Friday, February 22, 2008

China Eats Crow Over Faked Photo

HONG KONG -- It turns out that train tracks in Tibet aren't where the antelope play.

Earlier this week, Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, issued an unusual public apology for publishing a doctored photograph of Tibetan wildlife frolicking near a high-speed train.

The deception -- uncovered by Chinese Internet users who sniffed out a Photoshop scam in the award-winning picture -- has brought on a big debate about media ethics, China's troubled relationship with Tibet, and how pregnant antelope react to noise.

The antelope imbroglio began in the summer of 2006. The Chinese government was celebrating its latest engineering feat, and an enthusiastic wildlife photographer from the Daqing Evening News was camped out on the Tibetan plateau eating energy bars and waiting for antelope to pass.

On July 1, 2006, in an event scheduled to coincide with the Communist Party's 85th birthday, Chinese President Hu Jintao hosted the launch of China's train to the "roof of the world." The $4 billion Qinghai-Xizang railway -- a remarkable system that transports passengers to an altitude (16,000 feet) so high that ballpoint pens can explode en route from the air-pressure change -- traverses 1,200 miles of rugged terrain to connect the rest of China to the remote Tibetan plateau.

The train, which soon brought many visitors to the pristine homeland of Tibetan Buddhists, became a flash point for China's long simmering tensions with Tibet. During construction, it drew fierce protests from environmentalists who said it would threaten the breeding grounds of the chiru, an endangered antelope species found mainly in China.

When the train service began, a remarkable photograph appeared in hundreds of newspapers, and it eased environmental concerns. The picture, captioned "Qinghai-Tibet railway opens green passage for wildlife," featured dozens of antelope galloping peacefully across the Tibetan landscape, unfazed as the gleaming silver train raced beside them.


Kirsten Brownrigg said...

The fact that Mr. Liu worked for the state-run news agency only serves to underscore the gross control exerted by the government over its media. It seems doubtful that this is just an ambitious photographer taking his career aspirations too far. At best, the news agencies propagated what an amateur photographer could have rooted out as fraud -- and an amateur photographer did. At worst, the photographer is the ideal scapegoat: as one of the anonymous Chinese posts pointed out, Liu is a cog in the inner workings of a Chinese government that strictly regulates what should be its watchdog. After all, this isn't the first time this has happened, nor is it likely to be the last. A foreign news agency reported how just last October a Chinese forest authority used a photograph of a South China tiger in a nearby forest taken by a provincial farmer to prove the feline still existed in the wild, but web surfers alleged that the farmer had used "digital software to make the tiger" and that "local authorities had approved the photographs to bolster tourism." Similarly, Liu is merely a product of the pressures likely placed on him as an employee of the government's extension, Xinhua.

Just one look at Xinhua's top stories tells you that every item published by the news agency meets one common criterion: it must lend to a superior image of China. One article seems to blatantly profess "There is only one China in the world," implying the fallacy of Taiwanese independence without any attribution before or within the sentence. Another article asserts the integral role China has played in Darfur, "a fact that is obvious to anyone in the international community that is not biased against China." An Associated Press article reports that falsified work are "common in Chinese media," citing "bogus journalists and reporters who take bribes to write positive stories and suppress negative news."

GERBER said...

This story is a classical ethical case study. Conscience of the environmentalists' concerns, Mr. Liu Weiqing was out on the Tibetan Plateau when he realized the potential power of an image of antelope running under the recently constructed train.

Mr. Liu waited eight days for the antelope to cross; they did not. Running out of time, Mr. Liu probably justified photoshoping the image because he believed the image would represent something that actually happened; he just did not have the time to wait it out.

Mr. Liu probably did not anticipate this photo becoming a calming factor between the Chinese government and environmentalists. Nor did he plan on having it be such a huge success.

When Mr. Liu realize the power of his photo, it was too late to come forth and admit the photo was a creation by his own hand. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he probably though with time the photo would be forgotten. Keep in mind, through all of this, he more than likely fully believed the antelope did freely cross under the train, he just did not capture the moment.

