Questions remain unanswered over Reuters ‘staged’ Syria photos

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Photography experts say this image of a boy at a bomb factory in Syria may have been staged. Reporters and photographers have tried to locate the boy in this image to no avail. [Photo: Hamid Khatib / Reuters, republished under 17 USC § 107]

Photography experts say this image of a boy at a bomb factory in Syria was likely staged. Reporters and photographers have tried to locate the boy in this image to no avail.
[Photo: Hamid Khatib / Reuters, republished under 17 USC § 107]

The Reuters news service has denied allegations made by the New York Times and several others that charge the news organization with distributing staged photographs of war-torn Syria, but many questions remain about the authenticity of images the news organization has obtained from freelancers working in the region.

On March 13, the Times newspaper raised questions of Reuters’ use of freelancer in the region as part of a broader portrait on 18-year-old combat photographer Molhem Barakat who was killed last December while taking pictures of a battle near a hospital in Aleppo. The Times piece questioned whether the world’s-largest multimedia news organization had hired Barakat a year earlier with knowledge that the photographer was underage and whether Reuters had provided adequate training and protective equipment that is standard at news organizations that employ combat photojournalists.

The Times also raised the issue of Reuters using activists and combatants to get news and images out of Syria during the years-long conflict. According to the Times, Reuters editor Jim Gaines acknowledged that the news organization used photographs provided by activists in Syria “because they have access and partly because you have to be among friends to be safe,” adding that Reuters does not tell paying news clients that some images may be provided by activists.

“We scrutinize all images and captions” to screen for incorrect information and bias, Gaines told the Times. Gaines also admitted that Reuters occasionally uses pseudonyms in place of a photographer’s actual name, something another spokesperson at the company said was “rare” and used only in cases where using a legal name could put a photographer in jeopardy.

Names are not the only thing Reuters and its freelancers are accused of doctoring: Several Syrian activists and combatants who had provided the news organization with photographs told the Times in March that it had doctored or staged images when natural ones didn’t turn out as expected. At least one admitted to the Times that they had staged photographs themselves.

“History demands that the pictures that we produce are accurate,” Jim Long, the ethics chairman of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), told the Times in March. “You have a responsibility for those images to be accurate, and you have to find some way to find out if they’re accurate.”

A Reuters spokesperson said that staging photographs is “a firing offense, strictly against policy.” Gaines fired back at the Times piece in a memo distributed to Reuters staff the day after the article ran. We frankly do not understand how the piece ran,” Gaines wrote. “To be honest, it seems to be a case in which a prosecutorial approach lingered long after the solid evidence was gone.”

But evidence continued to mount against the company when the British Journal of Photography ran an article earlier this month pointing out discrepancies in several photo “packages” from Syria that Reuters had distributed to clients.

In one package, Reuters images told the story of a young boy named Issa who worked long hours with his father inside a weapons factory that manufactured explosives for the Free Syrian Army. Reuters says the photographs were taken by freelancer Hamid Khatib who was working on a story about factories making weapons for activists.

“Reuters thought the story of child worker Issa in a munitions factory was one that we could develop for our photography app and website Wider Image…so Hamid spent the day with the father and his child on September 7th,” a Reuters spokesperson said.

The September photojournalism package was picked up by many Reuters image clients, including CNN, Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Yahoo News. When the images were published, many photographers and wire editors who were tasked with covering the war in Syria were skeptical that the pictures of Issa were legitimate.

“Reporters and photographers were sent out to find Issa,” NPPA editor Donald Winslow wrote. “They came back saying they were unable to turn up the young boy.”

Some of those journalists and photographers who were eager to match the Reuters story say they eventually learned Issa never worked at the munitions factory. Several accused the Khatib of staging the photographs; at least one went so far as to say Khatib and Issa arrived at the bomb factory together.

“In the end, those who went looking for Issa and later talked with News Photographer said they had no success finding the child,” Winslow wrote. “So it appears as if Khatib was the only photographer who saw the boy named Issa at the weapons factory.”

A Reuters spokeswoman was quick to deny the charges in Winslow’s report. “The photos of boy in the factory in Aleppo were not staged,” she said. Still, the news organization launched an internal investigation to get to the bottom of the accusations.

That internal investigation concluded earlier this month. So far, Reuters has refused to say what the outcome of the investigation was — specifically if Khatib and others who are suspected of staging photographs are still employed by the agency or what changes have been made to ensure legitimate images are distributed to news clients.

Instead, Reuters media handlers continue to send out canned responses that assert the agency won’t use “any photographer, freelancer or staff who is found to have passed off a set up picture as a spontaneous one.” But with Reuters’ own admission that the news organization sometimes credits photographers with pseudonyms, it’s possible Khatib and others continue to work for the company — just under a different name.