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Not Creative—Just Dishonest

How Photoshop can get you fired



By Frank Van Riper

Photography columnist

              Forgive me if I do not shed tears over the forced resignation of Allan Detrich from the Toledo Blade.

              Forgive me, too, if while coming down hard on a former colleague, I also hold out some hope for his redemption.

              Detrich, whom I do not know, was a veteran, award-winning news photographer for the Blade. In April he was effectively fired by the paper when, after being confronted by his superiors, he admitted doctoring one of his news photographs in Photoshop. An investigation ensued covering all of his previous work for the year, and before the probe could be completed (with damning results, it turned out) Detrich resigned.

              The doctoring Detrich admitted to was laughably minor: removing two disembodied legs from the right corner of a photograph showing members of an Ohio college baseball team kneeling in prayer on the ballfield before playing their first game since five of their colleagues died in a bus crash in Atlanta. The legs appear incongruously behind a memorial banner hung on a chain link fence. The players pray in the foreground.

              There’s no doubt: removing the legs improved the picture.

              There’s no doubt, too: this was a hanging offense.

              “Readers have asked why this was such a big deal,” Blade vice president and executive editor Ron Royhab said in a “report to our readers” last April 15th. “What’s wrong with changing the content of a photograph that’s published in a newspaper?

              “The answer is simple: It is dishonest.”

              Not so simple are the constraints that those of us in the news business have to work under in the digital age—constraints that to some veterans (and I number myself among them) seem, shall we say, a little over the top at times.

Reasonable people may disagree over these questions. For myself, I hold with a simple formula, first relayed to me by a former Washington Times photographer who was quoting an admonition taped to a computer on which photographers wrote their captions.

“If you can’t do it in the darkroom,” that admonition said, “don’t do it here.”

Basically, what that means is that, once you have captured an image, on film or in pixels, you may crop the photo, or you may or highlight or de-emphasize areas by dodging or burning in—but never in a way that alters the essential truth of the picture.

            Still, given the amazing ability to digitally alter photographs, question inevitably arise.

“Is it grounds for impeachment to use Gaussian Blur to give an ethereal out-of-focus glow to the crowd surrounding a presidential candidate, “ asked Washington shooter Robert Trippett in the newsletter of the White House News Photographers Association, “or would that effect only follow protocol if a toy camera with a gauzy plastic lens was used….?”

              “Is it an outrage to apply Photoshop’s Levels so that protestors appear as silhouettes, or is it only legitimate if the camera is set to underexpose the original demonstration scene….?

              “Is a photographer off balance if Photoshop is used to correct the parallax lines in a wide angle shot of a tall building, or is that only permissible using the tilt and shift of a view camera…?

              “Is a panoramic landscape created in a Widelux camera any more authentic than one digitally stitched together from separate photographs…?”

               To be sure, Trippett’s questions are posed artfully and provocatively. But the bottom lines remains—and must remain—that no one (no one worthy of being called a journalist, anyway) condones the willful publishing of a lie, be it in words or photographs.

              And by doctoring his photograph of the baseball players (as well as nearly 80 other of his photos since last January) Allan Detrich had done just that.

              If Detrich’s action had been isolated, if, as he originally told his bosses, he had altered the pic for his personal file and had mistakenly submitted it for publication, there would be no need to write about it—and, more importantly,  no reason to fire him.

              But the internal investigation reportedly showed numerous alterations to the work Detrich submitted for publication—of nearly a thousand  images, one in twelve had been altered. One of the most flagrant of which (which, happily, was not published) showed a young woman basketball player leaping in the air trying to reach an airborne ball with her outstretched hand. Great shot--except for the fact that ball was nowhere near her. A search of Detrich’s hard drive showed that he had Photoshopped the ball into the picture.

