Tag Archives: BP Plc

The Dangers of Faking It

(my weekly column, syndicated to newspapers)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A 40-ton whale jumped out of the water and crash-landed onto a sailboat the other day. The moment was caught on camera by a tourist, the whale suspended a few meters above the boat before it smashes into mast and deck, leaving behind a mass of barnacle and blubber.

Amazing stuff. So the first question from a TV interviewer to the survivors of this close encounter between man and mammal? “Was this picture Photoshopped?”

Sad, but I have to admit it was my first question too.

Photoshopping—the art of digitally manipulating a photo—has become so commonplace that it probably should be the first question we ask when we see a photo.

After all, it’s understood that every photo in every fashion magazine in the world is Photoshopped—a wrinkle unwrinkled here, eye unbagged there, an inch lost or gained below and above the midriff. We assume, when we look at a flattering photo of a celebrity that it was Photoshopped first (apparently every celebrity has a Photoshopper to do just this.)

But what of news photos? How do we feel about manipulation then?

Take the latest hoo-ha over some BP photos. Turns out that some photos on its website were tweaked to make BP look a bit more on-the-ball about monitoring the Gulf oil spill than it really was. Blank screens at its Houston command center were filled with images copied from other screens, prompting a search of BP’s website for other altered photos.

Another photo showed a helicopter apparently approaching the site of the spill. Upon closer inspection the helicopter was actually on the deck of an aircraft carrier. One can only guess why BP thought it necessary to make the chopper look as if it was flying.

BP, to its credit, has come clean and posted all the photos to a Flickr page “for the sake of transparency.”

But of course, it’s not enough. First off, the explanation is weasel-like: it places the blame on a “contract photographer” and writes vaguely of incidents where “cut-and-paste was also used in the photo-editing process.” It promises to instruct the photographer not to do it again and “to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.”

Well, yes and no. I’m willing to bet that a contract photographer did not make these kinds of decisions alone. And to suggest that a photographer contracted by BP to make photos for BP is somehow being asked to perform as a photo journalist is disingenuous.

I’m guessing, for example, that if the contract photographer had snapped some images of dying pelicans or oil-heavy beaches they wouldn’t be posted to the BP website “to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.” (In fact it’s quite fun to browse their photo gallery and look at how carefully the photos have been collected and presented. Compare them with others on Flickr, the titles of which sound unfortunately like items on a menu: “Hermit Crabs In BP Oil,” for example.)

Of course, no one expects BP to publish anything that may undermine its position. The problem lies with the fact that someone, somewhere in BP thought it worth tampering with what it did publish to improve its position.

Some have argued, so what? They fiddled with a couple of photos to make themselves seem a bit more industrious than they really were. So what?

Well, I would have thought it obvious, but the fact that people have argued this suggests it requires an answer. First off, it was bloggers who exposed the fraud. Hats off to them. A sign that crowd-sourcing this kind of thing works.

Secondly, while in itself more pathetic than malign, the manipulation proves that manipulation happens. We (well, not we journalists, but we bloggers) checked, and found the photos were faked. What else has BP faked?

Suggesting it’s the work of some rogue contract photographer doesn’t cut it. If BP’s PR crew knew what they were doing, and held themselves to “stand photo journalistic best practices, ” they would have spotted the amateurish Photoshopping and taken action.

Instead they didn’t spot it, or spotted it and didn’t care, or they actually commissioned it. Or did it themselves. Whatever, they didn’t come clean, so to speak, until they’d been had, and then wheeled out the “transparency defense”—a tad too late, I fear, to convince anyone that that’s where their instincts lay.

Photos, you see, are pretty strong stuff.

Since their invention we have granted them special powers. Photographs preserve information and speak to us in a way that words do not—and, perhaps, video. Think of all those photos that have captured not only a moment but a slice of history: 9/11, the Vietnam War, the Spanish Civil War.

The problem is that we’re gradually waking up to the fact that photographs lie. It’s an odd process, this learning about the power of misrepresentation. It’s part technology, part distance, part a growing understanding that we have ascribed photos a power and finality they don’t deserve.

Let me put it more simply through an example: Robert Capa’s famous 1936 photo of the Falling Soldier. This one photo seemed to sum up not only the Spanish Civil War, but war itself. Only, it’s now widely believed the photo was staged, that Capa may have asked the soldier to fake his death. Does it matter?

