Letters

Fake? Real? Has it ever been any different? Readers respond to Farhad Manjoo's "A Picture Is No Longer Worth a Thousand Words."


Salon Staff
April 26, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

You don't need digital experts to spot the fake. Any competent handwriting analyst could tell you that the authentic photo is the one with "killed my dad and then knocked up my sister."

Look at the letter "d" in the two photos.

Obviously, only the key words were changed in the doctored photo, so the changed words have a different handwriting style. The letter "d" in the words that remain unchanged have a vertical stem, just as they do in the key words in the photo that uses the words "killed" and "knocked up."

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In the changed words ("saved" and "rescued"), the stem slants toward the left. Those words were written in a different hand than the rest of the sign.

-- Tina Blue

While I realize that the questionable authenticity of the pictures are just a segue into the story about the increasing difficulty of spotting fake digital pictures, one can probably exclude the authenticity of the offensive picture by examining the writing. The offensive picture suggests itself as a fake because the letters decrease in size from the beginning to the end of the word in the case of "killed" and "knocked," not however with other words. Furthermore, the letter "u" in "up" does not match the u's in Boudreaux. While we may not be able to verify the authenticity of either picture, we can certainly exclude it in the case of the offensive picture.

-- Kersten Horn

I would not be surprised if Salon received a number of letters like mine because my objection to Manjoo's naive approach to images is neither original nor especially new. Because of the mechanism by which photographs are taken, photos appear to be natural and unmediated reflections of the world -- no one can see the photographer behind the camera, whose presence nevertheless affects even the most spontaneous image. There does not (and cannot) exist a photograph that is a "natural image." Photos are not mystical bearers of the real world, immune to the difficulties that language faces. They are made things and like all made things, reflect their makers.

Americans, a nation of expert imagists and mysterians, would do well to be much more suspicious of photos, which can present only a monocular view and can never truly represent reality.

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The emergence of images like those of the boy and Boudreaux leads to healthy introspection about the kinds of photos (doctored or otherwise) that are created for our consumption. Regardless of what text the sign originally showed, the circumstance that led to these images was man-made.

I predict that many others will make these same objections, some much more eloquently. I simply hope that this discussion will lead to more serious thought about the role of photographs as indices of truth.

-- K. McColl

I have one significant disagreement with your otherwise excellent article: Photographs have never been inherently trustworthy. Digital imaging tools have made retouching and outright falsification easier for more people, but photo fakery has been with us since the beginning of photography, both still and moving.

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No digital tools were used to help Charlton Heston part the Red Sea or put Vivien Leigh in front of a nonexistent Tara. And Soviet news photos notoriously reflected political whim -- see David King's "The Commissar Vanishes." Even Mathew Brady's photographs of Abraham Lincoln were retouched to improve his looks.

People with the required talent -- or the money to hire them -- have always been able to lie with photographs. Even before digital tools, it was wise to take Pedro Meyer's approach to photographic credibility: A photograph is not inherently credible. You must trust the person who presents it to give a truthful context or seek independent confirmation. Journalistic freedom and ethics have been, and remain, crucial for discovering truth.

-- Russell Williams (Photoshop engineering architect)

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You don't have to be an expert in Photoshop or even graphology to discern which of the two photos of Lance Cpl. Boudreaux and the Iraqi children is a fake, just have a little general knowledge of human nature. Let me offer up two scenarios:

1. Lance Cpl. Boudreaux has spent some time with some friendly Iraqi children and he and his buddies decide to have a little fun. "Hey, kids," he says, "I am sending some pictures to my mom in the U.S., do you want to be in them?" They agree. "Here," he says, "hold up this sign. It says 'Hi, Mom, I'll be home soon!" (Or "I love the USA!" or something like that). "Thumbs up, kids," he says. He writes a very different message on the sign and his friends bust a gut laughing.

2. The very heroic Lance Cpl. Boudreaux manages to single-handedly save the lives of an Iraqi father and daughter. Not satisfied with having done his job well, he grabs a pair of young boys, hastily scrawls a poorly worded sign to commemorate his act of bravery. Do the boys embrace their savior? Do they write a note of thanks? Do they look relieved to have their family safe. No, just the facts, Ma'am. "Lcpl. Boudreaux saved my father, then he rescued my sister." Thumbs up.

