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September 19, 2008

Army photoshopped pics of dead soldiers, submitted to AP

The AP was forced to retract two photographs when it was determined that the Army had submitted photoshopped images of dead American soldiers:

Bob Owen, chief photographer of the San Antonio Express-News, notified the AP that the photos of two deceased soldiers, who died in Iraq on Sept. 14, were nearly identical. Upon examining the photos, Owens noticed that everything except for the soldier’s face, name, and rank was the same. The most glaring similarity, Owen told CJR, was that the camouflage patterns of the two uniforms were “perfectly identical.”

After inspecting the photographs, the AP confirmed that the images were, indeed, Photoshopped, and issued eliminations on the two photos. [Columbia Journalism Review]

The pictures were released by the US Army at Fort Stewart, Georgia.

Think Progress has a side-by-side comparison of the two images. Just to clarify, these are not pictures of dead bodies. Rather, they are posed portraits with an American flag backdrop. It appears that someone tacked different faces and serial numbers onto the same shot of a torso in uniform against an American flag.


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Is there some sort of essential misrepresentation here? I don't see what the problem is. So it's not a straight photograph -- it's a faithful representation of these men as Army personnel, which is what they were. They didn't do a great job with it technically, but that's hardly worth any outrage.

I think it's long past time we got past the idea that just because there's an image of something, there was therefore a corresponding event that the photo portrays without bias. All photos are true in some sense, false in some sense, etc.

The fundamental misrepresentation is that X's head is attached to Y's body in front of an American flag. The composite creates the impression a portrait session that never took place.

The Army's media relations team wasn't born yesterday. They know perfectly well that these images don't meet the editorial standards of any major news outlet. Photo editors have lost their jobs for publishing less obvious fakes than these.

If Army wants to hang these composite images up on the wall at Ft. Stewart, that's fine. Or, if they want to send these out clearly identified as composite images for the purposes of illustration, that's okay too. But the Army should not be sending these doctored images to news outlets and inviting the inference that these are unaltered archival photos of the soldiers who died in Iraq.

Army PR people have an important mission: To relay seemingly credible information to the media. They are shooting themselves in the foot by trying to pass off composites as unaltered photos. Their job is to build trust with news outlets. Sometimes they send out controversial photographs.

Any practice that suggests the Army doctors its photos under any circumstances without full disclosure is sabotaging that public affairs team's core mission.

Well, they sent these obvious composite images out, so either they were born yesterday, or else there's some bizarre secret agenda at work.

My point is, why would anyone ever assume that an Army-sourced photo is intended to be "genuine"? Or even could be genuine even if they wanted it to be? The point of their images is presumably to create an impression, not convey accurate information.

You're a photographer; you know perfectly well that there are hundreds of aspects of any photo that alter reality in many ways. Telephoto compression makes objects that are far apart look close together, for example. You deliberately exclude part of the context for your photo. You can't not do that. Et cetera.

Presumably, nobody at NBC lost their jobs over publishing the CGI fireworks over the Birds Nest Stadium...

Joel H -

Photoshopping a head onto someone else's body without saying that is fraud.

Unless it's a joke, which this wasn't.

"Telephoto compression makes objects that are far apart look close together" is at a whole different level from photoshopping to combine one person's head and another person's body.

As a photographer and a journalist, I know that this kind of behavior is totally out of bounds for a public affairs team. They aren't allowed to write composite characters for their press releases, either.

If the Army sends out a posed portrait of a soldier, the absolute minimum is that that soldier sat for that portrait.

News organizations have much stricter rules than that for photos they publish as news, as opposed to art or illustration. It's the Army public affairs team's responsibility to know those rules and abide by them when they submit images for publication. One of the the AP's cardinal rules is that you can't do anything to a news photo that rearranges the original pixels.

If, for whatever reason, the public affairs team wants to send something that doesn't meet AP's standards for news, it's their responsibility to say "Don't publish this as news, it's an illustration only."

I haven't done a lot of research or reading into all of this, but I'm the mother of a U.S. soldier currently serving in Iraq; and if either of these young men were my son, I would be quite upset right now that this happened. I would feel they had dishonored my son and his memory no matter which soldier you're talking about. Another poster a couple of posts before mine said this is fraud, which addresses the legal side of the issue--What about the families' feelings??! To think my son's head had been inserted onto another's body; or that another soldier's head had been photoshopped onto my son's body is a quite unnerving, and I feel unethical as well.

