Award-Winning Photojournalist Accused of Faking Photos of Assassins

Award-Winning Photojournalist Accused of Faking Photos of Assassins

An award-winning photojournalist stands accused of faking a series of images documenting hit men carrying out acts of violence in Honduras. It is alleged that Swiss/Italian photographer Michele Crameri staged several shots of men wielding guns and threatening to kill people, following revelations from the Honduran fixer who helped him gain access to local gang members.

Between 2015 and 2018, Crameri made four trips to Honduras to document hit men working for gangs in the city of San Pedro Sula. Entitled Sicario, a job like any other (warning: graphic content) Crameri documents crime scenes, police investigations, funerals, friends and family mourning their loved ones, and one graphic shot showing a recently murdered victim. Crameri also presents a number of images of the sicarios — hitmen — wielding guns and threatening individuals as part of extortion rackets being carried out by drug cartels and other crime organizations.

Assisting Crameri during his early visits to Honduras was Orlin Castro, a local journalist whose work reporting the turf wars on the streets of San Pedro Sula was documented in 2015 in this documentary from Vice News. A few months ago, Castro became aware that Crameri’s published project — now the winner of various awards — included some problematic images.

Two photographers — Tomas Ayuso from Honduras and Francesca Volpi from Italy — have both worked with Castro and are now speaking out against Crameri’s alleged fakery. “These are posed portraits alongside fake captions and completely staged pictures of scenes of criminal violence, all wrapped neatly with a narrative of ‘Killers in Honduras have part-time jobs,’” Ayuso explains.

In 2016, working as Crameri’s fixer, Castro took Crameri to a house in San Pedro Sula to meet with several sicarios. During the visit, Castro, who has working relationships with various gangs as part of his role as a journalist, was joking with the hit men, asking them to show him how they executed someone. Crameri photographed the resulting scene and published it with a caption that is now said to be patently false.

Michele Crameri, Sicarios

Screenshot from https://www.parallelozero.com/sicarios/#gallery-9, from photographer Michele Crameri's project "Sicario, a job like any other".

Crameri’s caption reads:

Col Central. Pedro, taxi driver by day, Sicario by night. The gang boss is threatening Eduardo in order to get information about his brother Carlos, a rival to Pedro who, for more than a month, has not paid the fee (extortion) for being able to do his job in the area where the two work. After being threatened, Eduardo will call Carlos.

Ayuso and Volpi state that this photograph was not taken in Col Central, that the hit man is not called Pedro, and that the man being threatened by the gun is not a man named Eduardo but the fixer, Castro. Having discussed the images extensively with Castro, Ayuso and Volpi also say that the first image in the series — a man in a striped top pointing a gun at a supposed victim while another man in a blue t-shirt stares into the camera — was also staged. The victim in this photograph, portrayed with his arms dramatically in the air, is alleged to be another hit man, again fooling around for the camera.

Michele Crameri, Sicarios, staged images

Screenshot from Parallelo Zero.

Another of the images shot by Crameri shows a gang member standing in front of a victim’s car, pointing two guns at the windshield.

Michele Crameri, Sicarios

According to Crameri, the taxi is driven by Carlos, the victim of an extortion racket being enforced by hit men. According to Crameri's fixer in Honduras, this was the car that Crameri was using, and the car was the one that Crameri travelled in to arrive at this location.

Ayuso explains that this car actually belongs to Castro’s colleague and was used by Crameri during his time in Honduras: it was a taxi, but it was not driven by a man named Carlos. Instead, Crameri traveled in this vehicle to the location where the photograph was taken. The images below show the fixer’s car, as photographed by Ayuso on May 27, 2015, and then as photographed by Crameri for his Sicario project on October 8, 2016.

Crameri, Sicarios

On the left is the car said to be owned by Castro's colleague, as photographed by Honduran photojournalist Tomas Ayuso in 2015. On the right is the car as photographed by Crameri with the distinguishing features highlighted.

While working for Crameri, Castro was told that the staged images of the sicarios pretending to threaten people would only be used for Crameri’s personal archive. The fixer says that he specifically told Crameri not to publish the photograph of him being jokingly threatened with the gun.

