How a Minnesota man blew the whistle on the New York Times

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Whoops. It’s happened, again. A journalist /photographer working on behalf of the New York Times is suspected of faking a story. In this case, it’s photographs that appeared in the NY Times Magazine about abandoned construction projects.

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A contributor to Metafilter figured out that the picture was doctored to make the unfinished room more dramatic than it apparently really was; that the photographer essentially “mirrored” the image.

The “proof” is posted here, the Metafilter poster says. (Note: The proof in the link above is not a before-and-after, it’s proof that splitting it in half and copying it to the “other side” creates the same picture as the one published as original.)

If it is a doctored image, why do photographers think they can get away with this sort of thing in the age of the Internet? There’s always someone “out there” to uncover it.

Someone like Adam Gurno of Northfield Rosemount. He’s the one who proved the image had been doctored.

“It was an excellent photo essay,” he told me this afternoon. “The picture of the framing is actually pretty striking. I looked at it and I said, ‘this doesn’t look right.’”

Gurno says he sent his proof to the Times but he only got a form e-mail in return. Nonetheless, the Times has removed the photo essay from its Web site.

How the ethical lapse came to light should be a warning to all journalists.

“When you work in computer programming…there’s a maxim in the programming world that says ‘all bugs are shallow to 10,000 eyes.’ It means if you have something open source and you let 10,000 people look at it, they’re going to find all the little things about it. Everybody’s going to approach it from a slightly different angle. And I think it’s the same with this picture,” he said.

“I understand magazines Photoshop models on their covers and that’s neither here nor there. But when they actually call it ‘journalism,’ that’s when I decided to dig in a little bit extra,” he said.

Here’s the full interview:

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Update 3:57 p.m. – An excellent post on digital manipulation can be found here.

Update 4:59 p.m. – The New York Times will run the following correction in Thursday’s session:


A picture essay in The Times Magazine on Sunday and an expanded slide show on Nytimes.com entitled “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age” showed large housing construction projects across the United States that came to a halt, often half-finished, when the housing market collapsed. The introduction said that the photographer, a freelancer based in Bedford, England, “creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation.”

A reader, however, discovered on close examination that one of the pictures was digitally altered, apparently for esthetic reasons. Editors later confronted the photographer and determined that most of the images did not wholly reflect the reality they purported to show. Had the editors known that the photographs had been digitally manipulated, they would not have published the picture essay, which has been removed from Nytimes.com.

(h/t: Sam Choo, All Things Considered)

  • http://frogsonthemoon.blogspot.com froggyprager
  • MissHQ

    The before and after are really not that different. At least not different enough to get worked up over.

  • Hey

    The thing that’s really wrong about this is that the text accompanying the photo essay reads, “Martins, who creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation…”

  • M

    MissHQ:

    That the before and after are not that different is precisely the point. See this from the post above: (Note: The proof in the link above is not a before-and-after, it’s proof that splitting it in half and copying it to the “other side” creates the same picture as the one published as original.)

  • Modern Demagogue

    I would argue against Adam Gurno’s claim about the maxim of all bugs being shallow to 10,000 eyes. This digital manipulation was amateurish at best, which is where the absurdity comes from. Anyone looking at it critically wouldn’t notice these anomalies. However, a skilled professional would have left little trace of his work, and it would’ve required complex analysis of non-human-discernible elements of the image in order to determine an alteration. Things like, light and shadow angle on a fabricated element not precisely aligning with the scene, or inconsistencies in digital artifacting or grain due to JPEG or other compression schema.

    I think it is perfectly plausible to fabricate “journalistic” images of enough quality so as to “fool” everyone, and its important for people to realize this, and understand that had the NY Times actually been attempting to fool people into believing something of relevance, they most certainly would’ve been able to.

  • http://www.dailyplastic.com/ davis

    MissHQ, you’re misunderstanding the images. We have not seen the “before” image. Only the photographer has.

    We’ve seen only the “after” image plus a visual argument that demonstrates how the final picture is actually just half of the original, which was mirrorized in PhotoShop. The unseen half of the original shows an elephant with his foot on a giant, multi-colored ball. Or a cricket playing a baby grand piano. Or, more likely, something boring and asymmetrical.

  • Kevin Mc

    100% for sure this has been doctored. Proof: In your minds eye, try to imagine climbing the stairs. Where does the first set lead? How do you get on the second set? There has to be a landing. There is no landing.

  • Hoopz

    Wow. People are actually arguing over whether this image is doctored or not? Just look at it: the right side is a pixel-perfect mirror of the left. The shading, the lighting, the shapes, everything matches.

    I guess it’s true what they say: most people don’t really look at what they’re seeing, they just roll with it. Sheesh, no wonder it’s so easy to mislead the masses.

  • mados123

    Obviously the “original” is not the original. They are just digging a deeper hole by submitting not only a doctored photo but a doctored “original” photo. Pathetic attempt.

