WHEN PHOTOGRAPHS (AND PHOTOGRAPHERS) LIE

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Staged photographs in news stories have a long history, dating back to the birth of modern photography itself. Consider the example above, for instance. Taken by Alexander Gardner in July 1863, the photograph seems to capture the valiant last moments of a Confederate soldier at the height of the Civil War. Historians claim that this wasn’t the case at all––they say that there is ample evidence that Gardner or one of his associates dragged the body from a nearby hillside, deposited it in this natural bunker (called the “Sharpshooter’s Den”), and then found a rifle and propped it up next to the body, presumably for dramatic effect. Although the technology did not yet exist to publish photos like this in newspapers, the photograph nonetheless became a dramatic symbol of human loss and pro-Union sentiment. Moreover, it’s safe to say that people had always believed that the setting was in fact real and not staged.

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After nearly 150 years, not much changed. The photograph above is of 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma, who was shot dead by police on January 19, 2010, after reportedly stealing three framed pictures in Port-au-Prince after an earthquake devastated Haiti. The photograph, taken by Paul Hansen, went on to win a Swedish Picture of the Year award. But take a look at the photograph below.

15-year-old-lies-dead-aft-001

This photograph, taken by Carlos Garcia Rawlins, was reportedly taken minutes before other photographers––including Hansen––arrived at the scene. This seems to make it clear that someone, maybe even Hansen himself, moved Cherisma’s body so as to make it more compelling and to make her identity more visible. The ethics here are such that news photographers are not to alter what they see; they are to merely document news events with the aid of their cameras. That said, they are also to provide the necessary context for stories, to make them understandable in ways that words can’t. The moral problem, of course, is balancing these two imperatives: visually documenting events and telling compelling stories. So the question is this: Is it ever permissible for news photographers to alter settings before they take their photographs, all in an effort to better tell the stories that they document?

Here’s something else to consider: Hansen’s photograph won an award. Cherisma’s body being re-arranged (whether by Hansen or someone else) seems to cast a negative light on the serendipitous nature of good news photography. For example, the photograph taken by Charles Porter immediately after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, while it too won an award, elegantly captured a horrible moment frozen in time. So which photograph is more deserving of an award?

Update #1: On February 15, 2013, Hansen won top honors in the World Press Photo awards.

Update #2 (February 26, 2013): Rightly or wrongly, Hansen continues to get favorable press, this time from National Geographic. Given the dubious circumstances surrounding Hansen’s photograph of Cherisma, I think he’s probably more deserving of harsh criticism than he is of garnering awards and favorable publicity. This is, it seems to me, just another case of someone profiting from immoral behavior.

Update #3 (March 1, 2013): A commenter (“Tito Chris”) raised some very good points. It’s certainly true that I have no proof that Hansen moved the body; after all, I wasn’t there and I haven’t myself actually spoken to anyone who was there. I’ve merely analyzed the anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, let’s consider four different options for what happened: 1) Hansen knew the body had been moved and photographed it anyway; 2) Hansen himself moved the body; 3) Hansen had no idea the body had been moved when he photographed it; and 4) Cherisma fell in that position to begin with. Options 1 and 2, in my mind, are equally as bad insofar as they both reflect an intent to deceive. Options 3 and 4, of course, exonerate Hansen from any ill intent whatsoever. That said, it seems to me that options 3 and 4 were unlikely to have happened (I emphasize unlikely; not impossible or improbable). Given the number of photographers on the scene (and how they might have talked among each other), I think it unlikely that Hansen simply happened upon Chermisa’s body in that position. Similarly, it seems unlikely Cherisma fell in that same (allegedly posed) position after having been hit.

“Tito Chris” mentioned the good that the photo might have brought about, regardless of how it was taken. That’s an excellent point. Some have claimed that Cherisma was in fact murdered, allegedly by the Haitian police. And she was reportedly shot dead for stealing picture frames, of all things. So yes, this photo did (and still does) inform us all about the seemingly lawless state of existence in Port-au-Prince following the earthquake and the need to bring Cherisma’s alleged killer to justice. I must point out, however, that such a viewpoint is itself very Machiavellian insofar as it asserts that the ends justified the means. That certainly doesn’t make the view bad or wrong in itself; it’s simply another way of looking at what happened. I don’t argue that the photo might have done some good. The fact that we’re discussing it right now is evidence of that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t examine Hansen’s behavior and motivations as a photographer who was reporting on what took place after the earthquake, and who was proud enough of what he did to submit the work to be juried for awards.

At left, photographers descend on the body of Fabienne Cherisma. At right,  a man identified as Cherisma's father recovers her body. Sources: Nathan Weber, www.guardian.co.uk

At left, photographers descend on the body of Fabienne Cherisma. At right, a man identified as Cherisma’s father recovers her body. Sources: Nathan Weber, guardian.co.uk, prisonphotogtraphy.org

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29 thoughts on “WHEN PHOTOGRAPHS (AND PHOTOGRAPHERS) LIE

  1. Danila says:

    Oh! So he’s not just a prostitute photographer. He’s a faker, too!!! Why am I not surprised! And never the less you guys gave him not one but TWO awards. I wonder if those “dead Palestnian children” are a) Palestinian and b) dead.

