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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Manipulating Truth, Losing Credibility

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It is a sad but unforgivable case coming in the midst of a sad but unavoidable war.

Brian Walski, a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times working in Iraq, was fired April 1 immediately after his editors discovered that he had combined two of his Iraqi photographs into one to "improve" the composition.

The widely published image, of an armed British soldier and Iraqi civilians under hostile fire in Basra seems to show the soldier gesturing at the civilians – urging them to seek cover – as a standing man holding a young child in his arms seems to look at the soldier imploringly. It's the kind of picture that wins a Pulitzer.

Not surprisingly, it ran Page One, large and above the fold, in the Times, and across all six front-page columns of the Hartford Courant, which, like the LA Times, is a Tribune Company property.

But the picture is a fake – a computer-generated amalgam of two different photographs, made one after the other. In one (unmanipulated) picture, that prominently features the standing man and child, the British soldier is not gesturing and is looking away from them. In the second image (also unmanipulated), the soldier is gesturing dramatically, but the man and child are much less visible. The conclusion is inescapable: Walski deliberately combined two of his good legitimate photographs to make one superb illegitimate one. The bogusness of the picture was discovered at the Courant, after an employee noticed what appeared to be a duplication of elements and people in the image's background.

A 20-year veteran of the news business, Walski was confronted by his editors, confessed, and accepted his summary punishment. He called his action a "complete breakdown in judgment" that was caused in part by the stress of his assignment. [It should be noted, though, that Walski did not just push the wrong button and send the wrong picture in the exhausting heat of the moment. He had to consciously manipulate his two digital pictures in Photoshop – an action requiring both skill and intent. He had to create the separate, faked, image, and – again with intent – transmit it to his editors, saying nothing about the alteration.]

"This was after an extremely long, hot and stressful day," Walski maintained in a 214-word apology to his colleagues, "but I offer no excuses here..."

He conceded that "I have tarnished the reputation" of the Los Angeles Times, the Tribune company and "especially the very talented and extremely dedicated photographers and picture editors that have made my four-and-a half years at the Times a true quality experience."

"I have always maintained the highest ethical standards throughout my career," Walski insisted, "and cannot truly explain my complete breakdown in judgment at this time. That will only come in the many sleepless nights that are ahead."

As a journalist myself for more than 30 years, I have covered urban unrest, violent demonstrations and – during the 1968 Democratic convention – what investigators ultimately called "a police riot." I have been tear-gassed, manhandled, abused and arrested. I have traveled on assignment all over the country and to many parts of the world.

But I haven't a clue what it must be like to be in combat and I am damned if I am going to pile on Brian Walski, even if I never could excuse what he did.

Though he deserved the axe that he got, who in the business cannot feel pain and sympathy after reading Kenny F. Irby's superb analysis in Poynter Online, the website of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University. Several reactions to Irby's piece are reprinted here.

Irby quotes LA Times shooter Don Barletti, reached by satellite phone in Kuwait City, recalling seeing Walski just as everything was hitting the fan:

"When I saw him I really did not recognize him. He was sunburned, had not eaten in days, nor slept in 36 hours; his clothes were filthy, his beard – all over the place. And he smelled like a goat."

Barletti recalled asking Walski, 'How could you do this?'"

"I f–-ed up," Walski is said to have answered, "and now no one will touch me..."

What makes Walski's action so tragic has very little to do with what he did to his picture, but a hell of a lot to do with the fragile currency in which all reputable journalists trade: their credibility. In truth, what the photographer did had little, if any, effect on the content of the story he was telling – a point made by at least one critic, Pedro Meyer, who appears elsewhere on this website.

"We found that the photographer Brian Walski has been dismissed from the LA Times for no valid reason," Meyer intoned from his own website, Zone Zero. "It seems that the newspaper does not fully understand that the CONTENT of the image he sent in was not altered in its essence, even though he combined two consecutive images. The problem with this action by the LA Times news-organization, is that they use this sort of measure to cover up for what is in reality a much more profound issue, in particular in this war, and that has to do with the wholesale abdication of their responsibility in bringing to the public any news other than what the Pentagon or the White House wishes them to publish."

