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I post this with some hesitation, as it will likely embarrass a well-meaning animal rescue project and possibly a few media outlets.
But there's something missing from this picture, taken on behalf of a public relations group employed by last week's elephant polo competition in Thailand. (Click here to read my piece on the quirky sport.)
If you've spotted what's missing already, congrats. You're probably a professional elephant handler. The rest of you should look closely at yellow baton in the blue-sleeved guy's hand.
That's not a baton. It's a small hook. But it's been digitally blacked out or "photoshopped" to look less threatening.
Truthfully, the hook isn't all that threatening. Most elephant handlers guide their beasts by raking an "ankush" — a heavy iron hook — across their hide. This can cause skin breakage and it's forbidden by the World Elephant Polo Association.
These handlers use the "khor," a smaller, lighter hook. And, in this year's matches, handlers used khors wrapped in yellow, rubberized tape to further prevent harm to the elephant.
Why use it at all? Well, ever touched an elephant's hide? You're not going to get their attention with a feather duster. Using the khor, especially one wrapped in tape, can't possibly rank too high on the animal cruelty scale. Especially considering that most livestock basically endure a real-life Saw IV before they hit our plates.
Still, there is a small elephant polo resistance movement out there. I assume the P.R. workers, who directed its photographers-for-hire to alter the photos, want to sidestep protests or picketing. (I've asked and I'm still waiting for a reply.)
Each year, they post a batch of high-res elephant polo photos here, mostly for media outlets to pick through and publish. But, unbeknownst to the outlets, a handful have been "photoshopped" to remove the hooks.
The outlets using these photos include Time Magazine, as well as Forbes Traveler and Luxury Travel Magazine. Even the BBC, back in 2003, ran an elephant polo shot provided by the World Elephant Polo Association's clothing line. A ton of outlets, from state-run tourism agencies to blogs, also use the photos.
All this photoshopping is likely done to prevent the appearance of elephant cruelty. But that's really unnecessary. Almost all of the elephants that play this sport are rescued from a sorry life in Bangkok, where they prowled prostitution districts with handlers to squeeze dollars from drunk tourists. I can't probe the minds of elephants, but I'll bet they prefer living on a northern Thai resort over an urchin's life.
That a panicky P.R. group would alter photos is hardly surprising. They don't think like journalists. They don't promise to stick to any reporter's code.
And, look, I can't even prove that any of the photos circulating out there have been altered. After some laptop scrutiny, my amateur instincts tell me that the big outlets, at least, didn't select the manipulated shots. Out of pure luck.
I could end this with some convenient moralizing. Or maybe some doomsday analysis about the specter of Photoshop in the newsroom. Or if I really wanted to lay it on thick, I could bring up this.
But it just doesn't feel right. Because in previous reporting jobs, when hacking out some piece on deadline, and after hearing some photo editor explain he's too busy to assign a photographer, I've accepted photos from P.R. agencies, random readers, the U.S. military and others.
And I have no idea if some P.R. rep photoshopped more hair on his CEO's head. Or if some public affairs officer digitally deleted a pool of blood.