While those depicted in Crameri’s work are genuinely sicarios, Crameri stands accused of inventing his captions in order to create a compelling story, one that has since gone on to receive broad recognition. Since 2017, Crameri’s website reports that the project has won 15 awards, including being recognized as a finalist by Lens Culture’s Visual Storytelling Awards 2019

Crameri received questions about his project in March when people contacted him via social media to accuse him of inventing his story. Since then, more details have emerged. Crameri has responded to my enquiries via email and stated that the images were not staged. He did not respond to repeated questions about whether the man in the green t-shirt having a gun pointed at him was in fact his fixer. Furthermore, Crameri did not respond to repeated enquiries about the taxi seen in another picture.

I also contacted Parallelozero, the agency which represents Crameri. They replied to say they had conducted their own investigation and were satisfied that Crameri’s work was legitimate*. Asked if they had contacted Crameri’s fixer or anyone else in Honduras as part of their investigation, they twice declined to answer.

Photojournalists are typically expected to comply with strict ethical standards when it comes to editing their photographs. While light editing (color, tones, contrast) is permitted, anything beyond that is deemed dishonest unless openly stated. Agencies such as Parallelozero play a significant role in giving photojournalists gravitas, helping to give them access to incredibly sensitive subjects, and creating an assumption of integrity that invests the images with credibility and greater weight as objective records of events.

[July 3, 2019: Parallelozero states that it terminated its contract with Crameri following the emergence of the taxi photos through this article and as a result of an internal investigation.]

If the allegations are correct, critics will see this as another instance of photojournalism’s tendency to treat “lesser” countries as a playground for comparatively wealthy Western photographers chasing heroic status as a reporter by exploiting the apparent suffering of their subjects. There are growing calls for agencies, competition juries, gallery curators and editors to start giving greater recognition to local photographers rather than repeatedly rewarding those who parachute into a story, capture some photos, and leave before going on to win various awards.

If you have more information about this story or any other instances where you believe that photojournalism’s ethical standards have been breached, please contact me through social media (Twitter, Instagram) or via my website — andyday.com.

This article was edited on June 22, 2019 to include a more accurate composite image depicting the Toyota Corolla.

* 2 July, 2019: Parallelozero has asked that it be noted that when first contacted by the author, they informed him that they would be happy to review any evidence. Andy Day apologizes for this omission.

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32 Comments

As a photojournalist, this makes me sick and embarrassed to have someone like this guy as a colleague. I shoot only in camera JPEG images and once in awhile make very slight exposure or shadow adjustments. I have always loved and respected the ethics or photojournalism. I was a Green Beret and before that played football for 11 years, so I love discipline and being held to a higher standard. People like this guy makes us all look bad and I hope he pays and is laid off and has a hard time finding work. This is serious stuff, people don't realize that journalism is powerful and needs to be honest and impartial.

Logan Cressler's picture

A genuine question. Why is shooting jpeg in camera more honest than shooting RAW? A JPEG is a RAW file that has been altered and re exported to a new format. You cannot, ever, change a raw file, they are read only. If there was ever any doubt as to if a photo was altered, it would be easy to tell with a RAW, and much harder with a JPEG.

So why do people make such a fuss about shooting jpeg in camera as if it means the photos cannot be altered?

A JPEG can not be edited or altered as much or as easily as a RAW file, but there is nothing wrong with shooting RAW and neither is more or less honest than the other. I didn't actually say that anyway, I said I shot JPEG and then later down I said the word honest about journalism. I think you misunderstood me or mashed my words together. It does not matter really what format you shoot, it's the ethics that matter in journalism. Someone could just as easily photoshop a JPEG, I understand all of that.

Just saying that AFAIK you cannot save a RAW as RAW, but you can shoot jpeg or RAW, noodle around with the photo then save as jpeg. So there may be no original to use to prove the provenance of the photo.

Venson Stein's picture

Just don't get caught!

Logan Cressler's picture

I am sorry, but you do not understand how RAW files work. A raw file cannot, ever, be edited. Period, unless you hack the file and create a new one which would be easily detectable unless you are an alien god with some advanced technology. You do not ever edit a raw file. You make virtual edits to the file that are saved in a sidecar file that the raw processor you use can read and apply those changes to. You can edit a raw file all you want, and send it to me, and I will not see any of those edits, unless you include the side car file, and I also use the same program you used to edit it, to read it.