I do not believe that the Chinese government was the master puppeteer behind this photo and photographer's actions. The Washington Post article questions what drove Mr. Liu to create a photo.I think the answer is simple; Mr. Liu's ambition lead him to take an unethical risk, and he now has been revealed.

shutts said...

This image, though it reflects on the political situation in China in ways that the following example does not, immediately made me think of Allan Detrich’s doctored photo for the Cleveland Plain Dealer last year. Detrich’s manipulated a photo of the Bluffton University baseball team by deleting an unwanted pair of legs behind a fence; the photo was taken as the players knelt together at their first game since losing five players in a bus accident. Detrich’s complete disregard for photojournalism ethics is a blow for all photographers. The digital era has ushered in a number of positive aspects for photographers: speed, quality, access, reproduction and instant feedback, to name a few. But digital manipulation is easy and apparently alluring to enough photographers (one is too many) to tarnish the reputation of photographers. Detrich was twice named Ohio Photographer of the Year. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998. He was not an amateur. I am pointing out this example to show that forgery and photo doctoring occurs for a number of reasons: personal ambition, megalomania and thinking of oneself as exempt from rules, pressure from editors or the government, etc. A brief history of photo doctoring can be viewed here:
Regardless of a photographer’s “reason,” the result is the same. Photo doctoring seriously undermines the profession’s reputation. Editors should adopt a no-tolerance policy. In this way, The Blade acted responsibly by investigating the matter (Detrich would have eventually been fired had he not resigned). But, it can be argued, someone should have caught Detrich’s infractions earlier (some estimates put him at forging as early as 2002).
The example in this article, of Liu Weiqiang’s doctored photo, speaks to a government-press relationship that should invoke skepticism at the very least. Even Google censors itself to please the Chinese government; the Chinese-language version of its search engine,, is heavily censored. Google officials claim this is less damaging than pulling out of the country altogether, but I disagree. Google, which routinely takes moral stands, is doing a disservice to the Chinese people. Even Weiqiang regrets his error, and he apologized on his blog: "I admit it's unfaithful, as well as immoral for a photographer to present a fabricated picture. I'm truly sorry."
Despite the ease of manipulating digital images, it should be noted that photojournalists’ ethical concern is actually increasing. As one of my photo teachers told us, it was no uncommon 30 years ago to move objects in a scene or pose subjects so they were more to the photographer’s liking.
The other interesting point about this story is that the scam was uncovered by Chinese Internet users. Bloggers and untrained ’journalists’ on the web are increasingly acting as watchdogs not just for the government or society at large but for the media. I think this is an excellent development that could and probably will be more effectively harnessed in the future.

Danielle N said...

I doubt Liu Weiqing had any idea how big of a deal his fabricated photograph would become. It’s hard to distinguish exactly what agency Liu was thinking about when he crafted this photo. Did he want to help the government agency or help the newspaper raise awareness for the antelope? I suppose at the time, when it was thought to be true, it helped both agencies equally. It limited tension between the government and environmentalist groups; however, as a journalist he should’ve known not to doctor his photograph.
In the art of photography, I don’t think it’s a crime to photoshop and doctor images, but it certainly undermines the profession and in photojournalism it is a no-no. Also, the fact that the flaw was so easily discovered by an amateur, passerby photographer shows a lack of professional work or effort. While, I doubt most of his career consisted of him using photoshop to attach photos, he should’ve taken more care when doing so if he had any reasonable expectation of not being caught.
The whole situation causes one to think carefully about the relationships between government and media. Should the two be allowed to cross-over at all or remain separate entities? While government is certain to be featured in many journalistic pieces, it should not have control over what is being said; and this fabricated photo causes one to wonder if that is the case in China. Either way, whether the government wanted the photo or Liu suspected the scene and just did not have time to capture it, Liu made the unethical choice to doctor the photograph and ruined his reputation and the publication which he worked for.

Kirsten Brownrigg said...

Melissa Gerber, while I wasn't intimating that the Chinese government was the sole driving force behind Liu's moral pitfall, I think if you re-read my post or do a little more digging regarding Chinese government-controlled media and the prolific number of doctored photographs published in their various forms (particularly those connected to environmental claims, interestingly), you may change your mind ... or at least speak it with a little less conviction.

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