and a policeman, and merged an action not to the right reaction.,,, then you would say it is wrong.

    The paper said, it is a DOCUMENTARY picture of a BIRD festival,, it is not a photograph, it is like photo journalism. it is NOT an AMAZING capture, it is a photoshop composite. What IS photography to you? is it digital darkroom? Shouldn’t it make a difference if you wait and capture THE light, or THE event? is a faked even just as good to you. We are NOT talking art here, this is not a ken rockwell, makes everything vivid and prettier than real life.

  7. doug Says:

    please delete my first comment, and this one, as it wasn’t supposed to be repeated.
    thanks :)

  8. john Says:

    I have altered all of my images and I will continue. When I publish an image, the context is ‘art,’ not ‘news.’ But, all information published in a ‘news’ context is altered, if only by having an observation coded and broadcast. As the naive consumer of news, I would accept what I see as reality and/or truth. As a critical consumer, I accept little in the news, and less in the realm of art.

  9. Vecchi e nuovi rospi da ingoiare – Fotocrazia - Blog - Repubblica.it Says:

    [...] News, da cui apprendo questa nuova storia di fotoscippi: è il solito copione e io non saprei riassumerlo [...]

  10. ama Says:

    The real photograph is a better shot than the doctored one…does that prove the old adage about photographers being poor editors of their own work? Just sayin’…

  11. david Says:

    Is this really news?

  12. Jill Says:

    I think the manipulation was wrong-headed. You either got the amazing shot or you didn’t, but doctoring an image to make it seem like you did as a photojournalist is ethical wrong. Getting the decisive moment is a triumph because it is often so very providential, so for me, deceiving people into thinking you got it when you didn’t is bad for all photographers.

    I agree with Doug in that the scientific representation is wrong, too. He didn’t make the story clearer, he made the graphic image clearer. There’s a difference. One is in service to the story or the representation of reality, and the other is to his own success as a photographer. But only a zoologist (or someone who studied the set of images) would understand the manipulation is a misrepresentation as Doug pointed out.

    Manipulation in art and marketing is acceptable, but not in documentary work.

    However, getting fired for it seems excessive punishment for Patrick, but he firing seemed more like a clear message for those who would come after, that this sort of thing is absolutely unacceptable and won’t be tolerated even a little.

  13. Jack edwards Says:

    I cannot believe this reaction , I guess when you see a tv commercial or news video you have no idea it’s edited ? This is not an unethical way to shoot it is telling a story and the photographer has the right to express what he sees , photoshop is a tool . I have done assignments for Newsweek and when I read the story it did not seem to be the same event I guess they have edited it

  14. John Fowler Says:

    Enough with the “truth” BS in photography. There ain’t none – never was. The truth is in the photographer – and if some adjustmnent of that image displayed the event in a more accurate and precise manner, the photographer is to be congratulated for properly illustrating the truthful event.

  15. DC Photographer Says:

    This is bad for media and bad for all journalists, and he deserved to be fired because it is absolutely false: there was never a single moment in time where what is shown in the image occurred. Only through composite addition and subtraction.

    “Editing” in terms of minor adjustments for color, exposure, sharpness, OK; adding or removing elements is fraud and should not be tolerated.

    It is the photographer’s responsibility to inform the employer that the photo was manipulated so the paper can label it as such. Since he did not, he damaged the integrity and sales of the paper.

    Is his job as a photographer more important than the potential loss of dozens if the paper loses readership?

  16. Whisky Tango Foxtrot Says:

    The content doesn’t matter. Whether it is scientifically correct or not is irrelevant. A professional photojournalist subscribes to a code of ethics. Not laws, ethics. It’s the same thing we expect from doctors, accountants, and other professionals. It’s not as much about truth as it is trust. The journalism field has little expectation that the public be aware of our ethical code, but there has been a longstanding rule, especially in photojournalism, that we shoot what is there, not present what we think should have been there. The paper was absolutly right for firing Mr. Patrick. He knew the zero tolerance policy and broke it.
    As a photojournalist I need the people to trust that what I publish is what I saw. Increasing public distrust, at any level, by manipulating a photo and presenting it as real, chips away at the already cracked foundation of the publics perception of the media. Take an ethics class Mr. Patrick, then come back to the profession.

  17. Blaine Paul Says:

    I actually used to be a zoologist working both with frogs and birds so I knew at first glance that something was wrong with the photo. Now, as a pro photographer, I commit a crime every time I open a NEF file in Camera Raw. What is a cropped photo if not a statement repeated out of context? I’ve also worked as a newspaper photographer so I know Mr. Patrick didn’t make a lot of money to begin with, so firing him? Ouch.

