Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan on May 2nd, 2011. A photo reported to be of Bin Laden was shown on Pakistani television. This photo was also published in the British newspapers Mail, Times, Telegraph, Sun, and Mirror. The photo, however, is a composite of two separate photos: The lower portion is of an alive Bin Laden, and the top portion is of another person.
Though photo manipulation has become more common in the age of digital cameras and image editing software, it actually dates back almost as far as the invention of photography. Gathered below is an overview of some of the more notable instances of photo manipulation in history. For recent years, an exhaustive inventory of every photo manipulation would be nearly impossible, so we focus here on the instances that have been most controversial or notorious, or ones that raise the most interesting ethical questions.
We’ll continue to update this gallery as more incidents come to our attention, so if you come across any notable ones you think we should include, feel free to send us an e-mail at
[Click thumbnails to view complete images.]
The Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung published a photo of President Obama and his national security team in the White House Situation Room. This photo was taken as the team watched a raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Prior to publication, the paper removed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason from the photo. In response to criticism, the paper responded, in part: “In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.”
The government of Huili county in China’s Southwest Sichuan province apologized for posting a doctored photo of three local officials inspecting a highway project. “A government employee posted the edited picture out of error,” wrote government officials in their posted retraction and apology. The photographer stated that he combined several pictures taken on the day of the inspection because the original photos were not of sufficient quality.
A photo montage on the cover of Newsweek magazine showing Princess Diana walking alongside Duchess Catherine (Kate) Middleton, was widely criticized as being in poor taste. The cover photo accompanies a story by Tina Brown speculating on what the future may have held for Princess Diana had she not died in 1997. In defending the cover, Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown stated “we wanted to bring the memory of Diana alive in a vivid image that transcends time and reflected my piece.”
The Associated Press announced that it would no longer work with freelance photographer Miguel Tovar, and that they were eliminating all of Tovar’s photos from its archives. This move came after Tovar removed his shadow from a photo taken at a soccer match in Argentina. Following the incident, the Director of Photography at the AP, Santiago Lyon, sent the following memo to all AP staff:
On Sunday we were faced with a case of deliberate and misleading photo manipulation by a freelancer on assignment for the AP at the Copa America soccer tournament in Argentina. Miguel Tovar chose to clone some dust from one part of a feature photo to another in order to obscure his own shadow, which was visible in the original photograph showing children playing soccer. An alert photo editor noticed that the pattern on the dust repeated itself in an unlikely way and subsequent investigations revealed the visual fraud. There is no indication that Tovar’s other images were manipulated. However, we have severed all relations with Tovar and removed him from the assignment. He will not work for the AP again in any capacity. In addition, we have removed all of his images from AP Images, our commercial photo licensing division, and its website. I would remind you of the AP’s policies regarding image manipulation, which can be found within our Statement of News Values and Principles: http://www.ap.org/newsvalues/index.html. Please be sure to read carefully the section on Images reproduced below and make sure that it is well understood — not only by staff photographers and editors, but also by freelancers or occasional contributors to the AP. Our reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions such as the one described above.
Under the headline “Russia refuses to recognize Libya rebels as legitimate government, clashing with West”, Saudi-owned English news website Al-Arabiya published a photo into which fighter jets were digitally inserted. The original photo (by Marco Longari for AFP/Getty) shows Libyan rebel fighters near a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf.
The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) released a photo purporting to show President Bashar al-Assad swearing in the new governor of Hama after the previous governor was fired in response to anti-regime demonstrations. Critics quickly noticed the myriad problems in this crude Photoshop job, including the table shadow that doesn’t change as it moves from the glossy floor to the soft carpet, the nearly nonexistent shadows from the two figures, and the distorted perspective.
The Associated Press withdrew a news photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency after it was determined that the photograph was a digital composite. The image depicted North Korean citizens wading through high floodwaters, but critics noticed that the people looked crudely pasted into the scene, because their clothes were not wet. It was speculated that the photo was an attempt to gain sympathy for North Korea so that they could receive more international aid.
The British Advertising Standards Authority banned two ads by cosmetics company L’Oreal due to excessive retouching. The first was an ad for Lancome featuring Julia Roberts, which claimed to “recreate the aura of perfect skin.” The second was an ad for Maybelline featuring Christy Turlington promoting a product called “The Eraser”. In making their judgment on the Lancome ad, the ASA stated that they “could not conclude that the ad image accurately illustrated what effect the product could achieve, and that the image had not been exaggerated by digital post production techniques.”
In his bid for a city council seat in Tucson, Arizona, Joe Flores featured on his website a “Supporters” page that said only “coming soon” along with a photograph of a crowd of people holding Joe Flores campaign signs. It was later revealed that the person handling the website graphics had digitally added the signs to a photo that he “just grabbed from a rally somewhere on the east coast.” The designer claimed this was only a “placeholder” graphic. “We didn’t have funds. It was at the very beginning of the campaign and we didn’t have funds for signs and stuff like that.”