              Was this the isolated larceny of a smalltime shooter in a smalltime market? (My apologies, Toldeo, I’m trying to make a point.) Hardly. Consider the disgraced Brian Walski, formerly of the LA Times, who Photoshopped himself right out of a job a few years ago after he combined two of his good legitimate Iraq war photos into one superb corrupt one. You may recall the Walski flap and photo: it showed a rifle-wielding British soldier in Basra gesturing for civilians to hit the dirt as one standing man--holding a small child in his arms--looks up at the soldier imploringly. But that moment never happened: Walski created it by combining two of his images into one. (In one photo the soldier is gesturing dramatically while the man holding the child is merely part of the crowd; in the other the man is looking up at the soldier, but the soldier is looking away. Combine the two, however, and—provided you can get away with it--you are a Pulitzer contender. Walski’s downfall was that he failed to see that some figures in the background appeared twice in his doctored image, a fact that was discovered stateside, after which Walski was out on his ass.)

              So what is going on here?

              Frankly, I think giving Photoshop to some photographers is like giving gin to a drunk. Photoshop—and its ability to cover up mistakes, change reality into something “better” or more saleable—simply goes down too easy for too many photographers. And everyone BUT journalists, so it seems, can use it with impunity. Advertising shot need a telephone pole removed from a car ad? No problemo. Model’s gorgeous face need to be even more gorgeous with the removal of an errant hair or wrinkle? Please, allow me.

              The bride look just a little too zaftig in that big white gown? Slim her down in PS and she’ll think you’re Avedon.

              “Journalism is obviously not a religion, and newsrooms are hardly cathedrals,” a onetime friend and colleague wrote. “But the concept of sin exists nonetheless.”

              “If there is a mortal sin, it is the willful publishing of an untruth.

“Sure, we get things wrong, but it is generally as the result of human fallibility, not deliberate transgression.

              “You don’t make things up and put them in the paper. It’s as simple as that.”

              The writer was Clyde Haberman, now a columnist and former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

              Clyde and I went to City College of New York together—he was one year ahead of me--and we both served as editor-in-chief of the college paper. Clyde also was the City College stringer for the Times. He was such a good college reporter that it seemed certain he would land a job on the Times right out of college. And he almost did. Until he was summarily fired in 1966 by the legendary A.M. Rosenthal for printing a lie in the New York Times.

              As CCNY stringer, it was Clyde’s job at graduation time to write a story listing all of the numerous awards presented at commencement.

              Haberman typed away, growing progressively more bored, when he had an idea.

              “I invented a fake prize.”

              “The Brett Award, I called it, “to the student who has worked hardest under a great handicap—Jake Barnes.”

              To anyone who has read Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” the reference is clear: to its castrated, impotent narrator Jake Barnes and to his unrequited love Lady Brett Ashley.

              Clyde thought his “prank” would go unnoticed. It did not, and he was fired, told by Rosenthal he would never work at the Times again. Happily for Clyde, circumstance and his own talent bought him a second chance on the Times years later. And he never looked back.

              But in an era of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and others of equal infamy, Clyde knew one thing: Abe Rosenthal was absolutely right to fire him.

              “The correctness of his decision becomes ever more clear with the grievous wrongdoings of the Blairs and the Kelleys and the other journo-fabulists who, bizarrely, keep popping up.

              “Here’s the link between me in my sophomoric way and them in their grotesque way: We all knowingly put falsehoods in the newspaper.”

              People have a right to believe what they read in the newspaper, Rosenthal had told Haberman more than 40 years ago.

              That’s just as true today—and it applies equally to the photographs that appear there, in print or online.


Frank Van Riper is Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. He was a 1979 Nieman Fellow at Harvard and served for 20 years in the New York Daily News Washington Bureau as White House correspondent, national political correspondent and Washington bureau news editor. Among others, he is the author of Faces of the Eastern Shore and Down East Maine/A World Apart.  His book Talking Photography (Allworth Press) is a collection of his Washington Post and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com


[Copyright Frank Van Riper.  All Rights Reserved]