L.A. Times Photographer Fired for Photoshopping Photos
April 2, 2003 9:20 AM   Subscribe

This lengthy Los Angeles Times photo correction addresses the manipulation of a front page photo and the subsequent firing of its photographer. Working from two source photos, Brian Walski combined them in Photoshop to create a more compelling image, but was caught when someone noticed that some people appeared twice in the background of the modified photo. (via Fimoculous and others)
posted by waxpancake (33 comments total)
What interested me most is that the explanation was so detailed, including compare and contrast images. Heck, they could almost include instructions on how you too can do this at home. This type of presentation would look odd in print, but seems perfect online. I haven't looked, but I bet Fark is already photoshopping the photoshop.
posted by rex at 9:39 AM on April 2, 2003

About 5 minutes more in Photoshop and he would have pulled it off.

On closer inspection actually it looks like he didn't do that good of a job to begin with. In the edited photo there's a deifnate haze surrounding the soldier where he blended the edges (look over the shoulder of the soldier and above his outstretched arm)
posted by bitdamaged at 9:48 AM on April 2, 2003

it looks like his other pictures are generally being retroactively removed as well. Compare this page to its google cache. Does this normally happen when photographers get fired?
posted by jessamyn at 9:50 AM on April 2, 2003

Too bad he didn't have PS7, the heal tool could've saved his job.
posted by signal at 9:51 AM on April 2, 2003

It's funny that they say he did this to improve "composition" when there is so much more to it. Look at how much more compelling the altered photo is.
posted by scalz at 9:52 AM on April 2, 2003

That sort of thing is actually a violation of the photojournalist's code of ethics here in Hong Kong, particularly #5 on this list:


1. It is the prime duty of photojournalists to report the truth. Photojournalists should take photographs from the actual scene of a news event. They should not participate in designing or masterminding reenactment of news events for exaggerated and inaccurate reports. Should such reenactment be necessary to provide better understanding of a news event, it should be clearly labeled as reenactment.

2. Photojournalists should show concern about the feelings of victims and their families when taking photographs of accidents and their aftermath. Photojournalists should avoid and minimise damage to and impact on the feelings of the victims and their families.

3. Photojournalists should respect the privacy of people being photographed.

4. Photojournalists - including photographers and picture editors - should handle with caution pictures that are gory, violent, disgusting and pornographic. Before using this type of photographs, photojournalists should consider:

4.1. whether they are necessary for news reporting;
4.2. the impact on the society;
4.3. the impact on the people involved and their families.

5. Journalists should process pictures on the basis of the actual scene that they have seen. Any re-processing before and after the pictures are taken are unacceptable.

6. It is a common practice for media organisations to adopt photomontage or use photographs in form of illustrations to provide better understanding of a news event and give effect to editorial design. In order to retain the credibility of the news photographs, media organisations should clearly label such images as "manipulated pictures" or "digitally altered pictures" next to the photographs that have been reprocessed and might give an impression that they are the actual scene.

Of course, that didn't deter the huge packs of photojournalists from getting every gory shot they could, or thrusting their cameras into the faces of those closest to Cantopop star Leslie Cheung, who committed suicide April 1.

The scenes on TV were utter chaos.
posted by bwg at 9:54 AM on April 2, 2003

It's funny that they say he did this to improve "composition" when there is so much more to it. Look at how much more compelling the altered photo is.

What's more to it? Improving composition SHOULD make the photo more compelling. He should have focused on taking compelling photos to begin with.
posted by agregoli at 9:56 AM on April 2, 2003

responding to jess - oh hell yeah. when a photojournalist does something that ethically corrupt he'll be lucky to land a job at the local Wal-Mart photo studio. PJ's are the first to crucify their own if they fuck up the way Walski did. It's really sad because Walski appears to have been an incredible photographer and now everything he's ever done will carry an asterix next to it.
posted by photoslob at 9:58 AM on April 2, 2003

bitdamaged: if you look at the original photo it has the same "haze", I think it's just a compression artifact.
posted by signal at 10:04 AM on April 2, 2003

I'm really amazed he did such a thing and thought he could get away with it. At what point is doing something like this a good idea?