  18. MP Photog Says:

    Richard Avedon stated, “All photographs are accurate, none are truthful.” Sure, we alter the truth simply by choosing the frame, the crop, the point of view-placement of camera, but ethically, the photo remains accurate. The reader counts on us to be accurate, and counts on our ethics to tell us when we are not, hence, the notification of “Photo Illustration.”

    In print publications The reader has to take on faith the accuracy of the words, and rely on the reporters ability to source his information, but that same reader has an innate sense and trust that what he sees in a photograph is what actually happened. Patrick did damage to all of us with his actions.

    On another point, W. Eugene Smith said, in so many words, that objectivity was a myth. One could only educate themselves to all of the facts and then upon return, subjectively tell the story the way THEY see it. I respect NPR, “On the Media,” and Bob Garfield, but it should be pointed out that producers of radio narratives consistently cut and paste audio to tell the story as they see it. That is why Margaret Thatcher refused to do anything but live interviews.

    No doubt Patrick knew the ethical lines he was crossing, as well as the Bee’s policies. He deliberately did so (poorly I might add) knowing the possible consequences. Being fired? Not the first for this kind of photo manipulation. Still, very harsh indeed. Is there not some other way for the Bee to make its point?

  19. larry angier Says:

    The changes were obvious. It should have been labeled…However, what happened to the editor asleep at the wheel who should have looked twice and questioned it?

    When will writers similarly be dismissed through their spin on the news lazily rehashing news releases on both sides?

    The New York Times’ Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer in the 1930s over his glowing reports of the great Soviet life that was nothing less than parroting the official lies of despots later found to have exterminated millions of people.

  20. Clayton Price Says:

    Having worked for most of my career as a photojournalist, and also with a strong interest in photo-composed images, I learned to keep a very strict line between the two genre’s, and I can think of no rational reason for them to mix, other than adjusting color, contrast, and occasionally converting a color image to B & W. Of course one can argue that the emotional values are altered, even with those standard adjustments.

    All journalists, no matter how “objective” they try to be, take sides, depending on their feelings about the subject, which is why we may love the work of one photographer over the work of another, working in the same situation.

    However, IMO, deliberate alteration. as in this case with Egrets is not really ethical, even if it hurts nobody!

  21. Staff Photographer Fired for Image Manipulation | Pro Nature Photographer Says:

    [...] If you would like to read the rest of the story as well as a lot of comments check it out here on PDN. [...]

  22. ken Says:

    I totally agree with John Fowler … truth … bah! They used to say well, the photo never lies and what nonsense ..a photo never tells the truth … 1/60 of a second is not truth at all and in a photo like this particularly, what he actually did was tell the truth better … if we’d been there watching it, we’d have gone home and said wow – guess what I saw .. I saw a snowy egret just grab a frog out of a great egret’s mouth .. that’s what we’d remember, that’s what we “saw” and it was the actual truth. Truth .. nonsense. And to fire the guy over that?
    I’m really sad for the finger wagging judgmental stuff going around.

  23. Bruno Schreck Says:

    The issue is regarding truth. The two source images tell the story, The manipulated image is a summary of the story. There is no lie here, only a compression of time, which is irrelevant in this case. If two authors wrote of the bird’s actions, they might use different words, yet both versions would be seen as truthful.

    Photographers have the capacity for interpretation, just like everyone else. No reporter or publication today is without its bias.

  24. Brian Says:

    I gotta wonder what the photographer was thinking. Was this photo worth risking his job over?(I really doubt it) Don’t even try to tell me he didn’t know he was taking a risk. Stand in judgement of the paper all you want – it’s their paper and they can make the rules if they want. If you don’t like their rules, then start your own paper and pay yourself to publish manipulated photos. To say he didn’t alter the truth is a, well… LIE! The truth is that the moment he depicts never really happened!

  25. John Fowler Says:

    Wasn’t it Mr. Avedon who also said that a photograph is an artistic interpretation of reality?

  26. Nicole Says:

    Wow. As a photo buyer for a children’s educational publisher, I can say that I won’t be licensing John Fowler’s images in the future.

    Educational/editorial content should have the trust of accuracy. If we are to learn something from a photograph (article, nonfiction book, etc.) then we should be able to trust the content is accurate. We are savvy enough to understand the photographer chose the position from which to shoot, the extraneous content to crop out, and the manipulation to clarify the content. But we assume the content is what actually happened at that particular open of a shutter.

