Freelancer Narciso Contreras, a talented war photographer who was cut off by Associated Press last week after he admitted he had Photoshopped a news photo, told PDN in an e-mail interview that he accepts his punishment, but said, “I’m critical when it comes to how the Industry handles the situation with individual photographers, especially when you are a freelancer.”
AP cut ties with Contreras publicly after the photographer informed the wire service that he had removed a video camera from a corner of an image of a Syrian rebel soldier taking cover during a fire fight. Contreras says he knew it could end his relationship with AP, but that he didn’t expect to be shut out of the process.
“I would have preferred to discuss with the editors the whole situation personally, [but] they went behind locked doors and made their decision.” He added, “As a photographer you should have the right to be included in the process.”
Contreras said he thinks AP also went too far in making its decision so public. “The public punishment seems more like an exhibit of power in order to protect [AP's] own interests,” he said.
Following is an edited transcript of PDN’s e-mail interview with Contreras.
Q: How did AP find out you had altered the photo? Did you tell them after they confronted you about it? Or did you voluntarily turn yourself in? And if so, what led you to do that?
A: I told one of the AP photo editors about the picture when we were working on selecting images for the [World Press and other photo] contests some weeks ago. I told the photo editor immediately when I saw the image on the screen. I didn’t hesitate in telling him, it just came up.
Q: If your own ethical principles required you to correct the mistake, why didn’t you tell AP sooner?
A. I was thinking all the time [about] that picture and I found the moment to explain [it] to the AP photo editor. Why not before? [For] the same reason that I submitted the altered picture, it was my wrong decision.
Q. Why were you retouching the image in the first place? Do you typically make the types of adjustments to your image files that AP permits, and if so, what are your usual adjustments?
A: I was conscious about the camera [in the original image] from the beginning. I couldn’t get the camera out of the frame when we were at the top of the hill and running down, away from the [gunfire]. I used a wide angle lens [because] the rebel [ie, the subject of the photo] was so close. [It was] difficult to work, under [fire]. So, when I got back to our base and tried to find a picture to describe the situation, I found this frame, but with the camera in the corner. It took me time to make the decision to remove it from the frame, but I did it.
I usually develop my images using the base process, RAW files toned and desaturated. The photo with the rebel ducking is my exception. I gave all my archives to the AP, almost 500 pictures, and they could see for themselves that this was a singe case.
Q. Do you know what caused your lapse in judgment? I am trying to understand: What caused you to cross the line this time–but not other times?
A: It took me time before I decided to take it [the camera] out. I recognize and assume the rules of photojournalism as the basis of my work, but I was weak at this point. There is no other reason, I broke my own rules. My fault was that I din’t contact my editors to ask for advice or try to get feedback from my very experienced colleague, who was with me.
I’m not trying to excuse myself, but it is not easy to be at a place where you are facing death every single moment, your mind and feelings are moved to another reality, far away from the one you are used to, [and] you perform like a different person. You can support long working days under tough conditions, your mind is set up to survive, and obsessively in the perfection of your work. This is the problem. We are obsessed about getting the perfect shot, that means you want to get the perfect shot under hazardous conditions. It is not worth [it] as a photographer, to come back with nothing if you risk your life [covering a story]. This obsession made the difference, and affected my decision to alter the picture. But I recognize that I made a mistake, a severe one, and a wish I could undo it.
Q. Did you understand when you made the alteration what the consequences might be if you were caught? In other words, were you aware of AP’s ethics policy, and the consequences of violating it?
A: I did know the consequences to alter a picture, and I did know when I told the AP photo editor about this as well, but at the time I told the AP editor I was looking to be honest for what I had done, and I feel this time I took the correct decision to try to repair my mistake.
Q. What do you think of [AP's] ethics policy?
A: That policy means to respect the credibility of the profession and the credibility of the service that all journalists and photographers are doing. So, this is the basis of our work.
Q. Do you think the punishment was fair? If not, why not? And what action by AP would have been more fair?
A: As I mentioned before, the credibility of our work is on the table when a single mistake is [made]. So, to prevent this kind of situation [from] happening again, and to protect the credibility of our profession I have to assume the consequences. But all situations and cases are unique and should be treated as such.
I would have preferred to discuss with the editors the whole situation personally, before they took their decision, but I have not had the chance to talk to anyone. They went behind locked doors and made their decision. This is a very critical situation, and accordingly it has to be analyzed and talked through with whom committed the fault. We are not disposable. They have to analyze every single case according to its unique nature.
Q. Our readers are divided about AP’s reaction to what you did. Some think AP was too harsh. Others expressed zero tolerance for altering news images, and think your punishment was justified. What would you say to them?
A: Zero tolerance is justified when it comes to altering news images. We must all play by the rules. But I’m critical when it comes to how the Industry handles the situation with individual photographers, especially when you are a freelance[r]. [For] editors it is not always easy to handle mistakes, but as a photographer you should have the right to be included in the process. Every single case is unique and that has to be taken in to consideration as well.
Q. What would you have said to AP? Is there an argument you wanted to make to them, to prevent them from ending their relationship with you?
A: They have the right to cut ties if you break the rules, but they should not have the exclusive right to manage the consequences of a photographer’s fault. Dialogue is the base to solve any single problem. If you are not allowed to talk when you are being judged by a company, there is something that is not working properly.
I do accept to break up the working relationship between them and me if I broke the rules, but the public punishment seems more like an exhibit of power in order to protect its own interests.
Q. What effect do you think this incident will have on your career? Do you expect to continue working as a photojournalist? If so, for whom?
A: This incident affected my working relationship with the AP, and probably with some other media outlets, but nothing has changed for me in terms of what I assume as my duty in life, as a person and as photographer, to document what I perceive as the breaking moments for our history. I’m still the same person that I was when I got recognition for what I’ve done in Syria or anywhere else. I’m still in the same place where I was when I started collaborating with the AP.
I made a mistake, but it does not mean that the whole body of my work is lost. I have to restore my credibility, firstly by assuming that I made a mistake and sincerely apologizing for this, secondly by reinforcing the working relationship with the media outlets I work with.
As far as I can, I would keep on doing photography. This incident affects my way temporarily, not permanently. I believe in what I do in my life, this is my engagement and this is beyond photography.