Amid the furore over the Princess of Wales’s “manipulated” Mother’s Day photograph, it is easy to forget that the royals have a long history of taking pictures of themselves.

While the names Lord Lichfield and Lord Snowdon may immediately spring to mind when thinking of in-house royal photography, even the late Queen used to carry a camera in her famous handbag.

As the author Phil Dampier revealed in his 2007 book What’s In The Queen’s Handbag, she would frequently use it “to take pictures of visiting presidents and other VIPs”.

The Duke of York, Prince Andrew, published his own book of photographs in 1985 and that year an image of Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother at the Castle of Mey was used as Her Majesty’s Christmas card. Another series of four portraits, taken of Prince Andrew’s mother at Sandringham House in 2001, was included as part of the portfolio released to celebrate Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee the following year. Historically, royals have taken control of their own imagery – in a literal as well as a figurative sense.

Yet the decision by picture agencies to issue a “kill notice” withdrawing the Mothering Sunday photograph, which was taken by Prince William but edited by his wife, lays bare a tension that has been building in recent years over the extent to which the royals have exercised that control.

It’s not just a problem that members of the Royal family are sidelining professional photographers, and consequently the picture agencies that distribute their work, such as Getty Images, Reuters and Agence France-Press.

It is also the amateur nature of the editing – and its implications for a media trying to be as accountable as possible to the public. Eric Baradat, a photo director at Agence France-Presse (AFP), has described Kate’s efforts as “really amateur” and pointed out that scrutinising images has now become a key part of his job. Adding that “no single image can be trusted”, he has laid bare the dilemma facing picture agencies presented with photographs not just taken by the Royal family but members of the public. Just as citizen journalism has exacerbated the problem of fake news, people doctoring images they have taken themselves (and often not owning up to it) has the overall effect of eroding trust in the mainstream media.

As Martin Keene, a former group picture editor at the Press Association, points out: “All picture agencies have truth and accuracy [in] their DNA – it’s something that really matters to them.

“The only thing that they have is their trust and their credibility and they need to know that, for their clients and the people who look at their pictures – the readers, the viewers – that their picture really was what the photographer saw when the picture was taken, and that it hasn’t been manipulated since that time.”

So how can picture agencies now be having to withdraw a royal image they previously thought was unedited? As Phil Chetwynd, the global news director of AFP, said last week, it is normally photographs from the North Korea news agency or the Iranian news agency that are “killed” for reasons of manipulation.

One former royal photographer explained: “A lot of this has stemmed from William and Harry being control freaks when it comes to pictures of their own children. They grew up hating the paparazzi for chasing Princess Diana around and have had a tendency to tar all royal photographers with the same brush.

“So, with the odd exception, we no longer see royal photographers – the ones who cover the day-to-day official engagements and all the overseas tours – being invited in to take more candid family photographs. Instead, the royals either photograph their children themselves or choose their own pet photographer to take more intimate shots. And that can sometimes lead to problems.”

While photographic agencies do allow photographers to make minor adjustments to images (such as cropping), photographs which have been digitally manipulated must carry an editor’s note before being sent out. According to one agency insider: “It’s nice that the Princess has been shooting her own stuff but she appears to have no understanding of the gravity of what she’s done by changing the image before putting it out for circulation.”

The Princess of Wales did personally apologise, saying: “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing.” But that admission has prompted a reevaluation of all the images she – and others – have taken in recent years.

The picture agencies are now investigating two other photographs, including Prince Archie’s official christening picture, taken by fashion photographer Chris Allerton in 2019. Getty said the portrait – showing the two-month-old with Meghan, Prince Harry, King Charles, Camilla, William, Kate, Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland and Princess Diana’s sisters – had been “digitally enhanced”, a claim Allerton has described as “a load of cobblers”.

It came after an editor’s note was placed on an image of the late Queen with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren which was snapped by Catherine in August 2022 at Balmoral.

According to Dampier, one of the reasons such swift action was taken against the Princess was because the picture agencies recently had to “pull” a royal rota image taken by veteran royal photographer Tim Rooke after it was revealed to have been digitally manipulated. As Dampier points out: “Rooke was effectively blacklisted by agencies he’d been working for for decades, so that’s all part of this. They couldn’t look as if they had different standards for Kate.

“The solution will surely be to use professional photographers who don’t doctor images and if there’s any comeback it’s down to them.”

As the controversy around Allerton’s photograph shows, however, even using professional photographers can present a challenge for the royals – especially if they are perceived to be “in the pay” of the principals. Royals have traditionally always had their “favourites”. For Diana, it was Tim Graham. For Camilla, it is Hugo Burnand, who took the official Coronation photographs.

The Duke and Duchess of York used to prefer Gene Nocon while both William and Catherine and Harry and Meghan have handpicked Getty photographer Chris Jackson, who is married to Catherine’s stylist Natasha Archer, to take more intimate shots. (The Sussexes have also repeatedly commissioned Meghan’s friend Misan Harriman.)

Unlike photographs taken of the royals in the conduct of their public duties, these “unofficial” photoshoots tend to cast them flatteringly. This habit of using “pet” photographers has also filtered into political life, with prime ministers now directly employing people to take official as well as unofficial pictures.

Andrew Parsons, who was once a member of both the political and royal press packs, is an example of such a photographer, having been personally commissioned by David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

As one picture editor explained: “The trouble with this approach is the images produced are designed to cast the subject in as favourable light as possible. Therefore the images aren’t a true representation. It’s not the same as having a photojournalist take the pictures from a position of complete impartiality.”

Invariably such photographs end up being “edited” by a spin doctor, rather than a professional picture editor, which can again lead to problems. “These people aren’t trained to spot inconsistencies and potential manipulations,” added the picture editor.

Ironically, this is despite the fact that metadata now exists which leaves a virtual trail on any digital images, showing exactly how it has been manipulated. According to the royal photographer: “It’s always tempting to play around with Photoshop, but the rule of thumb is that you can do what you used to do in an old dark room – so adjust the light and shading, and obviously crop the image – but everything else is a no-no.

“The truth is that the royals have got form when it comes to manipulating their own pictures. I remember being quite suspicious of some images taken by Kate’s father, Michael Middleton. There was obvious blurring and movement and darkening. Elements of it have been going on for years.”

In taking direct charge of their own photography, there is no doubt that the royals have succeeded in killing off the paparazzi who used to plague the private lives of Diana and her sons. But such excessive control undoubtedly comes at a price if there is something freaky about the images it produces for public consumption.

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