‘Manipulated’ prize-winning Gaza photo being investigated

Photographer cooperating with forensic probe by World Press Photo; Israel says bias ‘comes with the territory’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The 2013 World Press Photo of the year by Paul Hansen (photo credit: AP/Paul Hansen, Dagens Nyheter)
The 2013 World Press Photo of the year by Paul Hansen (photo credit: AP/Paul Hansen, Dagens Nyheter)

On November 20, 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip, Swedish photojournalist Paul Hansen snapped a powerful image depicting the funeral of two Palestinian children. Three months later, it was chosen by World Press Photo as its picture of the year.

“The strength of the [picture],” noted World Press Photo jury member Mayu Mohanna on the winning image, “lies in the way it contrasts the anger and sorrow of the adults with the innocence of the children. It’s a picture I will not forget.”

The photograph in question, taken by Hansen for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, shows the funeral procession of Muhammad and Suhaib Hijazi. Angry men fill a narrow alley as they carry the wrapped bodies of the small victims. The siblings were killed along with their father in an Israeli airstrike responding to Palestinian rocket fire.

But the prize-winning photo, entitled “Gaza Burial,” was a bit too perfect, it seems.

On February 15, the day the prize was announced, observers started questioning the veracity of the photo. A commenter on the British Journal of Photography website pointed out that the lighting led her to believe the image was photoshopped.

Expert analysis followed. Forensic image specialist Neal Krawetz published a comprehensive study of the photo, finding that it was “significantly altered.” Looking at the size of the image, Krawetz states that, at the very least, the image was cropped considerably.

He then examined the save history of the photo, and concluded that, based on three separate conversions of the photo, it is actually a composite of three images. “This is what you typically see when a picture is spliced,” he noted.

The lighting in the image was likely significantly enhanced as well. Dark shadows would have spread across the late afternoon funeral, and highlights on the mourners’ faces do not match the position of the sun.

Krawetz pointed out that the manipulations took place primarily on January 4, two weeks before the World Photo Awards’ January 17 submissions deadline. It was modified one more time a day after Hansen was announced as the winner. “I can tell you,” wrote Krawetz, “that the controversial picture is definitely not original. Moreover, it appears to have been modified specifically for this contest.”

Hansen insisted that the photo captured the auspicious lighting in the alley, and that he did not alter the image. However, he failed to present the digital original of the photo, or RAW file, to the awards ceremony on May 1, saying that he simply forgot to bring it along.

Though some enhancing of colors in journalistic images is generally permissible, the type of manipulation of which Hansen is accused crosses the line, critics say.

The Associated Press’s standards guide states that the “content of a photograph must not be altered in Photoshop or by any other means. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph… Minor adjustments in Photoshop are acceptable…[to] restore the authentic nature of the photograph. Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable.”

Other press agencies have similar guidelines.

“Paul Hansen has previously explained in detail how he processed the image,” World Press Photo told The Times of Israel. “World Press Photo has no reason to doubt his explanation.” The organization added that it has asked two independent experts to carry out a forensic investigation of the image file, with Hansen’s full cooperation.

In Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said that unlike other places in the Middle East, Israel welcomes journalists and is proud to be open to media scrutiny. “We aren’t particularly happy about some of the bias against us, but that comes with the territory we live on and the fact that we’re an open, democratic society. This particular case seems to be more a question of professional photography ethics than anti-Israel bias,” he told The Times of Israel.

Boston University historian Richard Landes, who writes about media coverage of the Middle East at The Second Draft, sees this incident as part of a larger pattern. “These manipulations and forgeries — what I call ‘Pallywood’ — take many forms. In its most extreme, staged scenes, Syrian babies presented as Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression, make it into the Western press. This incident is more akin to the photoshopped scene of Beirut in 2006 when the Reuters photographer added plumes of smoke.” Landes called these instances “a systematic manipulation of Western empathy.”

“This incident is inexcusable,” added Landes. “The Reuters journalist was fired on the spot.”

The relevations about Hansen come as the Newseum in Washington, DC, “reevaluates” its decision to honor two Hamas-affiliated cameramen in Gaza killed in an Israeli airstrike in November 2012 as journalists who died in the line of duty.

As of May 14, Hansen’s photograph was still prominently featured on home page of World Press Photo website.

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