To my untrained eye, the first image is pretty good, though the modified image is a bit more powerful with the gun closer to the man and child (though that seems like an obvious "Elian" sort of stunt to go for).

I wonder how often this happens on other papers.
posted by mathowie at 10:10 AM on April 2, 2003

I don't know why, but this sends me into a fit of rage. I'm so irritated by this. ...fictional event versus reality, I guess.

Journalists manipulate the news all the time, I'm used to it. But it's simply the way they portray the facts. When it comes to imagery, its up to the viewer to decide. I realize that a single frame of a situation is a tiny slice of reality. But to have this part reality manipulated, either in an attemp to make it better looking or worse, is wrong.

The picture published is of a scene that never existed. A picture is worth a thousand words, and in this fake one we see a thousand fictional words.
posted by tomplus2 at 10:14 AM on April 2, 2003

This reminds me of this photo of a streaker at a hockey game, which turned out to be altered too.

And these where sloppy photoshops. Makes you wonder how many sneak through. I don't think there's any technical solution (digital signitures) that can't be worked around.
posted by bobo123 at 10:21 AM on April 2, 2003

posted by zerofoks at 10:42 AM on April 2, 2003

matt - i would venture to say it doesn't happen that often but it probably happens more often than we'd like to believe. what is more likely to happen is the photographer directs the subject or changes the scene *before* making the image so that no one (except the subject) knows the difference.

my working theory on this type of manipulation is that it occurs because of some photographers desire to make the perfect award-winning image at all costs. some photojournalists these days seem to be driven by the insatiable desire to win awards and their peers praise in a destructive race to one-up everyone else.
posted by photoslob at 11:33 AM on April 2, 2003

I'm torn about the issue. The fact is that the photo manipulation really didn't alter the story in this case and it did result in a far superior photo. But, the problem is, where to draw the line. Far better to ensure integrity of the news by not going there at all.
posted by harja at 11:35 AM on April 2, 2003

I watched a documentary on the life of Ansel Adams the other night on PBS. He was criticized during his life for not bringing his great talent to bear on social issues. He felt, however, that any sort of "issue" photography was propaganda.

The more I look at photojournalism, the more I feel likewise. A photo cannot be taken without "intent" and where there is intent, there is propaganda. The photographer wants you to feel something, he is not merely presenting a scene, as it happened. If that were the case, photojournalism would be a awfully boring. Think of the most famous photos of the past, and in every case, it is the emotional impact that makes it memorable. It is this manipulation of emotions that make it propaganda.
posted by pejamo at 11:52 AM on April 2, 2003

ansel adams did shoot an internment camp...great book and lots of links that i'm too lazy to post, previous discussion here as well.

generally aren't altered photos supposed to be presented as illustrations?
posted by th3ph17 at 12:01 PM on April 2, 2003

It is this manipulation of emotions that make it propaganda.

Pejamo, I think you were right on the money when you spoke of "intent." It depends what you think being a photojournalist means. The skilled manipulation of emotions is what artists strive to master, but journalism primarily seems to be a more direct fact-reporting endeavor.

I think this has been one of the main conflicts for photography as a medium, because it is at once a mechanical device that merely reproduces the image captured by its lens and also something more; what is communicated by the images that are produced can be manipulated by the photographer to quite a large extent.

Nobody wants to look at boring photographs, but I guess the question is how far is too far? At what point does a photojournalist stop being primarily a journalist and become more concerned with construction of a compelling image? The answer is pretty clear in this blatant abuse of photoshop, but what about in other cases? There are a whole lotta photojournalists running around these days.
posted by lpqboy at 12:30 PM on April 2, 2003

things are getting worse
posted by Pretty_Generic at 12:32 PM on April 2, 2003

Unless my eyes deceive me, I don't see any people appearing more than once anywhere in the altered photo. That line how he was outed is crap.

