In this National Geographic magazine cover story on Egypt by Gorden Gahen, the Great Pyramid of Giza was digitally moved to fit the magazine’s vertical format. Tom Kennedy, who became the director of photography at National Geographic after the cover was manipulated, stated that “We no longer use that technology to manipulate elements in a photo simply to achieve a more compelling graphic effect. We regarded that afterwards as a mistake, and we wouldn’t repeat that mistake today”.
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
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Entries in Photojournalism ethics (58)
This digitally altered photograph of OJ Simpson appeared on the cover of Time magazine shortly after Simpson’s arrest for murder. This photograph was manipulated from the original mug-shot that appeared, unaltered, on the cover of Newsweek. Time magazine was subsequently accused of manipulating the photograph to make Simpson appear “darker” and “menacing”.
A digital composite of a British soldier in Basra, gesturing to Iraqi civilians urging them to seek cover, appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times shortly after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Brian Walski, a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times and a 30-year veteran of the news business, was fired after his editors discovered that he had combined two of his photographs to “improve” the composition.
A photo, taken of U.S. President George W. Bush as he sat in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, shows Bush scribbling a note to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reading, “I think I may need a bathroom break. Is this possible?” Reuters’ picture editor, Gary Hershorn, explained that sections of the photo were overexposed so a Reuters’ processor used the Photoshop technique to “burn down the note.” Hershorn says that the photo was not manipulated in any way, but that it was standard practice for such news photos to be enhanced.
A doctored photo of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared alongside a USA Today news story about Rice’s comments to U.S. Lawmakers regarding U.S. Troops in Iraq. After receiving complaints from readers, the photograph was removed from USA Today’s website, and the following Editor’s note appeared alongside a “properly adjusted copy”: “Photos published online are routinely cropped for size and adjusted for brightness and sharpness to optimize their appearance. In this case, after sharpening the photo for clarity, the editor brightened a portion of Rice’s face, giving her eyes an unnatural appearance. This resulted in a distortion of the original not in keeping with our editorial standards.”
The Charlotte Observer fired Patrick Schneider, a staff photographer, for altering an image of a fire fighter. Following the incident, the paper released the following statement: “Photographer Patrick Schneider’s photo depicted a Charlotte firefighter on a ladder, silhouetted by the light of the early morning sun. In the original photo, the sky in the photo was brownish-gray. Enhanced with photo-editing software, the sky became a deep red and the sun took on a more distinct halo. The Observer’s photo policy states: No colors will be altered from the original scene photographed.” Schneider said that he only meant to restore the actual color of the sky that was lost when he underexposed the photo. Schneider was suspended in an earlier episode after it was revealed that his award-winning photographs had been manipulated. Scheider allowed this case to be used to educate other professional photographers in ethics seminars. At the time he pledged, “I will no longer tone my background down that far.”
A photograph by Adnan Hajj, a Lebanese photographer, showed thick black smoke rising above buildings in the Lebanese capital after an Israeli air raid. The Reuters news agency initially published this photograph on their web site and then withdrew it when it became evident that the original image had been manipulated to show more and darker smoke. “Hajj has denied deliberately attempting to manipulate the image, saying that he was trying to remove dust marks and that he made mistakes due to the bad lighting conditions he was working under”, said Moira Whittle, the head of public relations for Reuters. “This represents a serious breach of Reuters’ standards and we shall not be accepting or using pictures taken by him.” A second photograph by Hajj was also determined to have been doctored.
This image of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “How the Right Went Wrong”. The image was doctored to include a tear on Reagan’s face. Time issued a statement saying it regularly runs what it calls “conceptual covers.” They said: “This week’s cover image is clearly credited on the table of contents page, naming both the photographer of the Reagan photo and the illustrator of the tear.”
Newspaper photographer Allan Detrich resigned from The Blade of Toledo, Ohio after admitting he had altered a photo that appeared in the paper. Detrich submitted at least 79 photos for publication since the beginning of the year that were digitally altered, 58 of which appeared in print. In a printed letter to readers, Blade Editor Ron Royhab said “the changes Mr. Detrich made included erasing people, tree limbs, utility poles, electrical wires, electrical outlets, and other background elements from photographs. In other cases, he added elements such as tree branches and shrubbery.” The Blade released three examples of how Detrich altered photos. “Readers have asked us why this was such a big deal. What’s wrong with changing the content of a photograph that is published in a newspaper? The answer is simple: It is dishonest,” Royhab wrote. “Journalism, whether by using words or pictures, must be an accurate representation of the truth.”
The New York Times published this digitally altered photograph. In a correction, the Times’ editor said “The wood siding at the far left of the building was out of alignment because the picture was retouched by a Times staff member who took the picture, but who is not a staff photographer. He altered it because a flash created a white spot on the picture when he shot it through the window of a train. Also, the retouching tool left a round circle on the building’s window at the right”. The Editor’s note concludes with “Times policy forbids the manipulation of any photograph. Had editors been aware of the manipulation and seen the original picture, they would have either published the picture with the blemish or not used it.”