How a Metafilter member caused the New York Times to pull down altered photos

new york times martinAdam Gurno does not have any particular expertise in photography or digitally altering photos, other than the fact that he has several kids and occaisionally uploads their pictures onto his computer. But when the Minnesota computer programmer was perusing through a photo slideshow at the New York Times’ website, one of the images caught his eye. Gurno has been a member of the Metafilter community since 2005, and yesterday during his lunch break he followed a link from there to the slideshow shot by Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins. The photographer had taken photographs around the United States of abandoned construction projects left unfinished because of the housing and securities market collapse.

“I was on a lunch break and I was paging through it, and I really liked it,” Gurno told me in a phone interview. “And then I was looking at the shot with just the framing, the half done house, a shot from the inside. And right at the top there was this tiny bit of wood, and it sort of set off a little internal alarm. We built our house a few years ago and I’ve seen houses being built, and I have a good idea of what a frame looks like … The angle on it seemed a bit unreal and it kind of made me say, ‘I don’t know, I think these are kind of fake.’ I kind of got the feeling it was. So I posted about it on Metafilter.”

Specifically, he wrote, “I call bullshit on this not being photoshopped,” a phrase he said he later regretted because it was so widely quoted. Gurno then went back to his day job work, but the entire episode continued to bother him, and he felt that he needed to provide more evidence. So he took the photo, split it right down the middle, and used Adobe to overlay the two halves together. Just as he suspected, the two shots were identical.

Essentially, the photographer had taken half a shot of the house and then mirrored it to make it look as if he had taken a shot of the entire frame. To try to cover up his work, he added in some features to try to mask the fact that both sides were basically the same.

“Then someone [on Metafilter] said, ‘hey, someone should send this to the New York Times,’ and I actually had that idea so I went to the New York Times and went to the contact page and emailed the public editor and I think the web editor,” he said. “I wrote something like, ‘I found this photo essay, and I looked at this picture and I think it’s been manipulated,’ and I think that’s all I said. I got the standard form response, saying, ‘thanks for contacting us, yada, yada, yada, we always read the stuff submitted.’ And then I went back to work, and in the evening I took care of my kids, had dinner with my wife, and went to bed. When I woke up I found that the New York Times had pulled it down, and a bunch of other sites started linking to it, and it sort of really blew up when I was gone.”

new york times photo

So what does this say about the web community’s ability to essentially act as a fact checker for mainstream media stories?

“When you do computer programing there’s an old maxim that to 10,000 eyes all bugs are shallow,” he replied. “It’s an open source thing. What it means is that if you have a lot of people looking at it they’ll find all the bugs in your program, and I think the same goes for this. If I wouldn’t have found it then someone else would have found it … and I think in this case I was the lucky one.”

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