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BBC Brasil still trying to learn the lessons of the fake war photographer who fooled the world

BBC Brasil editor Silvia Salek says the episode has provided a wake-up call to media outlets. (BBC)
LONDON: The story of Eduardo Martins, the fake war photographer rumbled by a BBC Brasil investigation sent shockwaves through the media industry when news of his scam broke last week.
Numerous outlets, including Getty Images, The Wall Street Journal, Vice, Le Monde and Deutsche Welle had featured his work before it turned out to be fraudulent, stolen from genuine photographers then doctored to look different.
Not only that, but it became clear that all the online profiles of Martins actually used stolen images of Max Hepworth-Povey, an unsuspecting British surfer, photoshopping him into pictures of war zones. Hepworth-Povey has no links to war photography at all. But the images, along with the other photographs Martins stole and tampered with before claiming them as his own, helped build an Instagram following of over 120,000 and establish a respected reputation in the media community.
That is, until a BBC Brasil contributor became suspicious that neither she, nor any of her colleagues had actually met Martins.
Arab News spoke to BBC Brasil editor Silvia Salek about the ongoing investigation into Martins and the implications of his actions for media outlets filtering a growing tide of fake news.
Suspicion was roused when Martins contacted Natasha Ribeiro, a BBC Brasil contributor based in Lebanon after the bureau published a piece in July.
“It was first about correcting a mistake but it soon became clear that we were up against a much more sophisticated case than we first expected,” said Salek.
“Once we confirmed the photographer was not legitimate, we told our audiences.”
The team got in touch with the UN and several other organizations Martins claimed to have worked for. All confirmed that he had never been employed by them.
Martins deepened his deception by sharing photoshopped images of himself in war zones using pictures of Hepworth-Povey stolen from the Internet. He also gave interviews to websites and magazines, offering up details of his supposed trips to conflict zones, including the city of Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria and the Gaza Strip.
“Once in Iraq shooting a conflict, I stopped shooting to help a boy who was hit by a molotov cocktail, dropped the camera and helped get him out of the conflict area,” he told Recount Magazine in October 2016.
“In scenes like this, which are common in my work, I stop being a photographer and become a human being. I cannot be impartial in these moments.”
Looking at his images now, some inconsistencies and signs of manipulation are evident says Salek, but no one noticed these until the fraud was exposed.
“Interestingly, even the American photographer, Daniel C. Britt, who had used some of his photos, hadn’t recognized them straight away. We are now taking a more thorough (and technical) look at the tricks that were employed.”
Britt was among several war photographers whose work was stolen. One image in the Recount magazine piece entitled “Palestinian boy screaming after the clash against Israeli forces, east Gaza” turned out to be a photograph taken by Britt in Kirkuk, Iraq in 2010. Martins had simply flipped the image to disguise the theft from software that scans pictures for plagiarism.
“This case shows that existing methods of checking images’ copyright might not always work depending on the level of manipulation applied. On a broader level, we need to be much more skeptical about online ‘existences’ and how sometimes we use one online source to confirm the other,” said Salek.
After closer investigation, BBC Brasil discovered that Martins had been using fake sources to enhance his credibility, posting at least one fabricated article praising his work.
“He also seems to have created a fake profile of a journalist from a respectable publication to praise him on Instagram. So some of his followers were fake and some were indeed respected professionals,” Salek added.
While the organization is used to filtering inauthentic content, fraud on this scale was “a first for us,” Salek revealed.
“The case has flagged up the increasing sophistication of artificial sources and the challenges mainstream media outlets face in deciphering real news from false. At the BBC we are placing a stronger emphasis on ‘slow news’ alongside breaking news: We deliver more in-depth analysis of topics, with data, analysis, expertize and investigations – such as this one, where we exposed a fakery.”
No one yet knows the real identity of Martins. After realizing his cover was blown, he messaged a friend saying he was in Australia. “I made the decision of spending a year travelling around the world in a van. I will cut off everything, including the Internet, and I deleted my IG (Instagram). I want to be (left) in peace. We’ll speak again when I’m back.”
Why he got away with it for so long and how he managed to fool so many global news outlets remains to be seen, but the investigation, Salek said, is ongoing.
“This is very much a developing story for us. There are quite a few theories and we are following different leads.”