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Pulitzer Prize Winning AP Photographer Fired for Photoshopping Image – Too Severe?

By Jon Cripwell on January 23rd 2014

The Associated Press has “severed ties” with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Narciso Contreras, after he admitted to altering an image taken during the conflict in Syria.

Contreras shared the Pulitzer Prize with four other photographers for breaking news photography from the Syrian War, but now faces having all of his 494 images removed from the AP publicly available news archive.

AP Photographer firedThe news agency revealed that Contreras had admitted to digitally removing a video camera belonging to one of his colleagues from the bottom left hand corner of an image showing a Syrian rebel fighter, taken last September. Contreras altered the image as he felt the camera was a distraction, but admitted that he had broken the rules and should therefore face the consequences. “I took the wrong decision when I removed the camera…” he said. “I feel ashamed about that.”

Following a review of the hundreds of other photographs that Contreras has supplied to AP, it was found that this was an isolated case. No other images had been digitally altered. However, Santiago Lyon, the vice president and director of photography at AP, who carried out the review, felt that Contreras’ actions had made his position at the agency untenable.

AP’s reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code,” he said. “Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable.”

The Associated Press has strict rules safeguarding the truth and accuracy of their photos, but is their reaction justified in this situation? In today’s digital society, it can be hard to know what to believe when looking at a photograph, and therefore AP could be commended for their dedicated pursuit of unaltered images. But where do they draw the line? Is increasing the exposure or contrast in a shot manipulating the image? And if not, then is it also acceptable to dodge and burn specific areas of a photograph? Would it have been acceptable to crop the camera out of the image, rather than clone it out?


Perhaps the question should be,“Did Contreras’ actions change the subject of the photograph?” If he had shot the image at a slightly different angle to miss the video camera altogether, then that would have been acceptable under the AP’s guidelines, so could it be argued that the Photoshopped image was the photograph that he intended to take in the first place?

Or perhaps this is an important line drawn in the sand. Do you agree with the Associated Press’ approach? Or do you feel that they have made an example of Narcisco Contreras over a harmless bit of ‘tidying up’? Leave your thoughts in the discussion below.

To read more on the story on the Associated Press’ site, click here.

[Via @The Independent]


Jon’s a photographer based in Derby, UK who has been shooting weddings for nearly ten years. In recent years he’s had the pleasure of teaching other photographers in workshops around the UK. He loves learning new things, and being able to help other people grow in their photography and business skills is his passion. He is married to Anna, and they’ve just welcomed their beautiful daughter Eleanor into the world!

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  1. Michael

    As usual, most of the comments just confuse me, and I still don’t understand the difference between moving the camera position or angle of shooting to exclude things, choosing to wait a few secs before the shot to exclude things, using the crop tool to exclude things, taking things out of the field of view (or ask them to leave) to exclude things or delete in post prod something I could have done with the actions above as well. If he was not allowed to take that camera out of the picture, was he allowed to PUT it there AND taking the shot ? (showing how rich these fighters are and that their cause is supported by Sony) ? But clinging to basic rules are good. No need to use brain and common sense :-(

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  2. Bob Simpson

    black like me.

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  3. Matt Doebler

    I can understand the need for a news agency like the AP to have rules governing the doctoring of photos. That said, I disagree with the comments which automatically label the act of removing a distracting element from a photo as “artistry.” Let’s do a thought experiment: had the photographer simply moved the video camera out of the way before taking the shoot, then is he guilty of breaching photo journalistic ethics? If he gives consideration to the composition of his frame, the quality and direction of light in a scene, the contrast of colors present, the use of focus to draw the viewers eye, is he then engaging in something less than photo journalism? My understanding of the photojournalist’s primary responsibility is that he is to use his technical and aesthetic judgment to truthfully record significant moments of life. To the extent that he must make aesthetic choices in the execution of this task in no way diminishes his photo journalistic status.

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  4. Vincent Mulligan

    I completely agree with Ap! There is clearly a different side of taking pictures (Photographer for a wedding or portrait) versus and AP photographer on the scene of an event. This image is news and news can’t be edited to suit the writers needs.

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  5. Emily

    I agree with the decision to fire. In the age of digital photography it may be hard to believe, but I don’t use Photoshop. Don’t own it, have never used it. I don’t believe in it. I like the challenge of using your own skill and talent to produce that right shot. I zoom and I crop. Otherwise, I make absolutely no other digital enhancements or manipulations. I stake my own reputation on the fact that my photos are a true representation of the image–not something created within a computer program. Anyone can learn to use a computer program to create a visually-pleasing image. It does seem to be more difficult to get it right the first time, in the field, and even in the heart of war…but for those who are able, within their own skill, to capture those moving shots, the first time, in the field, in the heart of war…well, those are the photographers who are most deserving of awards.

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    • Matt Doebler

      Emily, not “believing” in Photoshop is akin to a builder refusing to “believe”in nail guns because he prefers to use a claw hammer. Like it or not, Photoshop and other software programs are industry tools. Their use does not cheapen photography or photographers any more than spot removal and various chemical baths cheapened film photographers. And, if you study the history of photography, you’ll see that image retouching and manipulation have been around since the beginning.