  2. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    Good questions Danila! Given Hansen’s record of staging photos–or taking advantage of a scene staged by someone else–we should wonder if the children really are dead or not! Once a photographer starts to fake things there’s no telling where it will end! Thank you for your comment!

  3. Jacques says:

    First thought that came to my mind when i saw the picture of the Palestinian boys..STAGED!!!!!

    Now ask yourself, if a layman like me can spot this almost immediately, then how on God’s green earth did the judges not see it?????????

    Could it mean they don’t give a flying f@$k???

  4. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    It certainly seems that they don’t! I’m with you–if it wasn’t staged, then I certainly question the lighting and wonder if it was tweaked after the fact. This is supposedly NEWS photography–we don’t stage news photos or doctor them afterward!

  5. I didn’t think it staged, the faces and emotions are real. But the lighting is amazing. Did he photoshop the lighting effects as the left front is really dark. It is as dramatic as an opera.

  6. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    Thanks Carolyn–I wonder about the lighting too. And I also wonder about “news” photographers tweaking the lighting after the fact! Thanks for your reply!

  7. Liz says:

    The photo has the perfect lighting of a master’s painting or an HDR photo, but you can acquire that effect from painstaking editing in Photoshop and other apps. If he took the shot as a photojournalist in the moment and later edited it, is there something wrong with that? Many of the other winners have an edited look too, where the dynamic range of the scene would never permit a camera to get it so right with a single exposure.

  8. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    Good question, Liz. I teach my students that news photographers are not to edit their photographs. But is adjusting the lighting considered “editing?” I don’t know. Regardless, I have a bigger problem with the Cherisma photograph in which her body seems to have been moved or altered. To me, that’s a more clear-cut case of “editing.”

  9. saintez says:

    Once you’ve been know to manipulate or stage a photo then I, as a viewer, will never fully be able to trust you again. The lingering thought in the back of my mind as a view any other picture of his will be, “Was this as it really was?”

  10. tibor says:

    Liz wrote
    “The photo has the perfect lighting of a master’s painting or an HDR photo, but you can acquire that effect from painstaking editing in Photoshop and other apps. If he took the shot as a photojournalist in the moment and later edited it, is there something wrong with that?”

    Yes, the problem with tone mapping the photo up to the point that it looks surreal is that it turns away the main journalistic subject and true expression of the image and transforms it into an “eye popping” self awarding fashion image. The picture screams look at the look I have rendered instead of putting the finger on the gravity or realism of the subject.

    Tone mapping screams make-up and fake lighting, when used parsimoniously in staged portraiture, it can help underlining the subject. But it has no place in photo journalism, especially when used excessively like in Paul Hansen’s last award winning photo :

    http://www.dpreview.com/news/2013/02/15/World-Press-Photo-announces-2013-contest-winners

    and the same photo, from another photographer:

    http://tinyurl.com/bfkvr3g

    Carolyn wrote
    “It is as dramatic as an opera” – the lighting is amazing” You are actually underlining the problem here : the picture looks as dramatic as a staged image, with staged lighting and staged emotions, like a staged Rembrandt war painting (but the comparison with Rembrandt’s excellency stops here)

    The worst part to me is what pushes a group of photographers to clump together with such a lack of compassion and move a dead little girls body in the most dramatic position to catch the best shot, and the father knows that he would be hurt too if he dare try to stop them : this is what disgusts me more.
    Real journalism lost most of its ethic pas 15 years thanks to money making corporate governmental news channels – they hire the most opportunistic cameraman to fit their opportunist agenda and award them for the best media exposure- those fake looking “award winning shots” will fit perfectly in a gala for the rich who love to congratulate themselves about their own monetary accomplishments, they don’t give a damn about what happens over there, as long as it looks surreal and far away, like a nice popular painting.

  11. Tito Chris says:

    I repeat, if you think that letting the world know that Fabienne Cherisma was murdered by the police over the theft of some pictures is of less importance than that someone (not necessarily Hansen, for which you have no proof) moved her body slightly to make the message clearer, then your sensibilities are terribly, terribly skewed. You are likely a frustrated, low-talent photographer, jealous of the accolades received by others.

  12. Jeffrey, I agree with your statements regarding journalistic ethics. Thank you as well for the post. Did you notice that all the photographers descending on poor Fabienne’s body are shooting the staged position? This does make me wonder; is that the staged photo, or the first one? And if it is indeed that one, why didn’t the other photographers make the same kind of picture? I commend you for passing on what you know to the students. Ethics is murky, gray, and I think more necessary now than ever.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I wonder what the industry thinking is on…possibly staging a bit or enhancing a photo so as to prove a point. Although I sense this artistic license could come back to haunt me. Stretching the truth can work both ways I guess. Still, a photojournalist or a photographers’ point of view is to represent the impact of what is happening at the moment. Then again, it depends on what the bias is in the the presenter. Signed….ambivalent.

