The Digital Journalist

September 2006

For the past month, The New York Times and photojournalist Tyler Hicks have come under malicious attack from irresponsible bloggers for ostensibly "staging" a photograph of a Lebanese rescue worker being pulled from the wreckage of buildings that had been struck by Israeli artillery and bombs during the one month-long war.

The "proof" that the bloggers offered was the fact that in other photographs taken of the scene that were used in a slide show on the Times' Web site, the "victim" could be seen walking around wearing a hat that was shown in the photograph of him being rescued, on the ground alongside him. Some of these messages were directed at The Digital Journalist, which had also used the photograph of the man being pulled from the wreckage in our cover story on the war.

We immediately contacted Michele McNally, the picture editor of The New York Times, and she wasted no time getting to the root of the problem. It seems that Hicks had indeed photographed the man in question as he was helping to rescue people from the wreckage, but then he had fallen, injuring himself. This caption explaining that he had been injured while helping in the rescue effort was on the front-page picture the Times ran. However, until the online and newspaper departments are united when the paper moves into its new building, the online picture department is in a separate building. Even though they get the same feeds the newspaper receives, they often do a "looser" edit to allow for more pictures in slide shows. It was here that the caption information got overlooked, which is what caused the confusion.

However, even though The Digital Journalist within a few hours had published a clarifying "Editor's Note," the would-be "picture police" and conspiracy theorists continued to rail against the Times and in particular, Tyler Hicks.

It would be hard to conceive of a more principled photojournalist than Tyler Hicks. He regularly risks his life on the battlefields of the world, not for the sake of ideology, but to show the world the true and ugly face of war.

Last month, one of the most celebrated photojournalists died in San Francisco at the age of 94. Joe Rosenthal took probably the single most famous image of the 20th century, the raising of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi in the closing months of World War II. The Pulitzer Prize-winning picture was published on front pages around the world, made into a postage stamp, and eventually, inspired the massive U.S. Marines Memorial near Washington, D.C. Yet for years, so-called "historic and photographic experts" have carried the accusation over the Web that this picture too was "posed." In fact, it is probably one of the greatest misunderstandings in history.

What happened that day was that Joe, an Associated Press photographer who had landed in the first waves with the Marines as they assaulted the island of Iwo Jima -- a battle that would eventually claim more than 6,800 American lives -- was NOT on the scene when a flag was first raised. That original flag was a small 51 inches-by-28 inches. Commanders of the invasion aboard the flagship offshore radioed the Marines that they needed to raise a larger flag that could be seen by their comrades fighting on the island. Joe, who was working nearby with Staff Sgt. Louis Lowery of Leatherneck magazine, heard about the second flag-raising and went to the summit where men from the 28th Regiment, 5th Division were preparing to raise the larger flag.

Joe climbed into the lip of the volcano's crater, and bent down, propping his 4X5 Speed Graphic against some rocks, and clicked the shutter as the large 4 foot-by-8 foot Old Glory was raised by the straining Marines.

After shooting the raising of the flag, Joe and Staff Sgt. Lowery posed a group photo of the Marines at the base of the flag. Joe then sent his 4x5 film holders off to the fleet, where within 48 hours the photograph was processed in a Navy lab in Guam. The censors and editors understood the importance of the photograph, and wired it to AP, from which newspapers immediately picked it up.

Meanwhile, back on Iwo Jima, Joe had no idea what an impact his photograph was having. It was several weeks before he began to get messages about his work. Never having seen the final results, he thought he was being congratulated for the group photo of the Marines posing in front of the flag, and in comments, responded that it was a "posed photo." It eventually was these comments that led to a historic misunderstanding.

For years afterwards he was tormented by the derogatory accusations of fraud.

Today, with the Web, bloggers who do not know the facts can easily jump to incorrect conclusions. The problem is that these mistakes can lead to a a worldwide smear campaign against photographers who are risking their lives to report honestly on events taking place in highly-charged political arenas.

As Michele McNally said after the first few days of unrelenting blogs about the Tyler Hicks photographs, "You can't believe how crazy this is getting!"

For more on photo manipulation in the press go to: