In one of my classes last year, we were shown a photo taken in Beirut of the aftermath of an Israeli air raid bombing in 2006. The discussion was on truth in photography and whether we could take what we saw at face value or if it required interpretation. At first we talked about cropped images – perhaps a photograph of a large demonstration, which in actual fact was only a small group of angry people. Then he showed us this one:
Our seminar leader asked if we could see anything wrong with the picture. We stared at it for a few minutes but none of us knew what he was talking about. Was there something missing? Should there have been something else there? After a while, he smiled, and clicked over to this image:
This one was far less dramatic and we were told this was the original photograph – the former had been Photoshopped to display more smoke, darker plumes and even more buildings at the foreground. Looking at it now, with the two picture to compare, it’s quite easy to see that the Photoshopped image doesn’t look quite right. There were other examples too and it prompted a heated discussion on how photojournalism, which you would assume can show an event far better (and easier) than a journalist describing it, could actually be misleading.
The Guardian posted an article on this very issue:
“The whole point of photojournalism, of course, is that it does not lie – it illustrates to readers what so many column inches can’t. More worrisome, however, is that photos in the news do not even have to be doctored to distort reality or damage someone’s credibility. ” (The Guardian 16 July 2008)
While I don’t think this is a common practice, the altering of journalistic images is an important issue and ways to spot such changes should be explored.
Today, niemanlab.org published this article Photoshop, journalism, and forensics: Why skepticism may be the best filter for photojournalism:
“Part of the reason images…are so powerful and telling is that there is an inherent trust that goes along with photography, particularly news photography: Seeing is believing.”
Nieman got talking to Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press about the dangers of photo manipulation. Lyon and Hany Farid, an expert in the emerging field of digital forensics, gave a talk at MIT about photojournalism in the age of Photoshop. Both Lyon and Farid are trying to establish a way to filter out manipulated pictures. Although differing in their approaches (Lyon overseas around 300 photographers and Farid is a computer science professor at Dartmouth University) both seem to agree that skepticism – doubting a photo is genuine and working from there – is the best way to approach this complicated issue. It’s encouraging to see organisations, such as AP, addressing the matter – what’s not so encouraging is that photojournalists feel the need to change their image in the first place.
Separately, how awesome does digital forensics sound?! Forget CSI – it’s PSI!