The photographer was sleep-deprived and hungry, feeling the strain of weeks in a war zone. He'd already filed dozens of strong photographs, but under pressure to produce something that would stand out from the competition, he made a fateful choice: He digitally altered one of his pictures to make it more compelling.
This could describe Adnan Hajj, the freelance photographer for Reuters who was fired this week for doctoring two photographs from Lebanon. It's also the story of Brian Walski, a Los Angeles Times photographer who was fired in 2003 for merging two images of a British soldier and a crowd of Iraqis (in the altered image, the soldier appears to be pointing his gun at a man holding a child).
Photo manipulation has occurred since the days of the Civil War, and the ethical standards in place at most media organizations are higher than ever. But in recent years, media experts say they've seen an alarming rise in the frequency of doctored pictures making their way into the mainstream journalism.
"This should be a clarion call to media companies to increase their procedures in vetting images properly," says Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
At the same time, such tampering may be growing harder to get away with, thanks to the scrutiny of the blogosphere. It was blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs who first sounded the alarm about Hajj's doctored Reuters photos, which eventually led the news agency to terminate its relationship with Hajj and pull all his work from its database.
Experts say the trend is fueled by a range of factors. Growing pressure in newsrooms to compete with a growing array of media outlets may tempt photographers to push ethical boundaries and editors to sacrifice scrutiny for speed.
New and widely available Photoshop technology has also created something of a slippery slope. Nearly all news photographs undergo some form of digital alteration these days ? from lightening to cropping, most of which is viewed throughout the industry as an acceptable and even necessary practice to produce professional-quality images.
Most instances of doctoring are fueled not by a political agenda but by a desire to create a memorable -- possibly Pulitzer-winning -- image.
"They're captivated by the prize," says David Perlmutter, an expert on war photography at the University of Kansas. "You get your one flag raising at Iwo Lima, and you're famous for 50 years."
Yet there's no question that altered pictures often have political implications, intended or not. Here at home, altered shots on magazine covers of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and conservative pundit Ann Coulter led to accusations of bias (in both cases, critics alleged the alterations made the subjects considerably less attractive. Warner's classic gray suit and blue shirt were transformed into an odd brown and lavender, while Coulter's already thin figure was elongated to frightening proportions).
When altered photographs are coming from a war zone, the sensitivities -- and the stakes -- are even higher.