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Which scenario sounds remotely plausible? I actually find it more offensive that there has to be a coverup. Is the American public gullible enough to believe that among the many brave, honest and courageous people in our military, there isn't one idiot who can't resist the opportunity to make a crass and ill-advised gag. Considering the atrocities soldiers (from any country) are capable of committing (and have committed) in the past, this shouldn't even raise an eyebrow. I'm sure the Iraqi people's first concern isn't whether the soldiers are making jokes at their expense.

-- Patricia Mann

In "A Picture Is No Longer Worth a Thousand Words," Farhad Manjoo posits that today's photojournalists, using digital cameras, no longer have the raw evidence that a negative provides. I'd have to disagree with this; the information contained in a 3- or 5-million-pixel digital image, taken with a midrange to high-end digital camera, is pretty hard to fake. When you're pushing that many pixels, fakery becomes obvious. You might as well just doctor film.

And really, those shots from Iraq were so easy to spot as fakes. I'm very surprised that your design department couldn't pick out the obvious "clone" marks -- an everyday Photoshop tool that's really easy to spot.

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-- Leigh Honeywell

I am a professional photographer who still works with film. The points in the article about our inability to believe what we see in pictures are quite valid. To add to that argument, I submit that we have to be careful about believing what we see in a photo shot on film as well. It is easy to set up a situation that within the frame of the photo appears to be one thing and if taken in the larger context of the world and timeline outside the frame is actually something else.

Any movie set on a given day is a perfect example. This "framing" of "truth in pictures" becomes dangerous when it slips into the real world. One photo that exemplifies this is the photo of Elián Gonzáles being taken at gunpoint from the closet of his relatives' Miami home. A powerful picture, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet I contend it is just as much a fabrication as anything Jayson Blair wrote.

There was an article published in the newspapers after the raid about the timeline of the seizure, with a diagram of the house. Just before the federal agents came through the door, Elián and his relatives were in the kitchen, talking. Photographer Alan Diaz, an AP stringer, was there with them. When the agents came to the door and announced they were going to enter, Diaz was told to follow one of the relatives and Elián to the bedroom. Diaz was told to position himself where he could get the shot of the closet and the bedroom door. The relative and Elián entered the closet and the bedroom door was locked. All the scene needed to complete its truthful fiction was the agent to come through the door, which they knew would happen.

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This situation was a setup. The whole thing was stage-managed by a Miami P.R. guy. Diaz was not an impartial observer, but a friend of the family who was used as a tool. The photo was taken with a digital camera (nearly all working press photographers use digital these days) but it would not have mattered. The picture told a story, but the story was a setup.

-- Michael Moore

Obviously Farhad Manjoo explores a fascinating cultural phenomenon in his article, "A Picture Is No Longer Worth a Thousand Words," but I think he overstates the ontological crisis that Photoshop represents. Such image-editing programs as Photoshop certainly make transforming an image and thereby what it represents much easier, but photography has never been a representation of truth of the upper- or lower-case variety. Developers in the darkroom always manipulated what the image would look like -- look at Jerry Uelsman's work, for example, all of which is done in the darkroom -- and how the photograph and camera themselves define what is captured by cropping the image and capturing the three-dimensional scene in two dimensions. All of these are methods that have allowed photography to always transform "reality," so while Photoshop has raised the bar, it hardly creates the crisis that Manjoo suggests.

-- Riley Vann

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Your recent article on doctored photos ("A Picture Is No Longer Worth a Thousand Words") was thought-provoking. It is true that Photoshop has distilled the veracity of the image. I worked at a magazine for a year where we routinely gave people digital face-lifts, moved people to more compelling locations in group shots (or took them out altogether), and played fast and loose with shading and cropping. I never liked the practice, even though A) no one ever noticed the changes, and B) a lot of people seemed to really like their doctored pictures, particularly women.

The fact is, people don't really question images yet, although perhaps they are beginning to, thanks to publicity from Salon and Snopes.

But how interesting to open up Salon and see -- the morning after the Boudreaux photo story was published -- a doctored photo of Rush Limbaugh in baggy hip-hop attire. And that brought to mind recent photos of President Bush that were definitely digitally manipulated. Come to think of it, doesn't Salon do this fairly often?

-- Julia Young

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