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.

The First Casualty

image

The discovery of three suitcases of negatives belonging to Robert Capa has raised hopes that, once and for all, the authenticity of his famous photograph of a falling Spanish Replubican soldier will be settled. Some believe the photo was staged (Philip Knightley, in particular, has made it an article of faith), as this piece from Reuters highlights:

Still unknown, however, is whether the famed 1936 photograph of “The Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier at the moment a bullet strikes him down, is among those in the three battered cases, some now held together with black tape and known collectively as “the Mexican suitcase.”

Lingering questions about whether the picture might have been staged could be answered by the negatives, which are said to be in very good condition.

In fact, the truth behind this picture has already been established with some degree of certainty, and actually offers some salutory lessons we could still absorb in this New Media age.

Robert Whelan, Capa’s biographer, has written extensively of his search to authenticate the photo. His PBS version is here, in which he establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the photo is real; the man’s name, the place, and the way he died. But, intriguingly, some bits are left out of that account, perhaps for reasons of space, and appear only in this version [PDF], which I found on an Italian photographers’ website. (It seems to be a revised version of a piece Whelan wrote for Aperture magazine.)

It turns out the truth is somewhat murkier. There seems little doubt the man had been shot, and that he was dead when the photo was taken. The semi-closed position of his left hand suggests this, since anyone intentionally falling would reflexively open it to catch his fall):

image 

Whelan assembles other evidence to identify the place, the person and the actual incident.

The photo wasn’t staged, but the fact that the man was standing on the hillside, with Capa about to photograph him, was. Hansel Mieth, another Life photographer, wrote to Whelan that Capa and the soldiers had been “fooling around. We felt good. There was no shooting. They came running down the slope. I ran too and knipsed.” And although Capa denied to Mieth that he had asked them to stage the attack, he had “implied that he felt at least partially responsible for the man’s death – a feeling that he naturally did not wish to make public, and so he altered various details in his several accounts of the circumstances in which he had made his photograph.”

If shown in context with the other photographs in the batch, it’s clear that Capa had been asking them to stage certain manoeuvers for him to take photographs, and that their activities and shooting had attracted the attention of an enemy machine gun.

In some ways the photo must have been agony for Capa. On the one hand it became not only his most famous shot (even more famous than his Normandy landing shot) but also the defining icon of war. But the truth is that it was of a man standing still on a hillside in good humour, obliging a photographer, unaware he was in enemy sights.

So what are the lessons?

  • The truth matters. Some have suggested it doesn’t matter whether the photo was staged. It does. This kind of thinking has always confused me; when I investigated a story about Internet photographs of rape victims from the Indonesian riots in 1998, a lot of those hosting the alleged photos said it didn’t matter; what mattered, they said, was whether the rapes occurred. I couldn’t disagree more; what matters is whether the reader/viewer can be sure that what they’re seeing/reading is what it purports to be. This is even more important now with the Blurring of Branding, where we are as likely to get our information from individual-run blogs as we are from big media.
  • The truth is always murkier than we imagine it is. I would have thought Philip Knightley, who wrote The First Casualty about war correspondents, might have dug deeper on this, given the book has gone through countless revisions. Whelan’s work on Capa is by contrast a model of tireless investigation and I believe that he’s gotten as close to the truth of this photograph as we could hope to get.
  • Staging anything is dangerous. Capa may have felt partially responsible for his death although he may not have really been so. But anyone who has been in a situation where they’ve moved an ornament, asked someone to pose in a doorway, encouraged a guerrilla to check out the next hill against his better judgement, must know the feeling: any kind of interfering may lead to unforeseen consequences. The best, the only, course of action is never to interfere and never to suggest to a subject, whether as a journalist or photographer, to do anything they weren’t about to do anyway. Capa carried that burden for the rest of his short life. Any journalist, citizen or otherwise, must be aware of that.

The First Casualty

image

The discovery of three suitcases of negatives belonging to Robert Capa has raised hopes that, once and for all, the authenticity of his famous photograph of a falling Spanish Replubican soldier will be settled. Some believe the photo was staged (Philip Knightley, in particular, has made it an article of faith), as this piece from Reuters highlights:

Still unknown, however, is whether the famed 1936 photograph of “The Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier at the moment a bullet strikes him down, is among those in the three battered cases, some now held together with black tape and known collectively as “the Mexican suitcase.”

Lingering questions about whether the picture might have been staged could be answered by the negatives, which are said to be in very good condition.

In fact, the truth behind this picture has already been established with some degree of certainty, and actually offers some salutory lessons we could still absorb in this New Media age.

Robert Whelan, Capa’s biographer, has written extensively of his search to authenticate the photo. His PBS version is here, in which he establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the photo is real; the man’s name, the place, and the way he died. But, intriguingly, some bits are left out of that account, perhaps for reasons of space, and appear only in this version [PDF], which I found on an Italian photographers’ website. (It seems to be a revised version of a piece Whelan wrote for Aperture magazine.)

