Fraudulent Liaisons

BY Chris Niedenthal

The rules of our profession say that press photographs cannot be digitally manipulated in any way, other than what could have been achieved in a darkroom in the old days of analogue photography.

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A Norwegian-born Swedish wildlife photographer was recently exposed as a fraud: his wonderful and well-known photographs were not always what they seemed to be. Now, why would  a photographer do that? Why risk your career, your good name, your entire reputation, maybe even your family?

Let’s go over what this particular photographer did. Terje Helleso apparently faked many of his wildlife photographs, starting, or so it appears, with his images of lynxes. An official from a local hunters’ association was tipped off by internet users that something was wrong with Helleso’s photographs. One lynx in particular caught their attention – a photo supposedly taken in the summer showed the lynx with winter fur.  In addition, when the official questioned Helleso, the photographer told him that he had photographed around 150 lynxes over a period of nine months. This did not ring true for the official, who stated that in his 52 year career, he had seen only about 15 lynxes.

Helleso denied any wrongdoing at first, but was quickly forced, by mounting evidence, to admit to everything. Apparently he even said, “I’m surprised that I got away with it for so long.” And that he had made a fool of himself in front of his family, friends and fans. He also mentioned that he had given in to the temptation, because of “his own unreasonably high demands on himself”. The money he made also helped, it appears. My goodness. His wife must be furious!!

Why does a self-respecting person go to all the trouble of cutting and pasting stock images into his own photographs, and then selling them as somewhat more arty work? I mean, I understand the money aspect of it all, but why go to all that trouble only to fall foul of everyone? If I were the wife of such a person, I would want to tan his hide until he looked like a winter-furred lynx, and then walk out, slamming the door on his longest telephoto lens. And what about his many fans? One day they love him, the next day they want to tear him to bits.

The only problem here though, is that it appears to happen more often than we think. A Lebanese photographer was caught making his images of a bombed Beirut more dramatic, by cutting and pasting dramatic smoke and ruined buildings (admittedly from the same photo) into several parts of his photograph. Relatively simple to do, but even easier for the trained eye to see what has been done. Why bother, when an army of internet users will decipher the sin? A few years ago a Polish photographer lost his prize in an important Polish press photo competition, when people rang to say that he had duplicated pigeons on the glass roof of a bus stop. Sure, there were pigeons on that roof, and they made the picture – but he copied some of them and pasted them in for an even better effect. And for bad luck, as his trick was so obvious that he lost the prize and his job. The rules of our profession say that press photographs cannot be digitally manipulated in any way, other than what could have been achieved in a darkroom in the old days of analogue photography. That means things like lightening or darkening images, raising or lowering contrast, shading or burning in some parts of the photo to make those parts darker or lighter.

Last year, one of Poland’s top photographers won the prestigious Grand Prix in a national press photo competition with a delightful image of young girls playing around during a Corpus Christi parade in Silesia. I was in the jury, and I certainly did not see anything suspicious or wrong with it. But as soon as the press got hold of the photograph, some photo editors plunged their teeth into it and tore it apart, saying that the shadows were not quite right and that therefore something had been digitally manipulated. The poor photographer, with one of the best reputations in the business, had to fight for his professional life with gangs of internet users who wanted to nab him for cheating. A most embarrassing situation for all of us in the jury who had no problem with the photograph, realising that the photographer had been using a strong fill-in flash that cast its own shadow, even though the shot was taken in strong sunlight.

So the ease with which anonymous internet users can smell a fake, can also create a highly unpleasant situation for a bona fide photographer who simply knows more about the techniques of photography than they do, or indeed ever will.

The only answer I can think of when trying to explain why good and even famous photographers take the risk of making fools of themselves by cheating in their own photographs, is the financial aspect. Bills have to be paid, and if they can get away with creating better images with some stealthy manipulation, then they go for it. What they tend to forget about though, is the rising power of the internet, where a great many bored people are constantly on watch for someone to catch out.

Beside the Point

A tough, slightly dirtied man of power: a coal delivery man in East Berlin, October 1989. The name of the month should tell us all: October. The Berlin Wall came down in November of the same year. This man doesn't know it yet, but he will be an East Berliner – at least on paper – for only another month. Then, he will be able to putter about in his little coal truck anywhere he wants in all of Berlin, not just the eastern part of it. He has probably dreamed about doing just that for all his life. When I photographed him, he had no idea of what was coming his way. Neither did I. But he still put on a good act of being a tough, slightly dirtied coal delivery man. Coal briquettes, anyone?