Wednesday, August 10, 2005

If a picture paints a 1000 words then some of them are probably lies.

Recent visitors to AbeLog have been treated to some photographs of a tasered Jim Leach en flagrante electro. A picture of Leach taken during an on on-air demonstration of taser gun technology made its way to a Web site ( where its members do the visual equivalent of music sampling by giving the PhotoShop treatment to existing pictures and creating their own, often twisted, interpretation of the original.

It’s obvious that the pictures on Fark have been doctored; many of them parody famous pictures or scenes, while others skimp on photographic realism in favor of a high gross-out factor.

Another site popular with PhotoShop samplers is Worth1000. Here, the remixed pictures are much more realistic and many, if presented in a different forum, would be mistaken for actual depictions. You’ve probably been taken in by some of them as they have passed through your inbox, sent by a friend who alerts you that you are in for a hoot. I have.

The urban legend busters over at Snopes have the goods on many of the more popular photos that make their way through cyberspace. A lot of those wacky or sick or embarrassing photos that leave you amazed at how fortuitous it was that a photographer was right there to capture the moment are in reality the work of a creative mind and a skilled mouse-operating hand.

Most of this type of thing is relatively harmless save for a few burst bubbles when it is pointed out that that can’t really be Paris Hilton in Osama bin Laden’s cave because the shadow from Martha Stewart’s Kalashnikov inexplicably stops when it reaches the miniature dog Paris is cradling.

Occasionally, however, someone will trick-out a picture with the intent to do more than just have a few laughs.

During the last presidential campaign, someone used the magic of computers to drop John Kerry a few rows behind Jane Fonda at a Viet Nam protest rally. The hoax was eventually revealed, but the image still remained in people’s minds and probably did play a part in tarnishing Kerry’s reputation.

It can be expected that such tactics will continue to be used for propaganda type purposes, and it’s also likely that sooner or later that it will infiltrate the more respected realm of photojournalism.

Janet Cook won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a story she wrote for the Washington Post about an eight year-old heroin addict. It was later revealed that she not only fabricated much of the story, but she also falsified her background information in her desperate attempt to forge a career in journalism.

Someday, a photojournalist with the lust for recognition and the nerve to attempt anything will turn to computer trickery to create one of those photos that define an era and live on forever in the pages of Time-Life’s history of enduring images. It may not be a total fake, but a really good picture that’s lacking a single element that will complete the context of the visual story. How tempting it would be then to just pop in what’s missing and make history.

Digitally enhanced photography has also harmed the public’s perception of photojournalism, through no fault of its practitioners.

Several years back, the SJ-R’s Chris Young captured a shot of the state capitol as fireworks burst overhead. When I first saw the picture, which was later reproduced and sold as a commemorative print, I thought it a marvel of skill, patience, and maybe a little luck. Now when I see it, I can’t help but think how much easier it could have been created in PhotoShop and Young wouldn’t have even had to leave One Copley Plaza.

Now that PhotoShop has helped to shoot down the notion that a picture never lies, I’ve become a skeptic anytime I see a picture that seems a little too funny, amazing, awe-inspiring, or heartbreaking. I know that those shots of the Space Shuttle Columbia exploding in space are phonies. No way is that giant shark actually about to chomp down on that unsuspecting fisherman’s dinghy. And that astronaut who’s supposedly putting a flag up on the MOON? Please!!!

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