Faking images in photojournalism

Orginally published in Media Development, 1/1988, 41-42.

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

The photographs (except for the National Geographic cover) come from Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach, Paul Martin Lester, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1991. Click on an image to see a larger version.

That the camera cannot lie is true only in the sense that the images it captures must have existed in one form or another at some particular time. But it is not always clear if those images have been manipulated in some way to alter or to stage an event which never happened. We are familiar with historical photos that have been retouched to include or exclude political figures. We are less familiar with the potential of new technologies for falsifying images, particularly those that appear in newspapers and magazines. The following article introduces this topic and raises important ethical questions.

There were the huge printing shops with their sub-editors, their typography experts, and their elaborately equipped studios for the faking of photographs./1

Photojournalism, photography that accompanies stories intended for newspaper and magazine readers, has a long and cherished tradition of truthfulness. The faking of photographs, either through stage direction by the photographer or through darkroom manipulation, unfortunately, also has a long tradition. As a result, Pulitzer Prize-winning images, photographs that have moved people to action, and pictures that have been hailed as beautiful humanistic documents filled with hope and joy, have been questioned. Consequently, their impact has been diminished by charges of photographic faking. Such accusations are usually easily proven unsubstantiated and are the exception rather than the rule for photojournalism images. However, computer technology puts photographic faking on a new level of concern as images can be digitized and manipulated without the slightest indication of such trickery.

Early photographic history is filled with artists turned photographers who set-up situations with models and backdrops and made elaborate compositions from several negatives In 1857 Oscar Gustave Rejlander produced a picture with a documentary quality, "Street urchins tossing chestnuts." The photograph showed a child who looked up at a chestnut suspended in the air. Stopping a moving object in mid-air was a technical feat impossible with the slow film and lenses in use at that time. Rejlander produced the effect through the use of a fine thread. In that same year, he also made the controversial "The Two Ways of Life," an elaborate story of a young man's decision to follow the good or evil way of life. Thirty separate negatives were combined to produce the single image./2

Later, Rejlander denounced the process in a letter to H. P. Robinson, another early photographer known for his composite photographs. Rejlander wrote, "I am tired of photography-for-the-public, particularly composite photos, for there call be no gain and there is no honour only cavil and misrepresentation."/3

A curious and little mentioned photographic genre, spirit photography, had its beginning a decade later. Spirit photography, capturing on film a likeness of a deceased person, was proven through photographic experts as double exposure fakes. Nevertheless, many people, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a strong advocate for the Spiritualism movement, believed in the truthfulness of the images./4

During World War I, many photographs were faked for propaganda purposes. For example, newspapers showed faked photographs of Kaiser Wilhelm cutting off the hands of babies./5

April Fool photographic fakes were popular in newspapers during the first half of this century. Curtis MacDougall in his book, Hoaxes, details several instances where newspapers published such images as giant sea creatures, Viking ships, and a man flying by his own lung power. The Madison, Wisconsin Capital-Times went so far as to publish a photographic composite of the Capitol dome collapsing in 1933./6

More serious fakes involved political campaigns. A 1928 campaign picture of Herbert Hoover and his running mate was faked because Hoover refused to pose with the vice-presidential candidate, Charles Curtis. Life magazine revealed a composite photograph of a Maryland Democrat running for office that looked like he was conferring with a Communist leaflet. He lost the election./7

Three famous photographs
Perhaps most troubling to the reputation of photojournalists and their photographs are reports that well-known and deeply moving photographs have been directed by the photographers.

Three famous photographs, Robert Capa's moment of death of a Republican soldier during the Spanish Civil War, Arthur Rothstein's skull on parched South Dakota land, and Joe Rosenthal's raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima, have all been reported to be photographic fakes. Based on misunderstanding or professional jealousy, these three historical images reproduced more times than probably any other photographs, have a cloud of uncertainty that surrounds each photographer's reputation.

Published in Life magazine in 1937, Robert Capa's photograph shows in one instant the suddenness and loneliness of an anonymous soldier's death./8 It has been suggested that the photograph was either a chance occurrence by the photographer shooting blindly, or it was staged for the benefit of the camera./9

Capa, whose motto was, "If your pictures aren't good you aren't close enough," would have been dismissed as a "one-shot wonder" had the "moment of death" photograph been the only image in this portfolio. However, Capa produced extraordinary war-time documents throughout his career. He photographed in China, on the beaches of Normandy, in Israel, and finally in Vietnam, where he was killed by a land mine./10 Capa consistently produced images with strong emotional impact and high technical expertise. he was not a photographer who needed to fake a photograph in order to enhance his career.

Arthur Rothstein, a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the American Dust Bowl era, was accused of photographic faking because he moved a skull he found on parched South Dakota pasture land ten feet. The skull was labeled a prop by Republican politicians who used the Rothstein pictures to attack the credibility of the Democratic administration. The Democrats, it was argued, were using photographs to make environmental conditions look worse than they actually were in order to pass controversial legislation through Congress. Rothstein was accused of traveling around the country with his suitcase, his camera, and his skull. He denied the charge and regretted the controversy for the rest of his career./11

Rothstein produced several memorable photographic documents including the classic Dust Bowl photograph of a father walking through a storm with his two young sons. He received more than 50 photography awards and has written several books on the subject of photojournalism and documentary photography./12 Given such a reputation, it is difficult to imagine him packing a skull with his clothes and cameras.

Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, made three photographs atop Suribachi, a Japanese observation post on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II. His first picture became the most reproduced photograph in history and won for him a Pulitzer Prize. His third photograph became the source of accusations that the first picture had been set-up. The first picture is the image most remembered. It shows six soldiers erecting a large, American flag on a long, diagonally slanted flagpole. Rosenthal's third shot shows 18 soldiers smiling and waving for the camera under that same flag./13

The confusion over the authenticity of the famous photograph resulted from Rosenthal's casual response to a correspondent back at Guam. The reporter congratulated Rosenthal on the image and then asked if it was posed. Thinking that the writer meant the third picture, Rosenthal admitted that it had been set-up. Speaking of the famous picture, he rightly argues that "Had I posed the shot, I would, of course, have ruined it. I would . . . have made them turn their heads so that they could be identified for AP members throughout the country."/14 Writing of the Rosenthal image, picture editor, Harold Evans in his book Pictures on a Page, notes that "no genius could have posed the picture if he had spent a year in a studio with lights and a wind machine."/15 Lucky for photojournalism, Rosenthal did not carry a wind machine to the top of Iwo Jima.

Technological threat to integrity
There is currently a serious threat to the integrity of photojournalism images. Computer technology allows individuals to manipulate photographs to such an extent that alterations cannot be detected. As has been stated, such sleight-of-hand is not new. Those who believed in the Spiritualism movement believed in the photographs as well. Those who were unsophisticated as to the double exposure and composite tricks that could be accomplished by a darkroom technician were fooled by the April Fool and political photographs. Those who are cynical and perhaps professionally envious believe that Capa convinced a buddy to act as if he were being killed by a bullet in the head, Rothstein carried a skull in his suitcase, and Rosenthal directed the flag-raising photograph.

Computerized digital retouching involves more than suspicions about a photograph's authenticity. Companies such as Scitex, Hell Graphic Systems, and Crosfield have computers that can be used by newspaper, magazine, and book publishers to manipulate photographs that were originally intended to be classic, documentary accounts of real events.

The A Day in the Life books of America, Australia, and Canada have cover photographs that were manipulated by the computer. Likewise, the unsuccessful Picture Week magazine fused two different photographs in tabloid magazine style of Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev to portray a misleading attitude of friendliness./16

National Geographic magazine, long known for its reputation of photojournalism excellence, used the Scitex computer digitizer on two recent occasions. On a cover story of Egypt, pyramids were squeezed together to fit the cover's vertical format. A picture story on Poland contained a cover photograph that combined an expression on a man's face in one frame with a complete view of his hat in another picture. Both cover images were altered without a hint of possible detection and without a note to readers that such manipulation was performed./17

Throughout photography's history, an unsuspecting public has been fooled by manipulated images. What is of concern to modern media watchers is the justifications used to alter images through computer technology - not tile fact that such alterations can be published without detection.

Rick Smolan, a producer of the Day in the Life books defends his use of the computer to alter the cover photographs. "We are very proud of the fact that we were able to use this technology to make the covers more dramatic and more impressive," Smolan said. Likewise, Rich Clarkson, director of photography at National Geographic when the pyramid and Poland covers; were faked, said he had no ethical problem with combining two photographs into a single cover picture, although "some publications could start abusing."/18

Many journalists disagree with the practice. Jack Corn, director of photography for the Chicago Tribune says that such manipulation is "ethically, morally and journalistically horrible."/19 Robert Gilka, former director of photography at National Geographic magazine says simply that significantly manipulating images is "like limited nuclear warfare. There ain't none."/20

Photographs, particularly those used as accurate and trustworthy accounts of a significant event by respected publications, are our best hedge against the threat of devious editors and special interest groups who want to change truth and history. If the manipulation of photographs is accepted for any image, the public will naturally doubt all photographs and text within all publications.

Before computers were popular, the famous photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith said, "Let truth be the prejudice."/21 Truth is the guiding principle - not layout efficiency, not magazine cover eye-catching ability, not political persuasion, but truth. When truth is the prejudice, photographs, and the stories behind them, can be easily defended and are a source for humanistic concern and inspirations

1/George Orwell, 1984, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., New York, 1949, p.43.

2/Helmet Gernsheim, The History of Photography, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1969.

3/Ibid., p. 217.

4/Simeon Edmunds, Spiritualism A Critical Survey, Aquarian Press, London, 1966, pp. 114-115.

5 Clifton C. Edom, Photojournalism, Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa, 1976, p. 31.

6/Curtis MacDougall, Hoaxes, The MacMillan Company. New York, 1040.

7/Curtis MacDougall, News Pictures Fit to Print, Journalistic Services, Inc., Stillwater, Oklahoma, 1971, pp. 118-119.

8/Life, July 12,1937, p. 19.

9/Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1976, pp. 209-212.

10/Arthur Rothstein, Documentary Photography, Focal Press, Boston, 1986, p. 93.

11/Arthur Rothstein, "The Picture that Became a Campaign Issue," Popular Photography, September, 1961, pp. 42-43, 79.

12 Rothstein, Documentary Photography.

13/Harold Evans, Pictures on a Page, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1978, pp. 145-148.

14/"Flag Raising on Iwo Jima," News Photographer, January, 1980, p. 13.

15/Evans, p. 145.

16/Sheila Reaves, "Digital Retouching," News Photographer, January, 1987, pp. 23-41.

17/National Geographic, February, 1982 and April, 1982.

18/Reaves, pp. 26-32.

19/Ibid., p. 31.

20/Fred Ritchin, "Photography's New Bag of Tricks," The New York Times Magazine, November 4, 1984, p. 49.

21/W. Eugene Smith, Aperture, Inc., New York, 1969.