Most people trust that the photos they see of war in their daily newspaper shot by a professional photographer are accurate. The photographer risked his or her life to get the shot, snapped the picture, sent it to a photo editor, who then vetted it for publication.
But photos tell us more than just what was happening at a scene of war. They show a perspective of the photographer, who chooses what to put in (and leave out) of the frame. The photographer or photo editor have ample opportunity to adjust a photo for lighting, for contrast or for anything else thanks to the ease of photo-editing software such as Photoshop.
While photojournalists do risk their lives in war zones, the veracity of their work has come into question lately by a series of investigations done almost entirely by conservative bloggers online working in concert. Little Green Footballs blogger Charles Johnson first raised a problem with Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj’s shot, in which Hajj added more smoke to a photo of Beirut after a bombardment. Hajj was later suspended by Reuters, which is investigating his 900-plus photos shot for the agency.
The “fauxtography” scandal goes beyond just Reuters and Photoshopping photos from Lebanon. Conservative bloggers also have caught rescue workers parading the bodies of dead children around for staged shots for photojournalists on the scene. There have also been charges of staged photos including The Passion of the Toys, where various photographers shot children’s dolls in bombed out buildings. There’s also the curious case of the same Lebanese woman wailing on different dates about different homes being destroyed.
The ZombieTime blogger provides a good roundup of all the evidence and theories of why this has happened. The pro-Israel Aish site produced a video that explains what the bloggers have found wrong with the photos. But few mainstream media folks have tried to delve deeper than the surface on all these photo scandals.
So now do you really trust the photos you’re seeing from the Middle East conflict? Have the blog scandals eroded your trust? It appears that skepticism abounds when you view photos from photojournalists.
“I think skepticism is good but the more we know about the backgrounds of journalists the better,” wrote Mark Eichenlaub, who blogs at Regime of Terror. “The more openness in both government and journalism and transparency in both, the more trustworthy they will be viewed as by the public.”
Perhaps there’s a way for photographers stationed in war zones to explain the fuller context of photos they shoot, perhaps on a special blog or page on the news outlet’s site. The more we know about the photographer’s background, life’s work, and what he or she brings to the assignment, the better we’ll be at judging the photographer’s work.
Frank Baker, who maintains the Media Literacy Clearinghouse site, says we need to use our critical thinking skills when viewing any type of media from a war zone.
“Viewing photographs should be no different than how we see other media,” he wrote. “We should be using media literacy and critical viewing questions such as: who took the photo and for what purpose and what techniques might be used to make us believe it. As someone once said, one of the casualities of war is the truth.”
Manipulating photos is not just a problem at Reuters, and it’s something that’s gone on for decades. Geoff Neilson, who lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and has worked in magazine publishing, wrote that he’s seen problems recently in other big magazines when it comes to making up captions.
“Time and Newsweek of July 31, 2006, available in South Africa, printed similar photos of a war scene in Beirut — probably taken only seconds or minutes apart — but with quite different captions,” Neilson wrote. “I get the impression that one or both magazines invented their captions. Having worked for almost two decades for the largest magazine publishers in the Southern Hemisphere, I know this is not an isolated case.”
While the conservative bloggers have done stellar investigative work on the photo manipulations and staged photo scenes, the mainstream media has done very little soul-searching on the matter just yet. One exception is L.A. Times media critic Tim Rutten, who believes that mainstream media needs to rethink its processes for photojournalism.
“What the major news organizations ought to be doing is to make their own analysis of the images coming out of Lebanon and if, as seems more than likely, they find widespread malfeasance, some hard questions need to be asked about why it occurred,” Rutten wrote. “[Little Green Footballs blogger] Johnson and his colleagues have done the serious news media a service. Failure to follow up on it would be worse than churlish; it would be irresponsible.”
Jim Lewis, writing for Slate, notes that a long line of major news organizations have had problems with photo manipulation, and says readers need to start with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“Realism is a special effect like any other, and the sooner we realize as much, the better off we’ll be; the decrees of photo editors — no post-processing! — only serve to shore up a faith in photographic evidence that was never justified to begin with,” Lewis writes. “Someday we will approach each photograph we look at with the condign skepticism we bring to each story we read. In the meantime, these useful scandals remind us that we’re complacent and credulous, and that photography is rife with paradoxes, which can’t be solved with hand-waving and apologies.”
Here are some other media reports and blog posts on the various photo scandals engulfing the blogosphere:
New York Times Busted in Hezbollah Photo Fraud! [Gateway Pundit blog]
Media Review Panel For Fairness In Reporting [Dumb Looks Still Free blog]
Ease of Alteration Creates Woes for Picture Editors [New York Times]
Photo Fraud Incident Raises Damaging Doubts [Kathleen Parker column]
AP Beirut photo faces questions [Ynet News]
Trusting Photos [BBC Editors blog]
Attack on photographers in Lebanon is disgraceful [Roy Greenslade’s blog]
What do you think? How can media organizations rebuild our trust in war photojournalism? How could they build more checks into the process? Or do you think these scandals are overblown by conspiracy theories? Share your thoughts in the comments below.