'Cloned' and exposed: A cautionary tale for photojournalism

Something caught my eye when I was sifting through a pile of old magazines at a second-hand bookstore in Bras Basah Complex 10 years ago. Framed by the familiar yellow border of the National Geographic magazine, the intense gaze of an Afghan girl with piercing green eyes stared back at me.

I was thrilled to have found a copy of the June 1985 publication bearing one of the most iconic images in modern photographic history - for just $1.50.

In 2009, the photographer of the Afghan girl image, Steve McCurry, visited Singapore Press Holdings to give a talk, and he signed my copy of the magazine.

The veteran, small in stature but shouldering his huge reputation well, won me over with his earnestness.

His pictures, sought after worldwide, adorn gallery walls and grace international publications.

The way my colleagues and I can stay relevant is to be true to the function of photojournalism by bringing unadulterated images to readers who are increasingly sceptical of the mass media.

If anyone were to come close to being a living legend in the photographic world, McCurry would be it.

But events that unfolded last month may undo all of that.

The American came under intense scrutiny after an eagle-eyed photographer, Paolo Viglione, spotted an anomaly with McCurry's print at an exhibition in Italy. A portion of a street sign was spotted protruding awkwardly out of a person's feet in the photo.

It appears that the street sign had been moved in the picture using image processing software.

When Viglione shared that on his blog, the Internet lit up.

Netizens trawled through the World Wide Web and came up with more examples of how McCurry had "cloned" elements out of his photographs. These manipulations included removal of lamp posts, street signs and even people.

In defence of his actions, McCurry, whose career spans four decades, gave his side of the story to Time magazine and said that he no longer regards himself as a photojournalist but as a "visual storyteller".

As a photojournalist myself, I found this explanation to be as wobbly as a two-legged tripod.

Only last year, the 66-year-old had taken a stand against doctoring images in a TEDx interview. He said then: "I believe that the picture should reflect exactly what you saw and experienced when you took the picture. I don't think you should have any adjustments in terms of Photoshop - kind of garish colours. I want to just capture life as it is without really interfering, and I want it to reflect reality, actually."

As accusations of ethical violations flew thick and fast, what struck me was how the reactions were split.

One camp was adamant that McCurry had violated ethical guidelines by doctoring his images, while another camp felt otherwise.

What's the big deal, it's just a street sign, they pointed out.

To those unfamiliar with photojournalism ethics, the uproar may seem petty and vindictive.

To understand why it matters, we need to look at the function of a photojournalistic image - which is to inform and translate faithfully to viewers what the photojournalist witnesses.

Any doctoring veers away from the truth and erodes credibility - the bedrock of journalism.

Unlike fashion or advertising photography, readers expect veracity in press images, and rightly so.

Save for minor adjustments to colour, contrast or sharpness that adhere to widely accepted industry standards, any changes which alter the content should be avoided.

These guidelines are not new.

Major news organisations worldwide, including the National Geographic, heed these standards.

Last year, World Press Photo (WPP), arguably the most prestigious global photojournalism contest, disqualified 20 per cent of finalists after the entries were compared to original straight-out-of-camera files.

Photography site Petapixel quoted WPP managing director Lars Boering as saying then: "This year's jury was very disappointed to discover how careless some photographers had been in post-processing their files for the contest. When this meant a material addition or subtraction in the content of the image, it led to the images being rejected from the contest."

Contest rules have been tightened to weed out the problem, but 16 per cent of finalists this year were still thrown out for breaking the rules.

A common rebuttal is how these elements which were cloned out are so innocuous; the argument is that as long as it does not alter the meaning of the image, then it is acceptable.

But the problem is not just the act of cloning itself but the consequences of allowing it to go unchecked.

If we allow manipulation, no matter how harmless it may seem, then everything becomes arbitrary.

Who's to say a street sign is not significant? How about a person standing in the background? How about a gun in the picture?

It will be hard to draw the line once we start on this slippery slope. The best way, therefore, is to avoid doing it altogether.

Unfortunately, manipulation in photojournalism extends beyond the digital darkroom.

I shudder when so-called photojournalism "purists" declare their contempt for Photoshop manipulation but have no qualms about staging a scene so that a picture can be made.

Staging involves orchestrating or posing someone and then passing it off as a found moment. The process includes instructing subjects to repeat an action or do something they would not have otherwise done so that a picture can be made.

Doing so is equally deceptive and negates the function of photojournalism to inform truthfully.

However, not all forms of staging are wrong. Portraits, for example, are in the clear because it is obvious that they are staged, and therefore there is no deception. Staging is also not wrong if it is made known clearly by the photographer in the caption.

The key is to be honest about our dishonesty. While many will see staging as the lesser evil compared to doctoring of images, I will argue otherwise. The former, I believe, is a greater problem because it is harder to detect.

You can expose a doctored picture by comparing it to the original image file, but how does one prove that a photo has been staged?

Regardless, both forms of manipulation should not be done for the same reasons why a journalist should not make up a quote.

The digital revolution has now made these problems more pronounced.

Decades ago, just knowing how to use a camera would have set photographers apart. But accessibility to cameras today has rendered that advantage obsolete.

The temptation, therefore, to manipulate images to make them a little "better" to stand out from the crowd is stronger than ever.

The way my colleagues and I can stay relevant is to be true to the function of photojournalism by bringing unadulterated images to readers who are increasingly sceptical of the mass media.

McCurry is not the first and surely will not be the last photojournalist to be exposed. But every time it happens, it should serve as a timely reminder that there is honour in staying true to the principles of the profession, no matter how great the temptation to do otherwise.

Great photojournalism does not rise and fall with one man, no matter how prominent he was.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline ''Cloned' and exposed: A cautionary tale for photojournalism'. Print Edition | Subscribe