August 13, 2006

Can you trust what you see?

I’ve refrained from commenting on the Reuters Photochopping debacle, figuring I didn’t have much new or valuable to add to the discussion. I’m not sure I do now, but Jim Lewis’ Don’t Believe What You See in the Papers offers good perspective on the long history of manipulated (and manipulative) news photography. He links to Dr. Hany Farid’s interesting tampering gallery, where the chronology suggests that fakery is growing more common.
As I’ve noted previously, Adobe has been working with Dr. Farid & his team on technology to detect digital manipulation. Its arrival in mainstream tools will take some time, and even then it’s powerless against images that mislead in other ways. I’m reminded of the aerial shots in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, zoomed in on a single burning block that suggested more massive devastation; or Fox News’ decision last year during an LA blackout to zoom in on a fiery exhaust plume at an area factory–never mind that it’s that smokestack’s natural state 24/7.
A lack of context and clarification may be ultimately more damaging than faked pixels, given that it’s subjective & maybe impossible to prove. Technology may help sniff out forgeries, but it has to go hand in hand with the audience seeking out multiple, diverse sources of news.
[Update: Rob Galbraith has collected a variety of additional perspectives on the topic.]

Posted by John Nack at 11:58 PM on August 13, 2006


  • Eric — 9:16 PM on August 14, 2006

    This is much ado about nothing. News photographs have been faked since the very beginning of use of images in newspapers. In fact, the first images where created by carving wood blocks by hand. That certainly allowed for a lot of artistic license.
    The first “real” photos used by newspapers in the early 20th century were often maipulated and called composmographs. They were often made-up scenes of events they knew about but had no photos for.
    Cliff Edom, at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, created the first photojournalism program (Cliff was in the room when one of the school’s deans coined the word photojournalism) to improve the dismal quality of newspaper photograpy. He wanted to turn photographers into journalists. And that dream has had a big impact on the industry.
    The fact that people are still shocked by such manipulations as recently revealed show that there is still an expectation of honesty in photojournalism.
    But it’s not avoiding using tools in Photoshop, or some arbitrary set of rules for what you can or can’t do, that will bolster up news photography’s credibility. It’s the trust that a publication, photographers and editors create with their readers.
    As the old saying goes: “The camera never lies.” It’s true, a camera faithfully records what it sees. But the other side of that is: “But photographers do.” The bottom line is that our credibilty as news photographers is based soely on our honesty and how we conduct ourselves professionally. Not how we follow some arbitrary set of rules.
    Of course, rules are good for guidelines. But at the end of the day, it’s how photographers practice their profession honestly, or not, that counts.

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