Newspaper Photographer Suspended for Splicing Bird Photos

The Sacramento Bee has suspended award-winning staff photographer Bryan Patrick after it was discovered that he had Photoshopped two photographs of an egret eating a frog into a single photo. The newspaper, which is the 5th largest in California and the 25th largest in the US, says that the manipulation was done to make the frog more visible while still showing a second bird lunging for it. NPPA president Sean Elliot labeled the case a “betrayal”:

If this photographer in Sacramento can diddle around with a photograph of an egret, how can I know that any photograph I look at is trustworthy? It feels like a betrayal. […] It violates a feeling of trust I think we have with all of our members.

The case is reminiscent of LA Times reporter Brian Walski’s infamous splicing of Iraq war photographs (though the subject matter is nowhere near as divisive).

(via SacBee via News 10 via Poynter)

Image credits: Photographs by Bryan Patrick/The Sacramento Bee

  • John Milleker

    Sad, the original image was good enough. C’mon PJ’s, your competition (everybody with a cell phone) is nipping at your heels – you need to step up your game.

  • Ben Goff

    I don’t understand why this keeps happening. People know it’s wrong. People know you will end their career. Yet once or twice a year it seems someone gets caught. 

    What really boggles my mind is that there is hardly any difference between the original and the altered image. Why would you throw away a career for such a small “improvement”?

  • Anonymous

    Wow the NPPA president and the rest of you guys are complete idiots.

  • stanimir stoyanov

    The more interesting question is, how did they obtain the original images?

  • Scott Killeen

    The humanity! What on earth is this world coming too..

  • Dave

    There are times to manipulate an image, and there are times not to do it. Documentary, photojournalism (such as news events), crime scene photography, passport photos etc……when the truth is expected, should not be manipulated. Artistic images should have no boundaries in the same way an oil painting is exactly whatever the artist wants to show you. You retain full creative license over your piece of artwork and no critic can tell you otherwise.

  • Guest

    I wouldn’t use such harsh terms as betrayal, but I don’t support it. imo there’s a bit of a grey area between “this is my art” and “this is blatant deception”–especially when it comes to personal submissions rather than photojournalism.

    without the manipulation, based on the tiny ~200px original pic I wouldn’t be able to tell it was a frog–does that matter? does it affect the quality of the image, or the message given?…. I don’t really think so.

  • Bob

    Wow. I somehow get that photographers sometimes tend to cross lines in order to get recognized. But this is just plain stupidity. They shouldn’t have kicked him for manipulating the image but.. wow. Facepalm!

    (I would be more than happy to get a shot like the first one..)

  • Anonymous

    A lot of people Photoshop their images. I think the deciding point is authenticity. Switching frogs in a fluff piece is not the same as altering an photojournalistic image of rioters to make it look more dramatic. Lenin had his people remove Trotsky from images.. that would be really egregious. 

  • Gary Anderson

    Anyone who has been at a newsworthy event and subsequently read the account in a newspaper will have experienced the feeling that the reporter couldn’t have been at the same event. The printed description often differs dranmatically from our own perception.  News editors accept these discrepancys readily, so the alteration of a image in a way that in no way alters its message should be acceptable. There were two birds, they did interact, the composition now exhibits the drama of the moment in an improved way.  It’s OK by me.

  • Tzctplus -

    I think it was Stalin ….

  • Attila Volgyi

    But you have to make it absolutely clear if it is not a photo but a graphic. In the case of a painting it is obvious from the technique that the picture is not the reality but sort of visual editing of it….with photo montages it is absoultely not obvious to the viewer. And this is where all this photo editing possibility fires back. More and more often even a real photo is questioned and thought being photoshopped and the honest photographer has to make excuses and prove his honesty – because of cases like these…

  • Attila Volgyi

    Yes it was Stalin, not Lenin…

  • Attila Volgyi

    Yes the deciding point is authenticity. And when photographers start considering pictures to be “just a starting point as the image content can be edited endlesssly” then they will do the same with sports images, burning buildings and so on.
    It is the same situation when someone tells a moving story with a great conclusion. It is irrelevant if it is based on a story he heard somewhere or it happened with him personally. But if he says it is personal experience and in fact it is a commonly known story of someone else – than he is simply a liar nothing more and the story he told looses importance in an instant because he made it into a lie.

    And by the way it was Stalin who repetitively had his people retouching away political opponents from images.
    This means the technique existed in the film era as well. But then it was a hard task to do it and required a special intention, care and time. This made it less common – not to mention ethics as well.
    But today everyone has photoshop it can be done in minutes and the greatest problem is it is part of the common mindset – ohh this picture is not perfect, let’s edit it to be one.

    There is a joke about the doctor talking to the patient: the bad news is your X-ray shows have cancer. The good news I can PhotoShop it away….and don’t want to meet a doctor hat has this kind of mindset with covering up his mistakes…

  • Nick Valvo

    But it seems to me that sometimes there are truths that don’t fit in a frame. 

  • Eric

    There are a lot of Character problems in all facets of society these days.  What happened to doing the right thing (even when no one is watching).  Honesty is the best policy.  The Bee did the right thing here… if a picture in a newspaper is altered – there should be a disclaimer, or better yet, just don’t do it.

  • Bert

    They probably asked for them.  The background is a giveaway that a splice was performed.

