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Photographer sacked for ‘Photoshopping’ war image

A photographer has been sacked by the LA Times for digitally altering an image of a British soldier and a group of Iraqi civilians. The image, doctored by a practice sometimes called 'Photoshopping', appeared on the front page of the newspaper on Monday.03 Apr 2003

Brian Walski had been a respected news photographer with the Los Angeles Times since 1998. The subject of the photo that cost him his job was a British soldier directing Iraqi civilians to take cover from Iraqi fire on the outskirts of Basra.

After publication, it was noticed that some civilians in the background appear twice. According to an Editor's Note in the newspaper, Walski was reached by telephone in southern Iraq and "acknowledged that he had used his computer to combine elements of two photographs, taken moments apart, in order to improve the composition."

Basically, he changed the content to produce a more dramatic image, something that contravenes journalism ethics where news photographs are concerned, and also the LA Times' own policy.

But the discovery raises the question of how often other news images are secretly spliced together and presented as fact, or otherwise amended to tell a different story, as opposed to accepted manipulations such as colour balancing or removing red-eye problems.

Image alteration in the world of celebrities and models is common. GQ magazine became the subject of criticism early this year after doctoring pictures of the actress Kate Winslet to make her look thinner. More recently, movie distributor Miramax came under fire for doing the same thing to singer-turned actress Queen Latifah in a print ad for 'Chicago.'

Image manipulation has become very easy, with Adobe's powerful Photoshop graphics software now so popular that it is becoming a verb: the practice is sometimes called 'Photoshopping' – just as using an internet search engine is sometimes referred to as 'Googling.'

The altered LA Times photo, along with the two photos that were used to produce it, are on this page of the LA Times' site.

EDITOR'S NOTE: After writing this story, we were contacted by Adobe on 4th April 2003. Adobe asked that we avoid using its Photoshop trade mark as a verb or a noun to help it prevent its trade mark from falling into common generic use by the public.

If a trade mark becomes generic, its value can be lost. Therefore, Adobe asks that instead of the phrase "Photoshopping", more acceptable words would be "edit it with Photoshop software" or "morph it with Photoshop software".

The purpose of this story was to discuss specifically the case of Brian Walski; but the issue of trade marks becoming verbs is also an issue we consider to be important and to remove all mention of it from this story would be to ignore a strong example of a problem that trade mark owners can face. It is in that context that we use the word 'Photoshopping'.

The legal issues raised by this are discussed further in Issue 7 of OUT-LAW Magazine.