The photoshopper took the left side, directly behind the soldier's right flank of the first photo and the complete right hand side, including background people. He cropped the soldier from the first photo and that is the manipulation he did.

I agree he should have been thinking of composition before squeezing off the shot. Is it terribly manipulative? Not really, he is the author of both those photos and therefore can reproduce [with his own permission] any or part of his work. It's war, much confusion, he isn't about to ask the man to stand up with his child to pose again and also asking the soldier to pose again either. Hell, if he did that, the next photo may have been the both of them dead.

The fact that the paper doesn't allow this is the issue and yes, maybe it should have been termed an illustration.
posted by alicesshoe at 12:45 PM on April 2, 2003

Is it terribly manipulative? Not really, he is the author of both those photos and therefore can reproduce [with his own permission] any or part of his work.

It's not so much a question of manipulation as it is deception. As tomplus2 said, it is a scene that never existed.

Intention and Artifice, by William Mitchell (chapter 3 of The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era) investigates the foundation of photography's implicit claim to truth.
posted by eddydamascene at 12:57 PM on April 2, 2003

alicesshoe -- Your eyes do deceive you, I'm afraid. It took me a while to see it, but the guy on the far left in the background with the red kerchief is what to key on. He shows up at the edge of the altered image and the first original, and his back is visible on the right-hand side of the soldier in the second and the altered version. Once you pick that up, you can see some of the folks behind him popping up twice. Because the photographer's perspective changed between the shots, it throws off the background.

I agree that he's within his (legal) rights to alter the images and combine them as he wishes - but then it becomes art, or illustration, not journalism. And when it's passed off as journalism, it's deception.
posted by nickmark at 1:01 PM on April 2, 2003

Well, the photgraphic record had a good run, but I think we'll see the end of the photgraph as a reliable document within the decade. Video not long after that. Move over, woodcuts!
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:13 PM on April 2, 2003

Uh, "photographic" and "photograph" obviously.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:16 PM on April 2, 2003

but I guess the question is how far is too far? At what point does a photojournalist stop being primarily a journalist and become more concerned with construction of a compelling image?

It's such a grey area though. About six months ago I visited a museum that had a special presentation of large prints of each of the Pulitzer Prize winning photos of the last forty years. Each display also described the scene and had a quote from the photographer. There were some truly powerful pictures there. Yes, it can manipulate emotions, but how else can you get a sense of what the starving child in Ethiopia is dealing with or the emtion behind people dying in a Colombian mudslide? It also raises the question of when do you take a photo and when do you put down the damn camera and help?

Regardless, it was a very powerful presentation.
posted by Ufez Jones at 1:28 PM on April 2, 2003

Too bad those Eagle-Eyed LA Times editors couldn't devote more time to solving more important social issues
posted by fatbaq at 1:29 PM on April 2, 2003

PST - Sci-fi guy David Brin has some interesting things to say on that point in The Transparent Society. In a nutshell, he suggests that since the proliferation (and increasing quality) of photograph manipulation tools will likely accompanied by a similar proliferation of cameras and other recording tools (especially in public places), perhaps we'll end up with a situation where a photograph which supposedly portrays one scene can be compared to numerous others taken independently at the same place at the same time. So we'd end up with ways to corroborate or dispute a given picture, and perhaps thus prop up its reliability. Naturally, the highly-unexpected photo of a scene that no one else saw would be taken with a lot more skepticism. It's no panacea, of course, but an interesting idea nonetheless.
posted by nickmark at 1:33 PM on April 2, 2003

It took me a little bit to spot the doubles and I used to do retouching for a living, nickmark basically describes it above.