Capa’s biographer Richard Whelan argues it doesn’t, that “the picture’s greatness actually lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy.”

This, is, of course, incorrect. Its symbolic implications lie in its accuracy.

And, of course, this is the problem. We need our photos to say something, to express a view that supplements, that goes beyond, the text that might accompany them, the truth that we need to have illustrated for us. And that’s where the problem begins.

Capa may not have intended his photo to be quite so iconic. After all, he took a bunch of photos that day, most of them unremarkable. An editor decided this was one of those he would publish.

Photographers are now aware they get one shot. So they’re pushed to capture more and more in the frame—more, perhaps, than was ever there. And, it turns out, have been doing so for as long as there have been cameras. One of the first war photographs, of the Crimean War’s Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton in 1855, was staged—by physically moving cannonballs to the middle of the road.

Nowadays the cannonballs could have been moved more easily: by Photoshop. A mouse click can add smoke to burning buildings in the Lebanon, to thicken a crowd, darken OJ Simpson’s face, or, in the case of Xinhua photographer Liu Weiqing, add antelope to a photo of a high-speed train.

Just as digitizing makes all this easier, so it makes it easier to spot errors. The problem is that we don’t have time to do this, meaning that it falls to bloggers and others online to do the work for us.

But it’s not as easy as it may look with hindsight, and the fact that we create a distinction between images we expect to be faked—fashion, celebrity, sex—and those we don’t—news, suggests that we either have to get a lot better at spotting fakery or we need to insist that photos contain some watermark to prove they are what they’re purporting to be.

The bottom line is that it’s probably a good thing that the first question we ask of a photo is whether it’s fake. Turns out that we should have been asking that question a long time ago.

But there’s another possibility: that there may come a point where we just don’t trust photos anymore. It’s probably up to us journalists to find a way to stop that from happening.

Backpack Offers Tags

I’m just chatting with Jason Fried of 37Signals, the guys behind Backpack, Ta-da List and Basecamp (which you should check out, if you haven’t already). Jason tells me he has today added tags to Backpack. Here’s a snippet of our conversation (and here’s a movie of it in action):

Jason Fried (37 Signals): Tags are just quick and easy ways for people to categorize their stuff
Jason Fried (37 Signals): I just wrote this FAQ that may help:
Jason Fried (37 Signals): so they’re basically just loose categories without rules
Jason Fried (37 Signals): Kind of… Whatever-comes-to-mind categories
JW: do you imagine your tags mixing it up with delicious and flickr tags?
Jason Fried (37 Signals): we’ll be releasing a Backpack API in about 30 days or so
Jason Fried (37 Signals): at that point people are free to mix whatever they want. I’m excited to see what the world does with all these tags
Jason Fried (37 Signals): we have some ideas on how to integrate Del.icio.us and Flickr into Backpack, but the API will give tens of thousands of people what they need to come up with their own ideas.

That could be interesting. I asked Jason:

JW: (could you just give some examples of how you imagine people might use tags in BP, and how they might mix them with tags from other services?)
Jason Fried (37 Signals): sure.
Jason Fried (37 Signals): take this page, for example
Jason Fried (37 Signals): this is someone using Backpack as a simple CRM-like tool
Jason Fried (37 Signals): keeping track of call notes for someone, for example
Jason Fried (37 Signals): you might tag this page: eNormcom Client “Phone Notes” April
Jason Fried (37 Signals): then, if you click the April tag you’d see all the other pages you made in April
Jason Fried (37 Signals): or if you clicked the “Phone Notes” tag you’d see all the other pages that have phone notes on them
Jason Fried (37 Signals): Or if you click Client you’ll see all the other pages that you’ve tagged as Client
Jason Fried (37 Signals): As far as other services…
Jason Fried (37 Signals): You might make a page in Backpack like
Jason Fried (37 Signals): and you might tag that: eTech Conference 2005
Jason Fried (37 Signals): then you might tag some bookmarks at delicious with the same tags
Jason Fried (37 Signals): articles and links that refer to the eTech conference
Jason Fried (37 Signals): reviews, speakers, etc
Jason Fried (37 Signals): then, perhaps, when you click “eTech” inside Backpack, you’d see your Backpack pages tagged eTech *plus* your Delicious bookmarks tagged as eTech
Jason Fried (37 Signals): and maybe your Flickr photos too that you tagged eTech

Lots of potential, I reckon.