After publishing a photo of the Donald Trump inauguration showing a relatively small crowd, Reuters has succumbed to growing pressure to fire its photography department.
While the photo was found to be legitimate – with minimal post-processing – the newswire agency conceded after an ongoing monologue from the White House that it could still be seen to be manipulated. It has cut all ties with the photographer and distanced itself from the ‘dark arts’ of photojournalism.
‘We now see that manipulation occurred multiple times,’ a Reuters spokesperson said. ‘It happened when the photographer looked through the viewfinder and framed the image; when the photographer adjusted the camera settings; when the photographer selected a camera and lens combination. Hell, it happened the moment he woke up and his consciousness sprang into action.’
The photo was a hot topic after Reuters published the side-by-side photo with a similar frame taken at the same location during the 2009 inauguration of former US president Barrack Obama. Trump appeared to attract a much smaller crowd.
The White House is disputing the authenticity of the photo. It said the photo was taken at a quiet time for foot traffic, the white floor coverings ‘highlighted areas where people were not’, and that the photo was heavily doctored.
With accusations flying around, Reuters took no chances. It launched an investigation into the authenticity of the photo, involving an analysis by an independent team of imaging experts.
The analysis, undertaken by the same team that covers the World Press Photo contest, revealed no excessive post-processing or dishonesty.
‘The EXIF data in the photo checks out. It was taken when the inauguration was in full swing. Based on friendly advice from the White House, we initially suspected there was heavy doctoring, such as cloning – similar to the image taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning (former) Associated Press (AP) photographer Narciso Contreras, which led to his removal from AP,’ Professor Charles Dingsworth, leader of the research team, told ProCounter. ‘There was basic adjustments done to the colour contrast, making the crowd appear thinner when juxtaposed against the white and brown ground. But that’s it.
‘I’d say the image is, well, an accurate depiction of the scene. But in the end, that’s not really the point, is it. It’s the vibe of the thing ‘
However an enhanced interrogation brought enough evidence against the photographer to make the final decision.
‘After a few hours of questioning we found the photographer has political opinions. We’re unsure whether they align with the left or right – it’s difficult to tell the difference these days – but the fact that we found them indicates a possible bias.’
The photographer has accepted Reuters’ decision, but is confident that in a few years the two photos – side by side – will be considered iconic. Or ironic.
‘The Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was “post-truth”. And this photo is the epitome of it,’ they said. ‘With the click of that shutter, thousands of hands have written millions of words read by trillions of eyeballs. Some see truth in this photo, and others do not.
‘And as Steve Bannon has asked us time and again – what is truth, anyway?’
Reuters said it is considering how it may prevent future cases of manipulation. It has begun by disassembling its Global Pictures Desk and is negotiating an agreement with Shutterstock.
‘Generic stock photos are the future of news reporting. This is the way forward for Reuters. We will always look back at our pictures desk with fondness. It was a time of innocence…’
Reuters is also working on an algorithm which will immediately match a stock photo with a news story, to eliminate the need for photo editors and ensure there’s no potential for bias – either deliberate, or perceived by important people.
The good news is that photography will become a profit centre for news media rather than an unaffordable burden, with Getty Images clients’ logos seamlessly and discreetly photoshopped into the top right hand side of each algorithmically-generated news pic.