The only reason I can think that the Army may have done this is perhaps they didn't have a "nice" photo of one of the young men--does that make sense? I say that in all seriousness, but nevertheless, it was wrong! But if they were going to do it (which I agree is WRONG on all levels), they could have been a little *smarter* about it and not used the same body in both photos! I hope both families are more understanding about all this than I would be!!

May the families, friends, and comrades of these two young men be comforted at this difficult time.

Shauna, I hope your son comes back safe, and very soon. I'm grateful for his service, even though I disagree with political decision to keep him there.

I was going to bring up the point about the families' feelings, but you've said it much better than I could.

Something I'm surprised nobody here or at Think Progress seems to have noticed: these are not just "ordinary" Iraq war casualties.

These are the men who were killed by a fellow sergeant in their squad, for reasons unknown:

Thank you Lindsay--I appreciate your comments regarding my son. It sounds cliche, but it's true that we don't all have to agree about this war, but we do need to support the troops who are serving over there and elsewhere, especially when they come home. But that's a whole other discussion in and of itself!

Pierce brings up a good point that no one else had mentioned that these soldiers were shot by a soldier in their own unit. I knew this, but neglected to mention it before, yet it just adds to what I was trying to express about the feelings of the families. They are already having to deal with a senseless tragedy, and then to have this photo issue added on top of it is just horrible. Again, hopefully if they're even aware of the photo incident at this point, they'll be able to get passed it quickly and focus on getting through the grieving process that they been so unfairly thrust into.

IF the US Army at Fort Stewart, Georgia only had one photo of one of the men, and there was an issue with how he was dressed, then they should have cropped the photo around the face without Photoshopping it onto another body.

I'm grateful for his service, even though I disagree with political decision to keep him there.

I wish for the troops' safety and for their swift return home. But I don't think I would go so far as to maintain they are providing a service for which I am grateful.

What service are the troops in Iraq providing for which you are grateful?

Putting themselves at the disposal of our civilian leaders. I think it's good that we have a military, ours is just being terribly misused right now.

Do you think that troops provide a service by putting themselves at the disposal of civilian leaders even when the leaders use them to wage an illegal war? Or don't you believe that the war in Iraq is illegal.

Do you think that troops provide a service by putting themselves at the disposal of civilian leaders even when the leaders use them to carry out immoral actions? Or don't you think killing civilians in Iraq is immoral?

Are you grateful that both the Russian and Georgian troops provided service to their civilian leaders and went to war last month. Or is the good of providing military service to civilian leaders good in some countries but not in others/

Editing of news photos to correct for color and light conditions is fine.

Photoshopping of news photos to add things/people that were not there, or to take them away is entirely unethical. In all cases. News media should be required to give notice whenever a photoshopped image is used.

Fauxtography isn't just used by Pallywood anymore. It's everywhere, it's entirely pernicious, and it should always be condemned.

Sounds like something right off the pages of “Catch 22”. My guess is that this is some sort of grisly comedy of errors. Every US soldier has a portrait in his or her personnel file. Maybe someone lost it. Maybe someone spilled coffee on it. Maybe it just couldn’t be retrieved in time to meet a deadline, and some schlub did his/her ham-fisted best to cover his/her ass. Appallingly stupid and grossly disrespectful to the dead soldiers themselves, those close to them, all living soldiers, and those close to them, e.g. Shauna.

Joel H - Think metaphorically: the photos are assembled out of parts; soldiers may come home in parts. These are photos that cannot, must not, be fucked up.

What service are the troops in Iraq providing for which you are grateful?

Parse - I grew up in an army family. As I see it, here’s the service (ideally) that a US soldier provides: To be ready, if it comes to that, to eat some serious shit, and even to die with the faith that a government of the people, by the people, and all that, will ultimately make the right decisions, even when strategy and tactics are dreadfully awry, or even if the C. in C. (who is presumably elected, after all) himself is a dipshit, shit-kickin’ psycho-killer from Oilpatch, Texas.

True, there is a Nuremberg threshold at which a soldier must ask him or herself whether they can go on with what they’re doing. Let’s just say however that the military plays a very good game of moving the goalposts in a soldier’s mind on that score.

Well, I apologize to anyone who felt offended.

No need to apologize, Joel. Disagreement is cool.

It's the Army that owes multiple apologies.

So these men were killed by "friendly fire" and the military decides to do a drive by Photoshop shoot? Gad, how deplorable. How low can they sink?

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