  • max

    check out the triangle joist at the top of the image. what value could that second triangle inside it have in terms of supporting anything?

  • max

    alright, lol, he said that in the radio interview

  • max

    check it out, they not only took it down but said that they sonned the photographer too:

    http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/07/05/magazine/20090705-gilded-slideshow_index.html

  • Mike Morones

    MissHQ & Froggyprager,

    It does matter and it is a big deal precisely because is is relatively easy to fabricate images. If a image is presented as photojournalism, readers should be able to expect the content in the photo is real. yes, lenses, flashes and various exposure techniques along with how the photographer composed the image change how we perceive a scene but changing reality in post-production is beyond the pale of acceptable photojournalistic ethics.

  • Adam Kulokoff

    What’s interesting to me is that Martins claims so adamantly that he doesn’t manipulate things in photoshop. It’s a claim he’s made before about other somewhat unreal looking images.

    I just read a blog post that shows that Martins used this same mirroring technique on several art images and posts some examples: http://www.mexicanpictures.com/headingeast/2009/07/edgar-martins.html

    Why has nobody called foul on this earlier?

  • http://www.glennfawcett.com Glenn Fawcett

    This is yet another example of why photo editors are important in newsrooms. Over the course of the past several years as newspapers cut staff, photo editors have been the target of layoffs and low on the priority list of managing editors’ hiring plans. In some cases, designers have been given the authority to make decisions once the domain of photo editors while trained professionals are elbowed aside or pushed into the streets. I am not sure if the NY Times has reduced the photo editing staff, but this clearly is an oversight no photo department likes to see happen. Having said that, the NY Times has a great photo staff and selects powerful images for their cover that other newsrooms shy away from.

  • Bob Collins

    Judging by his Web site and the photos thereon, I’d say Glenn Fawcett knows a thing or two about powerful images.

  • Sam Pratt

    I’m not in favor of unacknowledged changes to news photos. But what baffles about this case is that the changes do not appear to add much if anything to the photos.

    For example, in the big nighttime picture of the half-completed hotel, the photographer duplicated a barely-noticeable fence in the foreground, deep in shadow. Take out the duplicated part, and you take away an essentially identical impression of the waste and folly of the project.

    Ditto the photo of the McMansion with all the C&D debris in the foreground, in which the photographer needlessly duplicated some barely-noticeable and unremarkable branches and brush off to one side. These are not the focus of the picture, and inessential to the impact of the image. Why bother?

    As such, the photograph seems to have committed a pointless “crime” which added little or nothing to the images he sold, needlessly exposing himself to the possibility of exposure and shame. Again, why bother?

  • Sam Pratt

    To answer my own question above… Three theories:

    1) The photographer is so accustomed to retouching non-journalistic (e.g. fashion or art) images that he lost sight of how offensive this is to many in a news context;

    2) The photographer somehow gets a thrill from sneaking in small changes;

    3) The photographer has some lack of confidence in his work that causes him to make obsessive “improvements” which don’t really add to the work.

  • C B Matthews

    What is the name of this photographer?

    Amazing that this “photographer, a freelancer from Bedford, England” remains anonymous!

    Is there some reason that he/she goes un-named?

  • Jeremy

    Alright I’m confused by the posts above. So what if the image looks the same flipped? If I take a picture of a symmetrical object I except that I could also take half a picture and flip the one side.

    Besides I can see the “raw flip” doesn’t extend all the way to right (shown by the nice white line.) Did the photographer also photoshop in that little bit on the side. I think people are looking too hard now for suspect photos. I’d worry less about something that could simply be a symmetric building and worry more about people who might photoshop in a soldier, some smoke, and a tank.

  • Ezra

    “Had the editors known that the photographs had been digitally manipulated, they would not have published”

    Translation: we’re merely incompetent, not malicious.

  • Open your eyes

    “So what if the image looks the same flipped? If I take a picture of a symmetrical object I except that I could also take half a picture and flip the one side.”

    Look again. Even the loops of wire around the ducts on either side are mirror images of one another. How is that possible?

    Answer: only with the magic of Photoshop.

    The magic of Photoshop also reveals the deception. When you flip half the image and superimpose it, you can see that it matches pixel-for-pixel almost everywhere. (If you know the software, using the “Difference” layer blending mode makes this even more visible.)

    Even if you took a picture of a perfectly symmetrical object in perfectly even lighting conditions, the symmetrical halves wouldn’t be composed of identical pixels: that would mean that every single one of thousands upon thousands of pixels just happened to be assigned, by the computer, to an identical color value to the symmetrical pixel on the other side of the object. That never happens.

  • Ashley

    Check out this one by the same photographer, Edgar Martins:

    http://www.capricehorn.com/index.php?aw_id=666&node=artwork2&lang=en

  • Ashley

    Sorry – here’s a better link for the post above:

    (Bob: I beg you all. Please use html for links.)

