Johann van Tonder

Is it for real?

2004-11-04 11:54

A friend cornered me about an agency-photograph recently run in Die Burger, which he believed to be computer-generated.

The photograph, distributed by Reuters, shows a man looking out over the chasm of the 110 metre high main falls of the Victoria. He seems very calm about being on the edge.

"That's impossible," echoes someone else. The current at that spot is simply too strong for anyone to be playing in the water. Which is exactly what he's doing - another photograph, not published, shows the same man doing somersaults in the river, with about 5 metres of current between him and certain death.

Reuters is a reputable news agency, serving news outlets around the world. I happen to know the photographer in question well, a man whose integrity I've never doubted for one moment.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to reach him in Zimbabwe to hear first-hand the circumstances in which the image was taken.

A representative of Reuters didn't even wait for me to finish my sentence though. "Absolutely not!" he interrupted as I started relaying the concerns around the photograph.

"The picture was obviously taken in shallow water."

Manipulation is so contentious and debated that it's become a bit of a boring subject. In basic terms, the very process of photography is a form of manipulation as the photographer makes decisions about what to photograph at which angle at which specifically chosen instant.

However, this episode reminded me just how important it is that organisations and photojournalists themselves take a hard, unsympathetic line. Many newspapers, including Die Burger, now have very strict codes of ethics.

We can't afford to have our credibility eroded. What bothers me more than the need for explanations and statements of authenticity is the fact that doubts were raised in our own camp. Both sceptics that spoke to me were also journalists.

If we don't even trust ourselves, I thought, how do we expect others to trust us?

Last year, the award-winning Brian Walski from the LA Times shocked the industry when he was caught engineering a "perfect" photograph from two different frames taken in Iraq.

Walski was also the victim of his own colleagues' doubt. In the newsroom, reporters saw the cloning of elements in different parts of the photograph and confronted their man by satellite phone in Iraq.

Some people thought his punishment was too harsh. He had been summarily dismissed and had to make his own way back to his home country.

A contributor on the media-website made a valid point. Referring to Hollywood movies based on true stories, where he constantly wondered about the true parts and those fabricated for dramatic effect, this non-journalist pleaded with photojournalists:

"Please don't make me ask the same questions as I read my newspaper."

Seems to me we've reached the point of no return.

Send your comments to Johann

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University. He is currently finishing a book on how to break into the exclusive industry of photojournalism.

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