Archive for the ‘images’ Tag

Digital Misconceptions

This past year I was married to my beautiful and incredibly smart bride, Amanda.  We were lucky enough to to hire a friend of ours as the photographer.   We were lucky for two reasons.  First, we know the ph0tographer and we were very comfortable with her.  Second, after our wedding was over, she went back and digitally touched up the photos.  Just basic alterations, fixing the hue and contrast, maybe taking out some unsightly objects in the background–alterations that can really make or break the shot.  With the advent and acceptance of digital cameras and photography these types of changes can be unobtrusive and undetectable.  I argue this is fine for wedding pictures and art, but when does digitally altering photos become unethical.

Back in 2006, CNET News published an online photo gallery of altered images exposing how seemingly innocent photos can be altered.  I will have to admit some of the alterations are harmless.  For instance, one photo shows a note written by George W. Bush, asking if he can go to the bathroom.  In this photo the contrast was altered so that the handwriting stood out.  In another example, OJ Simpson’s mugshot is featured as it appeared on two national magazine covers.  In this case, Time Magazine darkened the photo for effect.  These are common alterations that may change the mood of a photo, but does not overtly change the content of the image.

Although it may be harmless to use programs such as Photoshop to make slight alterations, it is unethical to alter the content of the photo.  For instance, in the 2004 Presidential campaign, many may remember that a photo of John Kerry was spliced with one of Jane Fonda making it appear as though the two were on stage together at an anti-Vietnam war rally.  Although this may seem harmless enough, it was certainly detrimental to his bid for the Presidency.  In this case, someone maliciously reproduced the picture and used it as propaganda.  In an other instance, a photographer, Adnan Hajj, manipulated images of Israeli air strikes in Lebanon and sold them to Reuters.  Upon discovering the forgeries, Reuters cut ties with the Beirut-based photographer and removed all of his 920 images from their database.

A 2006 article in the Economist details how easy it actually is to make these alterations.  Even though there are efforts to control/monitor alterations to images, the ease in which photos are altered makes this task nearly impossible.  So what does that mean for historians?  Basically, it means that historians have to be diligent in vetting their sources.  It is not enough to Google a topic and take whatever image pops up.  Make sure you are doing your due diligence.  Is the source an authority?  What other type of content is on the page/archive?  Are there any discrepancies or inconsistencies  in the image?  Does the photo seem realistic?  Can you find that same image on other reputable sights?

Here’s the bottom line.  Altering photos is definitely not a new phenomenon.  The USSR and China were notorious for this practice during the Cold War.  Ultimately, it is up to the researcher, in my case, the historian, to analyze any and all images before adding them to your collection of sources or digital archive.  Think about it.  If the historian, who is producing historical work, does not identify and dismiss a falsified image which ends up on a website, do you think that the everyday user of your site will conduct their own analysis to ensure authenticity?  Or, do you think that they will take it at face value?  I bet, more times than not, the latter will occur.  Misconceptions are the worst type of ignorance–they linger.  Diligence is the key to ensure that your research is authentic.  You don’t want to be written off for utilizing bad sources, do you?