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BP and the Gulf Oil Spill: Misadventures in Photoshop

BP has released hundreds photos aimed at giving us all an inside glimpse of the Gulf oil spill and the company's clean-up efforts. But it's BP's enthusiastic use of Photoshop that's getting it all the attention. Which is too bad because the Photoshop blunders are unnecessary, cast further doubt on BP and erase whatever minuscule image boost BP received when Bob Dudley took over the Gulf oil spill response.

The doctored images aren't egregious. Silly, shoddy and unnecessary are better descriptions. The three images that have been discovered so far all try to add more "activity" to the photo. For example, the images to the right were doctored to fill in the blank screens at BP's crisis command center. The helipad in another photo was removed to give the appearance that a helicopter was flying. You can now see the original and altered photos that BP put up on its own Flickr account after admitting Thursday that it photoshopped some of its official images.

Ever since Americablog broke the BP-Photoshop story the blogosphere has been in a frenzy over the issue. But is the reaction justifed? Shouldn't we focus on BP's clean up efforts, claims process and safety record instead? Doctored photos don't rise to the same level as say cutting corners on safety. But it does provide a snapshot of the culture within BP.

Even worse then the PhotoShop debacle is BP's explanation for the mishap. As before, the oil company's reflexive twitch is to blame someone else -- this time, a contracted photographer. BP spokesperson Scott Dean said the "photographer was showing off his Photoshop skills and there was no ill intent." "Photoshop skills" isn't exactly the proper description here. It's hard to imagine a oil behemoth like BP, with first-quarter profits of $5.6 billion, would hire a photographer whose Photoshop "skills" are below the average tween.
Check out the original and doctored BP images below.

The original shot taken from inside the cockpit of a PHI S-92 helicopter in June. Note that the helicopter is sitting on the heli-pad, presumably getting ready to take off.

And the altered one: The heli-pad has been removed and the color has been enhanced. You'd almost think the helicopter was flying. But what's up with the air traffic control tower in the upper left corner? Upon closer inspection, as noted by the folks at Gizmodo, it's clear the helicopter is grounded. The readouts on the dash show a door and ramp open, the parking brake on and what looks like a pre-flight checklist in the pilot's hand.

The original photo of BP's crisis command center show a few blank screens.

The altered crisis command center photo offers a more "active" image. Notice the previously blank screens have been doctored and now contain images.

The question, is why bother? Even without the added "activity" the command room looks plenty busy. And the helicopter shot is just as compelling even if it isn't flying.

It's a misstep that should be noted by management at any business that publishes images online or in print. The public has become increasingly skeptical of the photography in recent years, which means shoddy Photoshop or questionable images are noticed quickly. Like BP, any company can admit the mistake and change its policy, but those images and the mistrust of the brand remains.

Photos from BP
For complete coverage, see All Things BNET on BP's Gulf of Mexico Spill