  • kmz

    Sam Pratt: In the case of the McMansion, we have _no_ idea what one half of the original image looks like. He mirrored a whole side of the image.

  • jackb

    Edgar Martins was the winner of the New York Photo Festival 08 in the category of Fine Art Series – this was the reason why NYTIMES comissioned him. Now, in his statement and the jury’s text it was boldly said and highlighted that his images were made with long exposures (on film, 4×5, I know it) and with no DIGITAL MANIPULATION. More than that, in his many books, he commissions many known writers to write about his work based on the idea, among others, that his images are real, they’re there… And of course the images are visually very strong, but looking at the night scenes on the beach I always wondered how was that sky so black, especially if u shoot on film, where were the clouds or stars?? And I saw this exhibition and it said the same thing – no photoshop! and he has been winning many awards…

    Now looking back at this, you can go through his images and like in a riddle find similarities on both parts of the image…

    Edgar F martins

    F for Fraud

  • http://shii.org Shii

    Besides I can see the “raw flip” doesn’t extend all the way to right (shown by the nice white line.) Did the photographer also photoshop in that little bit on the side.

    Ah, the magic of the Crop tool…

  • http://www.StinkyJournalism.org Rhonda R Shearer

    @Sam Pratt and CB Matthews–regarding the issue of symmetry, I have just written a blog post about the science behind the powerful attraction to symmetries in humans as well as animal and even insects.

    I argue that Martins photo fakery –which, at first, seem to make little sense– when placed in this context, is a brilliant but devious strategy that exploits our hard-wired attraction to symmetry.

    Think about it, even a boring photos can be made to instantly have an appeal when faked symmetries are embedded inside them. Read more at Stinkyjournalism.org.

    @CB Matthews–As far as the Times not naming the photographer or the man who discovered the fakery in their statement– I think it is outrageous. I just got an email today from Adam Gurno –he still has heard nothing from the Times–beyond being referred to as “a reader.” The Times needs to get it act together and be transparent.

  • Jeffrey S. Robbins

    The name of the photographer – Edgar Martins – is clearly attributed in the original magazine article on page 34. The “only” thing wrong with the photos is the statement in the text lead-in which states “Martins, who creates his images with long exposures but without digital manipulation..”.

    Big only! Clearly these images have been digitally manipulated in numerous ways.

  • Joe

    The problem is its a slippery slope. Sure its not a big deal, but the specifically said that it was not digitally manipulated. They said it for a reason, and they wanted you to know that this was real. If it had said that it was an artistic representation that would be a different story. Again not a big deal but it is a slippery slope that people should point out. otherwise wed be fed more nonsesne and lies than we already are by mainstream media

  • Gray

    “If it had said that it was an artistic representation that would be a different story.”

    Exactly! Tens of thousands of graphic designers are capable of producing such altered images (I know some of them, working in advertising), and many of them would have done a better job than Martin. There’s nothing special about such artificial pictures, and no gallery would have demanded high prices for them.

  • ken howard

    There is also some duplicate cloning in the photo of Baldwin Farms South that noone has mentioned … leaves on the floor and the same leaves again … it’s really sloppy cloning but it’s really no big deal either. No matter what you do, pictures ONLY lie – you can’t take 1/60 of a second and tell any complete truth from it. This is a tempest in a teapot.

  • Bob Collins

    If a picture is worth a thousand words and an element of the picture is fake — not truthful. Are the words still truthful?

    If the NYT’s words were deliberately untruthful with the words, would it still be considered good journalism? Would it still be a tempest in a teapot?

    Discuss.

  • John Loyd

    Such a shame..

    To all who say in the lines of “yeah, so? its okay to manipulate images”:

    Yes, in the name of art, its okay to manipulate a picture.. But to emphasize saying you did not do any form of image manipulation, and then get caught red handed, is such a damn fraud.

    Bottomline, That may have been another photographer’s assignment to earn his pay.

  • Brrr

    The only crime I see is how poorly done the retouches were. If they were done by someone who knew what they were doing, no one would ever be the wiser.

    I don’t think people realize just how few of the images they see go un-retouched. It almost never happens. Everything gets a touch up of some sort.

  • Aredee

    A lot of the pics in the magazine are “artistic” shots, not photojournalism; e.g., the fashion photos. If the Times had simply printed these photos with the stipulation that they were a personal statement of the photographer, no one would have been bothered by it.

  • http://www.mmcelroy.com michael

    I did not read all the comments! but i did read the first one by “froggyprager” what he said is absurd!! it does matter! when you sell yourself and your art as authentic that’s what should be delivered! this photographer had said in an earlier interview that he does no post production on his photographs ( we all know that’s a lie). Re-gaurdless if the images are striking or not he made people beilive that he was documenting these housing developments. Instead he was creating something that did not reflect what he was photographing.. This issue is important and there are plenty of great photographers who don’t manipulate their photographs to tell the story! The Times should not by any means re-publish these images!