Stop me if this sounds familiar. Professional photographer submits staged or manipulated image; newspaper or agency publishes image; reader spots manipulation; photographer is fired, much hand wringing ensues.
At first glance the weekend dismissal of long-time staff photographer Bryan Patrick by the Sacramento Bee appeared to follow the template established by Adnan Hajj Reutersgate, the Brian Walski Los Angeles Times fiasco, and numerous others. There was however one difference. The Hajj and Walski incidents concerned major news stories in war zones: Patrick’s photograph was of a bird eating a frog at a wildlife festival.
You can of course adopt the principled position – as the Bee has – that the subject of the photograph is irrelevant, and that any manipulation is forbidden in photojournalism. But if so the Bee – and you – had better start clearing bookshelves. Those precious monographs by Capa, Smith, Khaldei et al? Packed with staging and darkroom manipulation: many of the most historic and respected names in photography would get short shrift at the Bee.
You can also take the fundamentalist position – as the Bee has – that any photo manipulation, no matter how minor, is such a heinous crime that it inevitably merits only the maximum possible sentence, dismissal of the perpetrator. In that case the Bee – and you – presumably take a similarly hard-line stance regarding other more serious crimes. You’ll be in favour of execution for murderers, the chopping off of hands for pickpockets, castration for copyright infringers, that sort of thing.
What Patrick did was undoubtedly wrong, but perhaps worse than that, it was stupid. It should by now be painfully obvious to even the dimmest photographer that if you fake in Photoshop you will be caught: the whole world is watching, and somebody somewhere is waiting to pounce. And whatever they might claim, such incidents often put the news organisation concerned in a rather comfortable position. Closure – at least for the publisher – is easily achieved with an apology packed with references to ethics and core values and branding the perpographer a fraud. “We too have been betrayed dear reader,” runs the narrative, “but the guilty party has been punished: you can trust us.”
This conveniently glosses over one point obvious to anyone who has ever worked in a newspaper, but perhaps less so to the readers the Bee is addressing. Patrick did not publish the doctored image all on his own: he will have submitted a number of images to the Bee photo department, who will have made the final choice for publication. One might expect the photo department to notice any skullduggery: after all, that is in part their job, and Patrick’s handiwork was relatively crude and easy to spot. But the manipulated image sailed by the photo department: the Bee was apparently only alerted by that most reliable of sources, an anonymous e-mail from a reader.
That begs two questions. Does the Bee employ any photo editors who are awake and in possession of functioning eyeballs? And what steps has the paper taken against those editors who approved publication of the Patrick photo?
It would be interesting to hear the response to those questions, but we’re unlikely to get any. The Bee, having placed all the blame squarely on the photographer, is apparently now refusing to comment further. All in all, a neat way to evade any responsibility.