This stuff will happen more frequently as young photographers move slowly away from film as a medium. In Vietnam, for example, exposed film was often handed off to messengers who would bike it to an airplane which would then fly to Japan to be developed. Now, with the source more often than not being digital, the definition of "original" becomes more slippery.
posted by jeremias at 2:28 PM on April 2, 2003

I doubt that manipulation happens all that much, especially at major publications.
Of course, no one seems to have mentioned the time they put Oprah Winfrey's head on Ann-Magret's body for the cover of TV Guide. Are you all too young for that?
It also blew up in the face of Time magazine when they changed OJ Simpson's photo for the cover.
And when National Geographic moved one of the pyramids for a cover shot, it caused an uproar as well.
I don't think he did it to win a prize. That photo doesn't look prize worthy. He did it because the manipulated photo is much more eyecatching than the other photos.
posted by stevefromsparks at 2:59 PM on April 2, 2003

I agree that he's within his (legal) rights to alter the images and combine them as he wishes

Depends on his contract. Generally, a picture taken by a photojournalist employed by the LA Times would belong to the LA Times. Most news organizations also have standards of professional conduct that journalists working from them are required to adhere to. These usually include prohibitions on deception and certain kinds of image manipulation.

By the way, I'd say that most news photographers don't use film anymore. Lots use digital cameras so pictures can be quickly and easily edited and transferred.
posted by Vidiot at 3:20 PM on April 2, 2003

Well, the photgraphic record had a good run, but I think we'll see the end of the photgraph as a reliable document within the decade. Video not long after that. Move over, woodcuts!

Actually, I don't think so. I agree that manipulation will become easier, but like with books and newspapers, I think we'll just start being careful about whom we consider a reliable source. Print articles are reliable because there exists an (ostensibly) self-policing industry with an interest in gaining people's trust. I expect photography - and photojournalism - will simply grow a little closer to the pre-existing journalistic structures.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:39 PM on April 2, 2003

There is an essential reading in this area, which I've posted here and on blogs more than once: Photography in the Age of Falsification, which discusses the history of the medium and the extent to which digital technology is changing our trust in the certainty of how real a photograph's scene may be, and takes a good hard look in the process at the history of photography, including technical manipulations that have been present before, and in particular looks at Ansel Adams and ways in which he "manipulated" his photography to produce nature that was more than nature. Which isn't to cut down Adams, but only to prick our ideas of how pure the process ever may have been.

aliceshoe: the angle (and perhaps position) of the camera changes from one photo to the other. The man on the left side, whose robe hangs down at an angle and has two blue stripes, appears on the right of the soldier in the second image, and thus twice in the photoshopped image. There are also faces over his shoulder, and you can compare the legs of the seated man who is behind the soldier in one photo and under his arm in the other.

You can almost see how this started, perhaps with a desire to crop or smudge out the errant flagpole (reminiscent of the altered Kent State photo). Then he realized that the photo with the man cradling his child facing the camera was better; but the soldier in that photo seemed to be pointing his gun, rather than peacefully extending his hand (reminiscent of discussion regarding the Elian photo). And of course we can't forget that the Iwo Jima flag-raising was itself the subject of speculation regarding its veracity (the answer is that it was a second flag-raising, but wasn't staged per se).
posted by dhartung at 6:32 PM on April 2, 2003

Well, I think the second photo looks menacing and the first photo looks insensitive, so neither one worked for me.

In terms of digital manipulation of photos.. I think there's a huge difference between an artist-photographer and a news photographer. This sort of manipulation is abhorrent in what is supposed to be taken as literal version of an event.. whether it is a jaguar eating a jackal or a US soldier in the midst of Iraqis. Adjusting brightness, contrast.. adding depth of field to focus the subject.. that's all ok with me, but changing the actual substance of a news photo is just not acceptable.

For art photography, I say go for the gold. Airbrush out nasty telephone wire lines, remove graffiti from a wall, whatever.. an artist photographer is trying to do distill the essence of something into one photo. If that means improving the composition through digital means, then that's fine with me.. no different from a painting.
posted by xyzzy at 10:47 AM on April 5, 2003

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