The Associated Press has announced that it's severing its ties with Narciso Contreras, a Mexican freelancer photographer who admitted to manipulating a shot he took while in Syria last September.
The photo in question, shown above, depicts a Syrian rebel fighter taking cover during an exchange of fire. In the original image, on the left, another journalist's video camera is visible in the bottom-left-hand corner of the frame. According to AP, Contreras removed that camera by "cloning" over other pieces of the background before submitting it to the wire service's photo desk.
"I took the wrong decision when I removed the camera ... I feel ashamed about that," he told AP. "You can go through my archives and you can find that this is a single case that happened probably at one very stressed moment, at one very difficult situation, but yeah, it happened to me, so I have to assume the consequences."
Following the revelation of the photo doctoring, AP combed through the 494 images Contreras submitted since he began working for the agency in 2012, and didn't uncover further examples of alteration; nevertheless, AP announced that it would be removing all his images from its archives.
"AP's reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code," said Santiago Lyon, AP vice president and director of photography. "Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable."
Contreras was one of five photographers who helped earn AP the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography last year. At the time, Lyon praised the five as "some of the bravest and most talented photographers in the world." The photo that got Contreras in trouble was not among those submitted for the prize.
We reached out to photojournalist Louie Palu — who was a red chair guest in 2010 and whose work has appeared on Strombo.com — for his opinion on where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable modifications to photographs.
"The most important thing as a professional journalist, is we have to have integrity," he told Strombo.com. "We have to stick to documenting things, witnessing things, as closely to the truth as possible." Palu told us he follows the National Press Photographers Association's Code of Ethics for all his work (AP has a similar statement of News Values and Principles).
"All there should be is basically lightening, darkening, colour correcting," he said. "Sometimes you take a picture and you didn't expose it right; there's nothing unethical about lightening it to make it look like how it was when you saw it." Likewise, he said removing a scratch from a negative is acceptable, as is cropping, but typically only when you're adjusting the frame around the central subject. Larger modifications, such as cloning elements into or out of the image, or physically moving objects into a scene, are never acceptable, he said.
"People know when they're doing something wrong," he said of photojournalists who alter their work. "It's very unfortunate, because one mistake like this can ruin your whole career."