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  6. Michael Rapp

    The point in case is that this is documentation, not artistry. imho, the only way nowadays actually is “zero tolerance” – no pixel get pushed where they weren’t before. You want to do art – shoot headshots or fashion. A photographer can alter the view of a story badly enough just by the right crop (case in point: )
    And removing the camera in a picture may (not does: may!) change the whole outlook of of the story: even soldiers change their behaviour when they know they’re being filmed).
    So does the ban of pixel pushing make the picture or story any “more true”? Perhaps not.
    But it certainly restrains the imagination of the author/ photographer. And in documentaries, this is a good thing.

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    • John Lynn

      So the AP should print all pictures. They shouldn’t look at photos and only print the ones that they find visually appealing or that they feel supports the story as they see it. That sounds way too artsy and fact altering. Give me a break. Every story ever told is told from a position of bias. We are humans and not machines.

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  7. Abel

    I’m getting sick of these “No tolerance” policies. They are pointless and they absolve any responsibility people can have by hiding behind a rule book. It’s just lazy and honestly it will lead to more harm than good, because sometimes you need to take certain things into consideration. This is true for “No tolerance” policies of any kind.

    The point of photojournalism is to tell a story. I have a lot of respect for this man, not just because he is a great photographer and has won many awards, I respect him because he treats storytelling as an art. He respects his viewers and subjects and wants to create the best possible connection with them.
    I can only imagine how stressful a situation like war is, and he took a really great photograph that not only depicted facts but also emotions and created a connection.
    Was cloning the camera out of the picture going to change the facts of the story? Was he not trying to keep the story as authentic as possible by removing any elements that caused questioned it. Imagine how you would feel if you risk life and limb to photograph and bring news of the worst situations in the world and some idiot goes “Hurrr durrr, this must be fake and set up cause you can clearly see the video camera”
    You all are photographers, yes?
    I challenge you to leave the comfort of your arm chairs and do what he does and provide the same results.

    Note: I don’t support photoshopping and manipulating images to lie and tell stories which are different from the facts, I would wholeheartedly approve if AP punished someone for editing a picture and making it look like a story that didn’t really exist (like for example if they added a dramatic explosion in the background of that pic)
    This is exactly like that 10 year old boy being expelled from his school because he brought the 5 cm long “assault rifle” from his Gi Joe Action Figures to school. Apparently they had a “No Tolerance Policy” as well.

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  8. Marilyn

    How much can one measly camera (barely noticeable) edited out of the background of a photo alter history? It can’t. The important subject remains unchanged – the gentleman in the image. The photographer was following an artistic decision over a contractual obligation. He should be given a second chance and attempt to not make the same mistake again.

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    • M Enbar

      When you say he made an artistic decision that inherently shows the problem… he is a photo journalist not an art photographer.

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    • John Lynn

      I totally agree Marilyn. I don’t understand the distinction some people make. Exposing an image a certain way to evoke a feeling is artistic decision as well. I guess to be fair, you should only be able to use a camera on automatic with all of the factory defaults intact! Give me a break. This is just lazy management and CYA at it worst. One more knock against the AP in my book.

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  9. Brett

    The firing is totally justified. Contrast and exposure and dodge and burn basically enhance or decrease the pixel information already captured. Cloning out, content aware fill etc are actually replacing the pixel information that is in the image. If he really wanted the camera out of the picture a crop would have been better. AP images and ethos are correct and even more so in the digital age where it is so easy to alter the appearance of history.

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  10. Dan

    I don’t think his previous accolades should be brought into question for this one mistake. It’s not like he’s admitting to ‘cloning’ in all of his images. He is still a heroic and prolific photographer in a field where his life is on the line everyday. I’m confident that few readers here are risking their life to bring us news and imagery of global crises. I congratulate him for his effort, but understand the AP’s response. Let’s hope their guidelines are clear enough to AP photographers, so that edits can be considered in or out of bounds.

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  11. peter

    In photoshop and the darkroom ( before ) you can burn if he had done it nobody would have seen the dark object and it would have falling in the rules. I was a newsroom tech guy .. I know the rules.. he broke them.. the end ..strip him from the accolades.

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  12. Ziggy

    What he did was somewhat trivial but unnecessary. It was a small edit to clone out the camera, though was it necessary? As someone had said the camera wasn’t immediately noticeable. He didnt need to clone it out. He violated AP rules. He’s been an AP photographer for many years he should have known better than do what he did. Though commendable for coming clean, he deserves the punishment.

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  13. Luke

    If the rules say don’t do it, then at very least don’t just clone some rocks from the same image and move them over a bit! I actually noticed the ‘clones’ before the camera.

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  14. Hanssie

    I think it’s right for them to do so. If you are going to have a strict no tolerance policy, you should adhere to it, no matter how small the infraction. You can’t compromise on integrity. Of course, I can’t say that the AP is the most morally upstanding company out there, but this is a step in the right direction.

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