This week the Associated Press dispensed – rightly – with the services of freelance photographer Narciso Contreras, who used software to remove a colleague’s video camera from an image he took in Syria.
What Contreras did was wrong. The value of press photography is embedded entirely in its integrity – we have to know what these images represent is the truth.
In this one instance, Contreras broke that bond of trust. His punishment, while harsh, is probably justified. His career could well be destroyed.
But what is deeply unappetizing is the pontificating being done by pictures editors who are no strangers to offering photographers – even those working in war zones like Contreras – peanuts for their work.
His firing has prompted a glut of self-righteous pieces such as this one from the Guardian which makes all the right noises about integrity, but says little about how images are acquired and paid for.
Noticeably, it does not ask why Contreras – a Pulitzer prize winner – did what he did.
Since the turn of the century, the combination of modern digital cameras and the fact that many of the world’s hotspots are no-go areas for western photographers has seen the rise of the local freelancer or stringer.
It’s not unknown for an amateur who shows talent to be discovered by an agency or a news outlet.
They are then given tips – and in some cases equipment – and sent out into places where it is too dangerous for westerners to go. They are sometimes paid by the day, sometimes by the image.
It’s seldom very much. It’s usually a lot less than what a western photographer would get.
There isn’t much offered in the way of insurance or training or counseling either.
And when the war or conflict ends, there’s not much chance of a staff job somewhere either. The news moves on. They don’t.
Contreras, from Mexico City, was working as a freelancer in Syria, essentially competing against newly-minted photographers such as those described above.
I don’t know what freelance deal Contreras had with AP, but an educated guess at the original image suggests that, as shot, it wasn’t sellable.
Contreras might not have had any other decent images that day either, and thus he may have decided that in this one instance it was worth a shot at manipulating the image in a way that is normally totally unacceptable.
After all, having spent a day on any assignment, let alone one as dangerous and as violent as Syria, a freelance photographer must have something to show for it.
It should also be pointed out that it was he himself that brought this manipulation to AP’s attention, and that no other image filed with the agency showed any signs of having been manipulated in a similar fashion.
I’m by no means accusing AP of underpaying Contreras or of putting him in danger, nor am I excusing what he did. Trying to understand something is not the same as condoning it.
What I am doing is asking the question: why did he choose to do this?
Was it because of economic necessity?
Because if it was, we have a very big problem on our hands.
Modern (and not-so-modern) media businesses are working on notoriously tight margins, and agencies and outlets are trying to get content for as little as possible.
But if that is going to be the business model, then something has to give. You cannot produce good journalism on a shoestring.
It might be that we have to accept a photographer manipulating an image, or a reporter reporting quotes and scenes he didn’t witness first-hand as if he was on the spot.
AP have deleted Contreras’ images from the public database, but the debate cannot be deleted from the public domain – how much are we (consumers, readers and agencies) willing to pay for our content?
And if that isn’t enough to compensate journalists, photographers and camera people for the risks that they take, how much are we prepared to have our news compromised as a result?