“Sometimes you make a mistake and it’s fatal. I made a fatal mistake.”

Guy Reynolds, the photo editor at the Dallas Morning News who found the altered golf image of Matt Bettencourt has talked with the (now) former Getty Images freelance photographer who made, altered and transmitted the image. (Reynolds’ original post is still online which explains how he found the image and what he did.)

In the update, Marc Feldman claims Bettencourt’s caddie said one of the images would be better if he (the caddie) weren’t in it. Feldman quickly removed him from the image to show what it would look like and thought he saved the image to his desktop, but instead it ended up in a send folder and found its way to Getty Images.

It all seems plausible and I’m sure that’s exactly how this whole event transpired. That’s not sarcasm – I’m sure he’s telling the absolute truth here.

But the fact that he’s telling the truth bothers me even more.

There are several ethical and professional issues at play here.

Visual journalism is under fire quite a bit these days. There’s a persistent belief that because it is so easy to manipulate images and because there’s a need to produce more compelling imagery to get noticed in our visually-saturated world that photographers (and editors) are willing to do whatever it takes to get an image to sing. Feldman, even with his 26 years of experience, decided to show off. Had things not gone wrong, his smallest problem would have been reinforcing the idea that digital manipulation is so easy that everything should be suspect. That alone is a huge problem – when we’re fighting for our credibility, why would you demonstrate how easy it is to erode that credibility? Why not say, “Maybe it would be a better image without you in it, but this is the way it happened?”

The second ethical problem comes up with a twist. Getty Images holds contracts with both news organizations – to produce editorial content – and professional sporting organizations – to produce public relations material. It’s unclear which of these sides Feldman was shooting for (and, unfortunately, it’s likely he was producing for both), but if it was the editorial side what was he doing showing the images off? It could pose shield law problems in some jurisdictions and, at the very least, puts him in an awkward position if the golfer says he doesn’t like the image. Does he then kill it? Find another frame? Ignore him?

And then there’s a professional problem with the workflow that both Feldman and Getty Images have in place. Why was there no double-checking of the images in his send folder? A quick glance would have brought it to his attention. And why did no one at Getty Images’ photo desk catch this? It’s the same moment, from the same angle, just a different crop – it’s pretty clear something is amiss.

In my early freelance days, I worked for the Associated Press for several years. Now we can fault the AP for many things, but one of the things I will sing their praises about was the photo desk staff in New York. They went through my images – and captions – with a fine-toothed comb on every single image I transmitted. (I remember one very long Independence Day conversation with an editor over whether I had a 105 mm or 75 mm howitzer cannon in a photo. I ended up calling the National Guard for an answer before they’d send the image off the satellite.)

So what can we learn from this? Several things … if you’re shooting for an editorial client, no one but you and the client sees those images … if someone suggests “cleaning up” an image would improve it, explain that in journalism the truth improves everything … and, for goodness sake, check what you’re sending – and receiving.

Otherwise, Feldman is absolutely right in what he told Reynolds:

“Sometimes you make a mistake and it’s fatal. I made a fatal mistake.”

Mark E. Johnson

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