  14. tibor says:

    Tito, showing yourself ass a low-brained ass-licker wont help, but who cares, intelligence is what seems to divide 80% of the population and you are a perfect example of that.

  15. Elena says:

    Journalist photographers are meant to be our eyes in the place where we are not. They are not supposed to be our conscience, form opinions or push us into certain feelings, it is up to the viewers to do the judgement. It is not about creating a scene, it is about capturing it. Editing in order to produce a refined comprehendible to the mass mass product is one thing. And what if the photographer changes the colour of the flag on the shirt of a dead soldier? Creates a whole new story, doesn’t it and from that point on news don’t make sense anymore.

  16. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    @Tito You raise some good points. Please see update #3 above.

  17. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Elena. That’s the problem I’m having with Hansen’s photo of Cherisma–that it certainly seems her body was moved so as to make it look more dramatic. Of course, it raises the question of whether photojournalists should be allowed to tweak their photos after the fact, as some have alleged that Hansen had done with his award-winning Gaza photograph.

  18. kempwrites says:

    Coming in late here. The problem, as the evidence above clearly shows, is that MANY people, including many photogs, apparently had access to the (moved) body. That does not mean that any one of those people was the person who moved the body. Implying otherwise poses another ethical problem. Who else was at this scene? Have you contacted any of these photogs (easy enough via their bylines) to ask questions about what went down there? Please understand that I have no interest in defending or attacking Hansen–I don’t know him. My concern is that it’s easy to jump to conclusions based on incomplete evidence, and I’d like to reserve judgment until and unless I know the real story from those who were there.

  19. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    As I wrote in reply to your other comment, thank you for such a thoughtful response. You’re absolutely right–it’s not good to rely on anecdotal evidence or third- or even fourth-hand evidence when judging what people have done. Unfortunately, that’s oftentimes the only evidence that we’re left with. Thanks again for taking the time to write! –Jeff

  20. Tal_uno says:

    Ok I’ll try with my poor english to tell something about this, I’m also in doubt for the manipulation of the hansen’s winning photo for 2013 wpp ( just check the sky above on the center that was surely modified ) but with this photo there is an starting “error” in your reasoning, I’m not a C.S.I. addicted but if you ( sadly ) check the blood line and the brick this must tell you that Carlos Garcia Rawlins photo was clearly taken AFTER the other. the body maybe falled down after someone other tried to check if the girl was alive ( i hope ) .

  21. dian hendy says:

    the sentences from Tito “…moved her body slightly to make the message clearer…” is make me little confusing, does photojournalism is all about ‘capturing the moment to deliver the message’ or its also allowed ‘a bit touch to dramatized the stage’ which intended to make the message clearer. and about the sentences that stated about the importance of the delivered message over the redesign scene, I believe Jeffrey really doesn’t meant that, he just want to give opinion about the essence of photojournalism from photography side, not mainly from the humanism side. Message want to deliver, its clearly the purpose of the photojournalism itself, but the rules to capture the moment that will delivered the message, that’s we discuss here. Feel free to correct my writing if there’s something doesn’t line with your thought.

  22. o. says:

    First: You got it all wrong! Rawlins photo was shot AFTER Hansens photo! Look at the blood on the ground. Or are you trying to say that Hansen wiped the blood off the ground as well, while re-arranging the body?
    Second: The raw file of the Gaza photo has been examined numeros times. NO pixels were moved. It is the result of ONE (1) shutter actuation. He only changed TONE, which is concidered OK for photo journalism. I do agree though that the over-developed look that he ended up with is a little to much – aesthetically. But it’s still honest photo journalism.
    Third: was the Gaza photo staged? Likely not. He wouldn’t need to do that. Of course the mourners saw him and they new what he was doing there. They wanted to show him and the world the brutality, the pain and the grief. And he went along, just like any other of his profession would.

  23. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    I never said the Gaza photo was staged. And BTW: Staging a photo is substantially different than digitally altering one.

  24. o. says:

    Right. But the important part: what do you have to say about Charisma bleeding backwards? There is no doubt in my mind Rowlins photo was captured later then the Hansen photo.

  25. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    I have no answer for that. If you believe that the Rawlins photo was taken first, then so be it. Our opinions on this matter differ.

  26. o. says:

    you aid it: no explanation. what reasons do you have to assume rawlins was there first? and what’s more: of all the people at the scene, what makes you think Hansen was the one to move the body? maybe another update to the actual blog post would be the decent thing to do?

  27. Jeffrey Maciejewski says:

    I have posted various updates. Please read all of them carefully before commenting.

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