The Associated Press announced Wednesday that it had parted ways with Narciso Contreras, a freelance photographer who shared in a Pulitzer for his work in Syria last year. The reason Contreras was let go, basically, is that he tried too hard to meet a phony news-photo standard.
First, the facts: Contreras sold the AP nearly 500 photos in the past two years. Among them was the one shown above. The original shot caught a Syrian rebel fighter moving from his position, his AK-47 in hand. It also showed something else: "a colleague's video camera" in "the lower left corner of the frame," according to the AP's investigation. Before filing the image to his editors, Contreras used digital software to take the camera out of the shot. For this, he was cut loose. The news agency's investigation found that it was the only image he'd "manipulated" in such a way.
"The alteration breached AP's requirements for truth and accuracy even though it involved a corner of the image with little news importance," the agency said.
That even though is telling. It raises the question: If the presence of a colleague's camera didn't change the news value of the shot, why did Contreras feel the need to 'shop it out? He reasoned, quite correctly, that news outlets wouldn't pick up the image with the camera in it. But, again, if that corner of the pic was incidental to its news importance, why wouldn't editors buy it?
Is the original image any less representative of the Syrian civil war? It's neither more or less true, but it contains additional facts. It tells us that the rebel is not alone. It's messy. And that offends a certain, stodgy type of editor.
Media coverage of a war is a part of the war. But "objective," view-from-nowhere media outlets tend to downplay media coverage of the war in their coverage of the war. They avoid self-reference, but not out of humility: Rather, it's out their sense of imagined objectivity. If people are reminded of the reporter who wrote the story, of the photographer who shot it, they might be jerked out of the story. Who likes to see a boom mike in the shot during a movie? A reflection of the cameraman in a mirror? These continuity "errors" make it harder for us to suspend our disbelief—whether we're looking at a fictional film or a "news" photo.
That's the fear, anyway. Contreras and other photogs are expected to offer clean, sterile images to these news organizations. Clean, sterile images convey objectivity and credibility, even when they are neither objective nor credible. Every view is a view from somewhere. Yet "straight" reporters and photographers are constantly pressured to conceal where that somewhere is.
Consider this: If that videocamera had been a few inches to the left, Contreras could have cropped it out of his shot, and no one would have objected. Cropping and narrowing the lens's frame of reference are accepted practices, even though they often omit important context. Consider this iconic image of the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square shortly after the U.S. invasion:
Now, consider the wider shot of Firdos Square during the statue's toppling:
Two frames of reference: two very different narratives. And yet the tighter focus was considered more objectively newsy. Most news agencies have no interest in a photograph whose truth is messier, whose truth doesn't hit a special emotional chord in our cockles. Crop it? Sure. Lighten it? Yeah, just a bit. Use this mid-action frame, and not the dozen before or after it? Yep. Add a caption to tell viewers exactly what they should get out of the image? Of course. But good God, don't Photoshop anything out!
It's laudable that the AP's standard pays lip service to "truth and accuracy." By its standards, Contreras absolutely made an unpardonable sin. But the "objective" news industry's pretense to sinlessness is just as unpardonable.