    No, maybe this inaccurate photograph of two birds will not change our lives. (Well, if published in one of our books it might help a student fail a report.) But if this photographer does not have the ethics to maintain this photograph, what else did he or would he manipulate? He should find another line of work. In advertising, perhaps.

  27. RIC HORNOR Says:

    Well, this thread is truth. I’ve been involved with electronic image creation, enhancement and manipulation since 1977, and As a teacher of Photoshop at a local college, i thank you all for your comments. One important point seems to be missing and that is simply that societies change due to people’s involvement in it. By expressing observations, opinions and personal beliefs, you all are a credit to the society for getting down in the dirt and hashing the issue through. Without involvement by you, control comes from the few rather than the members of any society.

    The truth is, there is a contraversy over “What is truth,” “What is ethical,” and “What is socially acceptable.” The students will read and process the information presented, in this case, by a diverse audience. Then what will they surmise? I can’t wait to find out.

    As for my opinion, it doesn’t matter here. You’ve provided an excellent presentation of the issues in a “real world” situation. The fact that each of you made your voice heard is the best evidence of how diverse deeper thinking can be and that issues can be put before the human court of opinion and differing conclusions drawn by individuals based on the information they have at any given moment in time. Societies change over time through communications among its members. Again, Thank You one and all. You are a credit to our society in this small snapshot of time. REH

  28. Naheed Choudhry Says:

    The photograph should have been labeled as an illustration or composite photo. The photographer should have been up front that he manipulated the photo. It is far too easy to manipulate photos these days and if newspapers don’t label what is real versus what is not real it will be the end of all truth in news. Many people rely on getting their information from a few news agencies who still have standards. If those news sources allow things to “pass” it would be the end of truth in journalism. Of course, everything is manipulated in some form but when you change what actually happened in a photograph it goes too far. A news photographer’s job is to show what happened in reality. If the photographer alters the photo they should be up front about it or they risk losing their integrity and/or their job. I wish the photographer did not get fired but also wish he showed the truth.

  29. Darris Says:

    Oh please, are we so ignorant that we believe that 99% of the photographs in print media are NOT altered in some way?!! We gobble up altered photos in Playboy, we blindly believe every movie star is flawless and beautiful, this is what we’ve chosen to believe.

    The exception to what we’ve accepted in photo editing should be news media but then, what news items are not altered?? It would be lovely to think that photographers cop to altering images, simply providing all three images would have been the right thing to do. But would the Sac Bee have accepted all three? Lots of pressure in all areas of life to produce perfect images . . .

  30. Darris Says:

    I just looked at the three photographs. ARE YOU KIDDING?! He got fired over this?!

  31. Stewart Says:

    Oh no, Mr. Bill!

    None of the photos are worth publishing. Thanks Bee!

  32. Jason Barnes Says:

    No particular harm done with the bird images. But real harm done when the fraud is done in a political context. Fraudulent photos are a mainstay in the ongoing political attacks on Israel. Reuters, BBC, and some American organizations have been caught in totally fraudulent “reportage” designed to smear Israel. An interesting example (involving a French “news” agency and other parties) is the famous photo of an Arab boy and his father cowering under cover in a purported crossfire. The photo was released with a caption saying the boy was killed by Israeli fire. In fact, the entire scene was entirely fabricated, set up by Arab propagandists to create both fraudulent video and fraudulent photos. During a later court case in France, video came out showing the “dead” boy raising his head and saying, “Can I get up now?” Other video from several days later showed the “dead” boy playing soccer.

  33. Walt Pinkus Says:

    Clearly, Fowler violated the level of honesty that should be intuitive to journalists. Unfortunately he didn’t have the PS skills necessary to believably pull off his stunt when his work was scrutinized by competent peers. Unfortunately he didn’t have the bird behavior knowledge to create an image that was believable in the eyes of bird experts. To draw a parallel, you shouldn’t try printing twenty dollar bills unless you are quite sure that the results will pass muster! Sadly, because of repeated incidents, the public must be wondering whether all the other photojournalists are regularly doing similar things, but with a better skill level.
    Sadly, the problem isn’t new. I used to cringe at newspaper images in the film days with horribly blatantly bad dodging and burning — for instance the light-as-sunlit face in the middle of the shadow of a broad-brimmed hat.
    When hiring, do the newspapers instruct the new hires as to expected code of conduct? If the intent is that staff other than the photographer is tasked with image selection and pre-press, is the photographer instructed that he is to pass on his raw take, unmanipulated?