A RAW file is read only, the edits you make are virtual until you export it to a new format like JPEG or TIF. The JPEG your camera gives to you, is an edited raw file that has a preset applied to it by the computer inside your camera, then saved as a jpeg, and the raw is thrown away. It is nearly exactly the same as shooting raw, then editing it in lightroom with a single preset, and exporting to jpeg. The only difference is Lightroom does not have access to the exact same preset that Canikonyiji uses to create theirs, but they do have presets built in to closely simulate it as close as possible.

Literally, a RAW file is the best proof possible as to what you did to it to create that jpeg. You can say this is a SOOC jpeg, but it could be anything, as it is a jpeg. When you post a jpeg, and anyone has any questions, you have the raw file that is uneditable, to prove positive what you did and did not do. You can even send the sidecar with it to absolutely show every edit you did within that raw editor (does not apply once you go to photoshop as it is not a raw editor).

I understand where you think you are coming from, and I respect the sentiment. I also know that numerous PJ sites demand that PJs only shoot in JPEG thinking that makes the file more authentic, but it is also because they literally do not understand it in the same way you do not understand it. They are wrong, and when that new rule was announced caught huge flak from a lot of people in the industry for their ignorant view on what a raw file is. They should demand RAW files with sidecars be delivered to prove exactly what the photo showed as well as what edits you made. A raw file does give you more room to edit in terms of white balance, but that in no way means that it is authentic. In camera JPEG means you have already thrown away all the data that is not pertinent to that jpeg. So all you are doing is limiting your editing options, as well as any option you have to prove what edits you did.

Shooting in raw is the only way you can actually prove what the camera sensor saw. A jpeg is an edited representation of the raw data. That is why different raw editors will show a different image upon opening it than others, as it is that programs INTERPRETATION of what the data is.

All you are doing by shooting jpeg is saying, I am OK with the presets the computer in my camera applies to the raw file before they delete the vast majority of data present in the raw file to save space on your storage card.

A RAW file is literally, in every way possible, the raw data the sensor recorded, encoded into a file. That is why for the longest time many computers could not even display them without having special software installed to interpret the data and display the image, because a raw file is not an image file, it is a collection of data that has to be interpreted by a program.

Now in windows or mac, you can open a raw file without an editor and see an image. But they are not showing you the image, they are showing you a jpeg preview that is embedded within that raw file that was created by your camera. When you import to lightroom, when it asks you what sort of preview you want it to build, you have the option to select "embedded and sidecar" which is the option to not build any previews at all, but to use the embedded jpeg as the preview. This speeds up import times but will slow down your workflow once you start editing if you do not generate new standard or 1:1 previews for the select images you have culled out.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with shooting jpeg, simply that your assertion that shooting jpeg makes it less possible to edit is a complete fallacy based on ignorance on what a raw file is.

Feel free to google it, or prove me wrong. Take a RAW file and attempt to edit it in photoshop and clone something, or make any edits in lightroom, and save it as a raw file. You will not be able to. You can export that raw file from lightroom, but it will literally be the raw file.

Logan Cressler's picture

Sorry for the novel, I may have had a few beers.

Not completely true about RAW, at least not technically. There is nothing "read only" about raw that can't be applied to other file formats. The thing that makes it "pretty close" is that the formats are generally proprietary and undocumented and the vast majority of engineering effort in third party software goes into decode not encode. In theory one could definitely write RAW files, it would just be very difficult. And RAW files ARE "image files", just not in any of the standard formats, ALL image files (e.g. jpeg) are a collection of data that some software has to interpret to give you the proper visual representation, formats like jpeg and gif are simply more standardized so most any system can read them.

I assume Patrick is referring to the previous difficulty in dealing with compression artifacts when doing certain edits on a jpg, those edits tended to be more noticeable. Today however with ever improving algorithms in editing software and generally more powerful hardware all around that allows for the more prevalent use of higher quality jpgs (i.e. fewer compression artifacts), what was true years ago doesn't hold anymore.

Venson Stein's picture

It's worth noting that in the example in this article. The scenes were staged. There is no evidence of file manipulation that I can tell. Although there have been many cases of that as well from others in the past. I think the best policy is just to do honest photography.