Meyer, an acclaimed fine art photographer and author who is not a daily journalist, goes on like this and manages to get it exactly wrong:

"They (the LA Times) have fired someone for doing a professional job in trying to come up with a better picture, the same way that any of their journalists polish a text so that it reads better and is succinct. (why should a photographer be deprived of doing exactly the same that other professionals are doing on a daily basis as long as the information is not distorted?). The only explanation I can find is that by accusing the photographer and attempting to portray themselves as publishing 'unmanipulated' news, they are seeking to conceal the factual reality of their biased and one-sided presentation of the overall news. That seems to be the more important issue at hand."

Hard though it is to stomach such fatuousness, I will try.

Leaving aside Meyer's obvious political bias and convenient myopia (he speaks about "war atrocities perpetrated [on civilians] by US bombs," and makes no mention at all of depredations by the other side, nor of the Herculean efforts by the allies to pinpoint their attacks and minimize such tragedy), Meyer and the few others who are like him are simply wrong to compare what Walski did to a reporter's composition of a story.

Any reporter worthy of the name would no sooner fiddle with direct quotes than a reputable photojournalist would alter his or her picture. Remember:news photographs are the equivalent of direct quotations and therefore are sacrosanct – the situational ethics of Walski's apologists notwithstanding. To be sure, just as a writer can, in the interest of brevity or impact, choose which quotes to use in a story, so can a news photographer or picture editor crop out dead space in a news photo, or use the electronic equivalent of dodging or burning in to make a picture reproduce better.

But the key elements of a news photograph, like the key words in a direct quote, simply are off limits to manipulation. In this, I am reminded of what a Washington Times shooter once told me. On a computer outside the paper's darkroom, she said, there was plastered this flat admonition and warning: "If you can't do it in the darkroom, don't do it here."

In fairness to Meyer and others, one can legitimately question the news judgment of a newspaper, magazine, network or website. For example, critics of the war have for weeks been dumping on the alleged jingoism of the coverage by Rupert Murdoch's Fox news network. But I find more fault with Fox's (and other outlets') gaudy, rah-rah packaging of the product than with the content itself. (Again, it should be remembered, no one is accusing Fox of manufacturing video or piping quotes.) I should add that, for this news junkie, the preference on TV is for the refreshingly in-depth (and dispassionate) coverage of PBS' "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," as well as for Ted Koppel's Peabody-caliber reporting from the field for ABC's "Nightline."

Perhaps even more dangerous to the already fragile reputation of journalists is the fact that Brian Walski's action will call into question the work of any number of other reporters and photographers – a fact conveniently ignored by those who see nothing wrong with what he did.

It's what one respondent on the Poynter Institute website called "the 'cockroach theory of news.' If you see one, there are a hundred."

Noted Chicago Tribune (and former White House) shooter Pete Souza: "Isn't it ironic that in one of photojournalism's finest moments, one of our lowest moments has occurred. The photographs coming from Iraq are amazing in their power to convey the emotions and scenes of war....

"[But] this fiasco transcends...this one isolated incident. I believe our entire profession is now under a cloud of suspicion regarding our credibility..."

And, importantly, Souza declared, the blame is not just on one misguided shooter. "Photographers are given less time to produce more pictures. There is more competition for the limited space that exists in a newspaper. This pressure results in more temptation to manipulate the photographic situation: either by directing the subject or by digital manipulation. With digital cameras and wireless transmission, there is also less accountability."

"Finally, to save travel money, a picture editor often assigns a local freelancer to shoot an out-of-town assignment. Many times the picture editor has never even met the freelancer. A staffer may be obligated in [adhering] to a certain ethics policy but what about a freelancer?"

I only can echo Pete's unhappy view. Assuming Brian Walski's unforgivable action was the only mistake in an otherwise unblemished career – an assumption I am willing to make with no evidence to the contrary – the sad, tragic fact is that the cloud he has cast over the profession he loves is something all of us now will have to live with – and work to dispel.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

(Brian Walski)
Brian Walski, a Los Angeles Times reporter, combined two photographs into one used on the newspaper's front page Monday (above). Sharp-eyed journalists at another paper spotted Iraqis at left who were repeated in the picture.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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