Altered Princess Kate Photo Creates PR Problem for Royal Family

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a digitally altered picture of an absent British princess is apparently worth a million.

That seemed to be the lesson after another day of internet-breaking rumors and conspiracy theories swirling around Catherine, Princess of Wales, who apologized on Monday for having doctored a photograph of herself with her three children that circulated on news sites and social media on Sunday.

It was the first official photo of Catherine since before she underwent abdominal surgery two months ago — a cheerful Mother’s Day snapshot, taken by her husband, Prince William, at home. But if it was meant to douse weeks of speculation about Catherine’s well-being, it had precisely the opposite effect.

Now the British royal family faces a storm of questions about how it communicates with the press and public, whether Catherine manipulated other family photos she released in previous years, and whether she felt driven to retouch this photo to disguise the impact of her illness.

It adds up to a fresh tempest for a royal family that has lurched from one self-created crisis to another. Unlike previous episodes, this involves one of the family’s most popular members, a commoner-turned-future queen. It also reflects a social media celebrity culture driven in part by the family itself, one that is worlds away from the intrusive paparazzi pictures that used to cause royals, including a younger Kate Middleton, chagrin.

“Like so many millennial celebrities, the Princess of Wales has built a successful public image by sharing with her audience a carefully curated version of her personal life,” said Ed Owens, a royal historian who has studied the relationship between the monarchy and the media. The manipulated photograph, he said, is damaging because, for the public, it “brings into question the authenticity” of Catherine’s home life.

Authenticity is the least of it: the mystery surrounding Catherine’s illness and prolonged recovery, out of the public eye, has spawned wild rumors about her physical and mental health, her whereabouts, and her relationship with William.

The discovery that the photo was altered prompted several international news agencies to issue advisories — including one from The Associated Press that was ominously called a “kill notification” — urging news organizations to remove the image from their websites and scrub it from any social media.

Mr. Owens called the incident a “debacle.”

“At a time when there is much speculation about Catherine’s health, as well as rumors swelling online about her and Prince William’s private lives,” he said, “the events of the last two days have done nothing to dispel questions and concerns.”

Kensington Palace, where Catherine and William have their offices, declined to release an unedited copy of the photograph on Monday, which left amateur visual detectives to continue scouring the image for signs of alteration in the poses of the princess and her three children, George, Charlotte, and Louis.

The A.P. said its examination yielded evidence that there was “an inconsistency in the alignment of Princess Charlotte’s left hand.” The image has a range of clear visual inconsistencies that suggest it was doctored. A part of a sleeve on Charlotte’s cardigan is missing, a zipper on Catherine’s jacket and her hair is misaligned, and a pattern in her hair seems clearly artificial.

Samora Bennett-Gager, an expert in photo retouching, identified multiple signs of image manipulation. The edges of Charlotte’s legs, he said, were unnaturally soft, suggesting that the background around them had been shifted. Catherine’s hand on the waist of her youngest son, Louis, is blurry, which he said could indicate that the image was taken from a separate frame of the shoot.

Taken together, Mr. Bennett-Gager said, the changes suggested that the photo was a composite drawn from multiple images rather than a single image smoothed out with a Photoshop program. A spokesman for Catherine declined to comment on her proficiency in photo editing.

Even before Catherine’s apology, the web exploded with memes of “undoctored” photos. One showed a bored-looking Catherine smoking with a group of children. Another, which the creator said was meant to “confirm she is absolutely fine and recovering well,” showed the princess splashing down a water slide.

Beyond the mockery, the royal family faces a lingering credibility gap. Catherine has been an avid photographer for years, capturing members of the royal family in candid situations: Queen Camilla with a basket of flowers; Prince George with his great-grandfather, Prince Philip, on a horse-drawn buggy.

The palace has released many of these photos, and they are routinely published on the front pages of British papers (The Times of London splashed the Mother’s Day picture over three columns). A former palace official predicted that the news media would now examine the earlier photographs to see if they, too, had been altered.

That would put Kensington Palace in the tricky position of having to defend one of its most effective communicators against a potentially wide-ranging problem, and one over which the communications staff has little control. After a deluge of inquires about the photograph, the palace left it to Catherine to explain what happened. She was contrite, but presented herself as just another frustrated shutterbug with access to Photoshop.

“Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing,” she wrote on social media. “I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused.”

Catherine’s use of social media sets her apart from older members of the royal family, who rely on the traditional news media to present themselves. When King Charles III taped a video message to mark Commonwealth Day, for example, Buckingham Palace hired a professional camera crew that was paid for by British broadcasters, a standard arrangement for royal addresses.

When Charles left the hospital after being treated for an enlarged prostate, he and Queen Camilla walked in front of a phalanx of cameras, smiling and waving as they made their way to their limousine.

Catherine was not seen entering or leaving the hospital for her surgery, nor were her children photographed visiting her. That may reflect the gravity of her health problems, royal watchers said, but it also reflects the determination of William and Catherine to erect a zone of privacy around their personal lives.

William, royal experts said, is also driven by a desire not to repeat the experience of his mother, Diana, who was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997 after a high-speed pursuit by photographers. Catherine, too, has been victimized by paparazzi, winning damages from a French court in 2017 after a celebrity magazine published revealing shots of her on vacation in France.

Last week, grainy photos of Catherine riding in a car with her mother surfaced on the American celebrity gossip site TMZ. British newspapers reported the existence of the photos but did not publish them out of deference to the palace’s appeal that she be allowed to recuperate in privacy.

Catherine and William are not the only members of their royal generation who have sought to exercise control over their image. Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, posted photos of themselves on Instagram, even using their account to announce their withdrawal from royal duties in 2020.

Catherine’s embrace of social media to circulate her pictures is a way of reclaiming her life from the long lenses of the paparazzi. But the uproar over the Mother’s Day photo shows that this strategy comes with its own risks, not least that a family portrait has added to the very misinformation about her that it was calculated to counteract.

On Monday afternoon, Catherine found herself back in traditional royal mode. She was photographed, fleetingly, in the back of a car with William as he left Windsor Castle for a Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey. Kensington Palace said she was on her way to a private appointment.

Gaia Tripoli and Lauren Leatherby contributed reporting.

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