  • 9inchnail

    They just made an example of him. That’s hardly ever fair but discourages other photographers to manipulate their shots. I feel sorry for the guy but he had it coming. He should have deleted the originals or at least told them he did. hard disc crash… whatever.

  • Anonymous as well

    You have to draw the line.  This is creating a scene that did not exist.  Close to it, but not quite.

    This is for a newspaper.  Just like there is a line between news commentators and reporting in the media, there needs to be a line between news photos and the edited.

    The betrayal comes in, in my eyes, as this photog was caught.  He did not say “this is effectively identical to what happened and looks better”, but presented the fabrication as fact.

  • Anonymous

    Au contraire mon frere, the photograph I was referring to was of Lenin..
    “On May 5, 1920, Lenin gave a famous speech to a crowd of Soviet troops in Sverdlov Square, Moscow. In the foreground was Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev. The photo was later altered and both were removed by censors.”

  • Aaro Keipi

    Nice try posting “Anonymously.” Bryan Patrick, I’m onto you!

  • bob cooley

    The argument, when it comes to journalists, is about the ethics you uphold when you join the profession. 

    Sure, there are many causes for photo-manipulation in photography; fine-art, commercial illustration, etc.  But when you make the decision to follow a career in journalism, you have made a decision to adhere to more specific set of ethical principles.  There are lines you just don’t cross, no matter how ‘harmless’ it may seem – the slope is very very slippery.

  • Blue_healer

    This is why photojournalists should never moonlight as fine art photographers because credibility is so crucial. Photojournalists aren’t supposed to process those images, the editor should receive the film/raw directly.

  • IvarSo

    Of course, there is no such thing as real truth in photography. And the comparison with the Lenin photo is of course not relevant here. What upsets you photographers, is that somebody pretends that they are better to create a certain photograph. You think he is cheating to attain that status. That may be so, but there is nothing wrong with the objective truth about what happened in the pictured situation between the bird and the frog – except maybe for an apparent cooperation between the two birds…

  • bob cooley

    Sorry, but clearly you’ve never worked for publications. 

    Editors don’t do any work on images – photojournalists are almost always responsible for prepping the images for publication.  Its part of the job.

  • Ltrotta

    I hate to say it, but you can never believe any photograph you see. Magazines have been airbrushing models for years. Sure, photojournalists have strict rules that they’re supposed to adhere to, but over the past year alone there have been at least 5 stories that I remember reading (and I’m sure there are many more than that) wherein a photojournalist has altered a photo that has been published in a newspaper. As to the comment about “you photographers”, creating art by manipulating photos is one thing. Especially if everyone assumes (or you are forthcoming about it) that you manipulate your images. But the main point of this particular story and other stories like it is that photojournalists have a code that pretty much states “the photo you take is an exact moment in time where what you see actually happened.” Does the edited photo of the egrets make for a more interesting one than either of the original two? Absolutely. But if he’s processing the image that will appear in a publication he’s bound by the rules that the image is not to be “overly” processed. There ARE minimal manipulations that can be made by phtoojournalists, but splicing together two photos is not one of those manipulations.

  • Ltrotta

    add a  sort of correction to my comment – having first read this story and a subsequent story about this man being fired – I was under the impression that he was a photojournalist. I’ve seen many comments stating that this photographer was merely a person who submitted photos to the newspaper (and got paid. Where I come from, that constitutes a designation as a photojournalist). In either event, whether you’re submitting photos as a photojournalist or an “average Joe”, you should know the rules the particular publication has about submitting photos. And it does seem like a really stupid thing to do – forego the rules and lose your job over something that was so minor in each instance (the egrets and the followup story about his altering flames of a fire). But rules are rules and there’s always someone who has to be thrown to the wolves to show others that it won’t be tolerated.

  • Ben Goff

    This should never be considered OK, but hey, this is America, where we’re all used to being lied to by corporations and politicians, so I guess we just consider it normal. 

  • Ben Goff

    Sorry, you’re wrong. Almost every photojournalist does personal work on the side. Many of us even to advertising work on the side (gasp!) where retouching images is the norm. There’s no damage to credibility in doing so, there are just plain different rules for each medium and it’s the photographer’s responsibility to know them and adhere to them. 

    Also, photo editors almost never edit pictures. We the photographers do all of that ourselves. 

    In photojournalism is is always OK to adjust brightens and contrast (via levels, curves, etc.), color, sharpening and the digital equivalent of dodging and burning (selectively lightening / darkening areas of the image). As long as you don’t overwork any of those parameters to the point that it alters the content of the picture. 

  • Attila Volgyi

    Sorry my mistake. So Lenin images were also manipulated not just Stalin had this habit of power…
    But still these manipulations lead to disbeleaf against photos. If one edits frogs than he can do the same with people or anything important….as it turned out this photographer did increase flames of a wildfire on a photo he entered a competition – that is clearly cheating…

    And not to mention if we promote that PhotoShopping in and out is so easy then what will keep away those people in power from doing the same that Stalin and Lenin did?

  • Todd Johnson

    Actually, it is usually the photographer who processes the image. I’ve worked in publications for 20 some years – even when it was darkroom and film work – and there was never an editor who knew what to even do in a darkroom, let alone ever been trained in Photoshop. Not sure where your reality lay, but it’s nowhere near my career.

    And as far as fine art photography – tt’s part of your freaking curriculum when you major photog in college. And yeah, there’s a place for fine art photography in a publication as well, it’s called feature art. Even news publications have feature stories where there’s more creative license, posed shots, etc.