If there is one area of photography where it matters that photographs are truthful (to the extent that they can) it’s in the context of the news. This is the main reason behind all those various photo-manipulation scandals that have been dogging the business.
Recently, questions have been raised about photographs coming out of Syria and provided by Reuters. The New York Times' Lens blog published an article entitled Questions About News Photographers in Syria Arise After Freelancer’s Death. I had been aware of the death of the young man in question, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the following:
"Interviews with numerous Syrian photographers, most requesting anonymity because they have worked as freelancers for Reuters, said many of the freelancers are activists — in one case a spokesman — who supported the rebels. Three of them also said that the freelancers had provided Reuters with images that were staged or improperly credited, sometimes under pseudonyms. And while Reuters has given the local stringers protective vests and helmets, most said that the stringers lacked training in personal safety and first aid."
No, really, take that in: “images that were staged or improperly credited,” provided by “activists — in one case a spokesman — who supported the rebels.” If true, this would mean that these photographs have literally no news value. They’d be propaganda.
A week later, an NPPA article, written by Donald Winslow, followed up:
"In response to a story last week in The New York Times that raised serious ethical questions about the practices of some news photographers in Syria following the death last year in Aleppo of an 18-year-old Reuters freelancer, the news agency issued a statement denying the article’s allegations and refuting any wrongdoing."
OK, then. Problem solved. “Except for anonymous allegations backed by no specific examples, the story provides no evidence that Reuters photographers have staged photos in Syria or anywhere else,” a Reuters statement is quoted. Fair enough.
Winslow then continued bringing up a specific example, where, it seemed, pictures had been set up - again, information was provided by people "under the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from either their own organization or from Reuters."
But things aren’t quite so simple really, because if you have photographers staging images there would always be the editor(s) making sure that those images then aren’t used. Winslow again:
"the deeper ethical question may not so much be whether a freelance photographer ‘set up,’ actively or even passively, a set of photographs, but the paramount issue may be one of editorial practices. At what point in the publishing process were these captions reviewed and by how many editors? At any point did someone from Reuters ask whether these photographs and captions were credible and – more importantly – did anyone journalistically verify that these captions were accurate? In a war zone where a news organization feels that it’s too dangerous to send their own staff, journalists who are trained and who are held accountable for their ethics, is there now another less demanding standard for the activists who are shooting photographs for Reuters?"
This clearly matters because
"The role of editing, of providing oversight and supervision for honest reporting – especially in captions that accompany photographs – may be key factors regarding whether readers (as well as other journalists) are apt to question the accuracy of what those images claim to portray."
In other words, if you, as the source of photographs, to the very best of your knowledge cannot guarantee "the accuracy of what those images claim to portray,” you’re toast. That’s it. You’re not a credible source of images any longer.
Instead, your images are in the same category as all those YouTube videos who might or might not be accurate, say. And you know what serious news organizations do when they use them: they make it very clear that they were unable to verify their credibility.
Michael Shaw of BagNews followed up on these two articles, with Were the Reuters “Boy in a Syrian Bomb Factory” Photos Staged? and The Dysfunctional Guitar: More on the Reuters Syria Photo Controversy. You really want to read the piece on the guitar.
You would imagine that Reuters would have an interest in providing answers to the various questions raised. As an article in the British Journal of Photography noted:
“‘Reuters photographers, staff and freelancers must not stage or re-enact news events,’ reads Reuters’ Handbook of Journalism. ‘They may not direct the subjects of their images, or add, remove or move objects on a news assignment. Our news photography must depict reality. Any attempt to alter that reality constitutes fabrication and can lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.’”
The article, written by Olivier Laurent, is entitled Reuters maintains dogged silence on allegations of ‘staged images’. It ends with a series of statements following the pattern "When asked … the news agency refused to comment."
It’s tempting to dismiss this as yet another one of those scandals about images that the news seem to attract. But it isn’t. We’re not talking about a single image here. We’re not talking about a single photographer’s funny (or maybe not so funny) business here.
Instead, Reuters’ credibility is on the line.