Digitally altering photographs might be accepted -- expected, really -- when it comes to magazines like Vogue, but it's a big no-no when it comes to news organizations. Yet that's what one Pulitzer-winning AP photographer chose to do to a photo he took in Syria in September.
Narciso Contreras was part of a team of five AP photographers who won a Pulitzer for breaking news photography last year for their work in Syria. The AP also posted a video of Contreras discussing his work to YouTube last June and he spoke to the Guardian and Time about working in a country in the middle of a bloody and brutal civil war in December 2012.
"He's showing us the reality of the situation in Aleppo, which is surely a difficult place to work," AP vice president and director of photography Santiago Lyon told Time.
Contreras was not just a random freelancer who took a few photos for the AP; he was one of the organization's best photographers on the ground in Syria, and since October 2012, he's filed almost 500 photos for the wire organization.
And in one of them, taken last September, he chose to edit another journalist's camera out of a shot of a Syrian rebel taking cover. Contreras thought the camera would "distract viewers," according to the AP's story about itself, which did not mention how Contreras' ethical lapse was discovered.
"I took the wrong decision when I removed the camera ... I feel ashamed about that," Contreras told the AP. "You can go through my archives and you can find that this is a single case that happened probably at one very stressed moment, at one very difficult situation, but yeah, it happened to me, so I have to assume the consequences."
Those consequences will be harsh: Contreras "will not work for the AP again in any capacity," said vice president and director of photography Santiago Lyon. And, though the AP found no evidence that any of his other photos were altered, all of them -- including the six that were part of the Pulitzer-winning package -- are no longer be available for commercial licensing. They've already been removed from the AP's image search.
It's a sad end to Contreras' once very promising career with the AP, especially over what was, essentially, a cosmetic change that didn't alter the news value of the photo. But it's not like he didn't know this could have happened to him. Three years ago, Miguel Tovar, also a freelancer, edited a photo to remove his shadow. Rival wire service Reuters has also had photoshop scandals. In 2006, freelancer Adnan Hajj was fired for (badly) photoshopping extra plumes of smoke in a photo of the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike in Beirut. He also photoshopped a photo of an Israeli jet fighter to show it firing three missiles instead of one. Like Contreras, their photos were removed from their employers' photo libraries.
The AP has come down just about as hard on its staff reporters as it did its freelance photographer. Last year, three journalists were fired after an article about Virginia's then-gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe had to be retracted.