It turns out the truth is somewhat murkier. There seems little doubt the man had been shot, and that he was dead when the photo was taken. The semi-closed position of his left hand suggests this, since anyone intentionally falling would reflexively open it to catch his fall):

image 

Whelan assembles other evidence to identify the place, the person and the actual incident.

The photo wasn’t staged, but the fact that the man was standing on the hillside, with Capa about to photograph him, was. Hansel Mieth, another Life photographer, wrote to Whelan that Capa and the soldiers had been “fooling around. We felt good. There was no shooting. They came running down the slope. I ran too and knipsed.” And although Capa denied to Mieth that he had asked them to stage the attack, he had “implied that he felt at least partially responsible for the man’s death – a feeling that he naturally did not wish to make public, and so he altered various details in his several accounts of the circumstances in which he had made his photograph.”

If shown in context with the other photographs in the batch, it’s clear that Capa had been asking them to stage certain manoeuvers for him to take photographs, and that their activities and shooting had attracted the attention of an enemy machine gun.

In some ways the photo must have been agony for Capa. On the one hand it became not only his most famous shot (even more famous than his Normandy landing shot) but also the defining icon of war. But the truth is that it was of a man standing still on a hillside in good humour, obliging a photographer, unaware he was in enemy sights.

So what are the lessons?

  • The truth matters. Some have suggested it doesn’t matter whether the photo was staged. It does. This kind of thinking has always confused me; when I investigated a story about Internet photographs of rape victims from the Indonesian riots in 1998, a lot of those hosting the alleged photos said it didn’t matter; what mattered, they said, was whether the rapes occurred. I couldn’t disagree more; what matters is whether the reader/viewer can be sure that what they’re seeing/reading is what it purports to be. This is even more important now with the Blurring of Branding, where we are as likely to get our information from individual-run blogs as we are from big media.
  • The truth is always murkier than we imagine it is. I would have thought Philip Knightley, who wrote The First Casualty about war correspondents, might have dug deeper on this, given the book has gone through countless revisions. Whelan’s work on Capa is by contrast a model of tireless investigation and I believe that he’s gotten as close to the truth of this photograph as we could hope to get.
  • Staging anything is dangerous. Capa may have felt partially responsible for his death although he may not have really been so. But anyone who has been in a situation where they’ve moved an ornament, asked someone to pose in a doorway, encouraged a guerrilla to check out the next hill against his better judgement, must know the feeling: any kind of interfering may lead to unforeseen consequences. The best, the only, course of action is never to interfere and never to suggest to a subject, whether as a journalist or photographer, to do anything they weren’t about to do anyway. Capa carried that burden for the rest of his short life. Any journalist, citizen or otherwise, must be aware of that.

News: Have Phone, Will Report

 Interesting posting by the excellent Steve Outing about the rise of photo-phones as news tools: Göteborgs-Posten, Scandinavia’s second-largest morning newspaper, today published on its website its first news photo taken by a mobile phone. After a collision between a tram and a truck in central Göteborg, reporter Ralph Källström reached the scene and filed a brief report to the news desk. Then he used his mobile phone to snap some pictures, picking the best and e-mailing it (via the phone) to the news desk, which added it to the web version of the story. His pictures turned out to be more dramatic than the official photographer who arrived later and filed much later. While in the print edition the photographer’s photos will be used, on the website they’re sticking with the reporter’s photo-phone shots.
 
That’s a great example, Steve concludes, of why news organizations should be replacing all reporters’ mobile phones with photo phones. I agree, but I bet the unions will have something to say.

Update: No Dead Horses Around Here

  Further to my mention of Phlogging/moblogging, whatever you want to call it, just received an interesting email from Elan Dekel, founder of Fotopages. Elan reckons “we are experiencing a watershed moment. First of all the Internet is so accessible, even in dictatorships (we even have a fair number of Fotopages from Iran!), and digital cameras are so cheap, that (a) mass media has really become democratized – ie. everyone can get their message out to the world – and build relationships via the web with supporters and readers all over the world, and (b) it will be really hard for a dictatorship to keep its atrocities secret. Quite amazing in my humble opinion. In any case its fun to be a part of it.”
 
 
Interesting stuff. And if you thought all this sending photos to a website was phlogging a dead horse (sorry, couldn’t resist that), here are some sites that show something of what Elan is talking about (and his comments):
 
http://moja_vera.fotopages.com (an american soldier in iraq, who uploads photos from the “front line”. I find it amazing – this is the first time that soldiers on the front line can broadcast their day to day experiences and their personal view of the situation, in real time).
 
http://salampax.fotopages.com (this is Salam Pax’s Fotopage - the blogger from baghdad)
 
http://geeinbaghdad.fotopages.com (Gee – an Iraqi photographer).