Alex Castro (Associated Press)
Alex Castro (Associated Press)

The Associated Press has pulled seven photos of Fidel Castro provided by Cuban officialdom from its archive after finding evidence of digital alterations in some of them. The AP received the photos from Estudios Revolucion, which hands out shots of top Cuban officials — and has every interest in making them appear excellent. The alterations, the AP discovered, involved the disappearance of an apparent hearing aid from the ear of the former Cuban president.

According to the AP, the photos came out of the January summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. They were taken by Alex Castro, son of the former Cuban strongman. The wire service doesn’t like getting photos from official sources but will take them when no other alternatives are available. When it does accept such photos, it takes a close look at them to make sure they aren’t altered. “It was during such screening that photo editors noted an anomaly in a picture that showed Castro meeting with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa in Havana on Jan. 29,” noted an AP story on the matter.

Santiago Lyon, the AP’s vice president and director of photography, told the Erik Wemple Blog that whenever the wire service gets “images from any place, we scrutinize them extraordinarily carefully.” The policy applies not only to images that come from the toadies of dictators, but also the stuff coming in from the White House and the U.S. military. In the case of the Castro photos, Lyon said, the AP had its photo desk in Mexico City do the pat-down.

At least one editor — possibly more — blew up the Castro photos in Photoshop, the better to spot any anomalies in the work. “They’re looking for anything that doesn’t line up,” said Lyon — “a little bit too dark, a little bit blurry.” A key clue in this case came through in the photographs’ file information, according to Lyon. The Cubans sent the AP photos of low resolution, yet the information indicated that the camera that had taken the photos was delivering higher resolution. Red flag.*

In any case, the AP’s screening procedures didn’t find anything untoward for seven of the photos. Then: “We get to the eighth, and the editor does notice something in the ear because the resolution was a little bit better,” said Lyon. “She said, ‘I think there’s something wrong with this picture.’”*

As the AP writeup stated, the screening found something strange in a Jan. 29 photo of Fidel Castro and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa in Havana. At that point, the AP contacted Alex Castro to obtain the original photos, which confirmed their hunch. “The original clearly showed a thin wire snaking into Fidel Castro’s ear that was missing from the altered photo released through Estudios Revolucion,” the AP story said. Though AP didn’t pass along that particular image to its customers, it noted alterations in other photos, and at least one of them was distributed.

According to Lyon, Alex Castro had participated in a photo workshop with the AP in 2008 at which the wire service outlined its standards of photographic integrity. “He was not aware that this had been done to his images, so he was not happy about it,” Lyon said.

Now the AP is digging into the 150-odd handout photos that it has received from Cuba since 2008. Why not just toss all of them, given what it now knows about Estudios Revolucion? “We haven’t gotten to that point yet. We’re still doing our homework,” Lyon said. The AP is ruthless when confronted with alterations of its photographs. “Under AP standards, photos must depict reality and cannot be manipulated to add or subtract elements that alter that reality,” noted the wire service’s story.

As to why the Cubans would want to extract a hearing aid from the photo of the former Cuban leader, Lyon declined to participate in such speculation: “It’s hard for me to know exactly why they did this,” he said. The Erik Wemple Blog feels comfortable guessing as to the motive: !Viva Fidel!

*Correction: The AP writes back to the Erik Wemple Blog to clarify that the Cubans did indeed send low-resolution stuff, but that there was “no information specifically indicating that.” And the editor who first detected the issue was a woman, not a man, as indicated initially.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.