Gion-Andri Derungs's picture

Everything that is digital can be changed, manipulated or generated. I'm pretty sure, that you can alter a RAW file according to the sidecar or you can generate a RAW from scratch. Does it make sense, to do so? Probably not, then if it would, there would be tools out there...

But just wait till AI is getting better. Then you won't be able to see a difference from an artifficial and a real (not staged) image. Until then, RAW is pretty save.

Dude...shooting raw is actually the only way to prove that your photos are authentic, or better say edits-free, but of course, could still be staged.
If you have a file ".raf" or whatever else, the file has not been touched for sure. what you see when opening that file is what came out of the camera. If you present a .jpg picture to somebody, any heavy editing could have happened without us knowing.

Jeff Walsh's picture

Oh look another photographer faking shit. It's almost like our entire society has fostered this "fake lifestyle" mindset, where it's all about how strangers perceive you rather than being your genuine self. It's sad. But in a world of "fake news" and poorly researched "articles," a world of click-bloggers and staged media runs rampant.

Venson Stein's picture

Perhaps this photography thought he would try his hand at doing "Fake News." :-)

Rob Mitchell's picture

Lost me at ‘Award-winning’
I once won an award for swimming 25metres. I don’t put that in my bio though.

Logan Cressler's picture

I am an award-winning certified pro special licensed photographer and I resemble this statement.

Stuart Carver's picture

Yeah I hate that statement too, screams of bullshit more often than not.

Jordan McChesney's picture

It looks like the only thing getting assassinated in these photos is his career.

Has he actually published any work, or just won "awards" like that Lens Culture one, which is just photo contest open to all. Seems like contests are the problem more than the photojournalism industry, which does strive to police itself. As for the solution being more local photographers, why would anyone assume they won't create fake stories, too?

dale clark's picture

Is it me, the photos look staged? Maybe knowing they are staged has influenced my perception

The over-acting poses are a hilarious give away

Yup, the poses look fake as shit. Didn't even need to read the article to know that.

Mike Ofstedahl's picture

What kind of lousy hitman allows himself to be photographed anyway?? Smells like BS to me.

Sadly, this is our new normal.

Scott Wardwell's picture

The second picture is definetely staged. The weapon is a stainless steel Beretta Inox 92FS with the decocker lever engaged. The ambidextrious little lever on the back of the slide just forward and right next to the hammer; which is up and uncocked. With the decocker flipped down you can pull the trigger but the hammer is disengaged. If the decocker were flipped up, then the hammer would been in double-action and in battery with a round in the chamber and the follow-up shots would have been in single-action. But the decocker lever was down , so in effect, our hitman was playing bad-ass with a safed weapon even if there was a round in the pipe. Plus his finger is behind and entirely off the trigger. For a more realistic scene, they should of used a Glock or any other striker-fired gun.

Tony Northrup's picture

That last paragraph. It's ridiculous that we celebrate photographers from outside a culture for going in to document it... Of course they fake it, they're outsiders trying to sell a story to other outsiders. We all need to seek out the work of local photographers who grew up in that culture and live it every day.

Logan Cressler's picture

You should do a video on why RAW files are inherently more trustworthy than jpegs for PJs Tony. You have touched on it before and I apologize if you have already covered this in another video, but referencing the comments above about only shooting in JPEG to be more proveable makes me realize how many people dont know what a RAW file is and what you can and more importantly can not do to it.

J Shetley's picture

I am a bit stunned that people thought these photos were real. How could these photos fool anyone? They are obviously fake, the poses staged, the lighting preplanned, everything here screams staged. In the heat of the moment I doubt “assassins” even hold their weapons in such a pose. I have done photos like these in my studio with various weapons and these are clearly planned photos. Geez.

Logan Cressler's picture

I really, REALLY doubt he did any lighting work at all. Yes, the photos are staged, but this "photographer" doesnt know how to use light at all, he didnt stage any light at all.

Logan Cressler's picture

Award-winning? These are terrible photos. They look obviously staged in so many ways. People need too slow the fuck down and actually take a critical look at the stuff they see and read. These dont even look remotely real. Shame on anyone who thought they were even good. The "photographer" is talentless and that is why he has to make up a fake story to go along with his crappy photos. Cause if he just said "staged some photos" everyone would say it was shit.

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