When can a photo be trusted?

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Is trust in photography declining?

Given the nature of our company focus, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that we periodically get contacted by people who want us to analyze a photo in service of some conspiracy theory. Often, their conspiracy theory is fueled by the belief that the photo they’ve seen—be it a crime scene or a birth certificate or an historical portrait—can’t possibly be true. They’re convinced that something about the photo is “off,” and that they can spot visual evidence of tampering. Of course, this distrust of photos predates the personal computer and the advent of powerful image editing tools, as illustrated by the famous Lee Harvey Oswald photo that Hany dissected in a blog post earlier this year. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder whether the wide availability of tools like Photoshop has further fueled such distrust so that it reaches both more deeply and more broadly across the population than before.

Take a look at the two photos below, both of which are featured elsewhere on our site. The first of these photos is from 1917, and the second is from 2011:

What’s striking to me about these two photos is that the 1917 photo—which was crudely staged by two young girls using paper cutouts—was the source of a huge hoax in which many people truly believed the photo was evidence of the existence of fairies. In contrast, the second photo—which by all appearances is a valid photojournalism image of a man shooting an RPG launcher—created a mini-firestorm of online controversy when it was published on the Reuters website. Many online commenters asserted that the photo couldn’t possibly be real, citing purported evidence such as innacurate shadows and the laws of physics. The integrity of the photographer was questioned, and Reuters ultimately had to respond to the controversy and explain why the photo was real.

While it’s true that nearly one hundred years separate the photos, and people today are (perhaps) more educated and savvy than they were then, the contrast is still striking. The first photo was clearly staged, without even the need for any hard-to-understand editing technology—and it depicts a fanciful scene that, even in 1917, most people would probably agree is impossible. The second photo is not only plausible, but real, and the potential motivation for a photojournalist to fake it would be relatively weak. Why did these photos elicit such different reactions? Are people today just primed to distrust photos as never before, to the point where they will see deception where there is none?

In pondering this question, I was reminded of the recent hoax that circulated asserting that Abraham Lincoln had invented Facebook in 1845. Though the actual story was framed ever-so-slightly more plausibly than my one-sentence summary would suggest, it was still at least as ridiculous and unbelievable as the idea of two young girls having a photo opportunity with a flock of tiny winged fairies. Nevertheless, the story was picked up by a variety of blogs and news outlets and spread virally on Facebook. I am embarrassed to admit that I came across the story myself in my Facebook feed on my smartphone while standing in line at Starbucks. It was a fun story and I was rushed and distracted. Certainly it sounded absurd and unbelievable, but the article was forwarded by a tech writer friend of mine, and it was up on ZDNet. They’re a reputable site, so surely they’d have done some fact checking, I assumed. So, while I reserved some skepticism, I still left a brief comment on the Facebook post saying the story was “fascinating if true.” 

How is it possible that I didn’t immediately dismiss this story as a fabrication? The reason is that I trusted the source. As a result, I was more willing to push my natural skepticism aside, especially in a rushed frame of mind when I didn’t have time to really examine the facts.

How does this relate to photography? I think that what has changed over time is that the photograph itself was once considered a trusted source. At the advent of photography, most people didn’t believe it was possible for a photograph to be manipulated. Thus, when they saw visual “proof” in a photograph, it would bypass their normal filters for determining what is or is not believable.

As people have become more familiar with how much photographs can be manipulated, and as the tools for doing that manipulation have become more powerful and accessible, that special status that photography once enjoyed has faded away. It isn’t that photographs are inherently distrusted, but just that they’re no longer inherently trusted. Today, I would guess that a photograph carries only slightly more inherent trust than the written word—and then only because people know it is still much harder to convincingly fabricate a photo than it is to fabricate a story. As tools like Photoshop continue on their path to becoming more powerful and easier to use, it’s likely that even that slight advantage will disappear. When it comes to trust, perhaps a photograph will no longer be worth a thousand words.

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Reader Comments (5)

Do you think this is actually more then a question of truth or not? There was a time when photography could be described as descriptive. When it helped illustrate and give proof to scientific logic and journalistic exposes. But today, maybe it is more a paradigm shift of photography's intent caused the new technologies of digital portable dissemination and distribution. Instead of journals and revues and television news, the internet and airnets look more to be about branding and an advertising mindset of impressions sought rather then any truth of the matter. It seems that by posting images to the web, most users are trying to have desirative effect rather than an descriptive one. It appears more to be about having an impact (newest, funniest, weirdest, prettiest, ugliest, strangest ...) rather then be about facts, like advertising picture takers and posters today seem to be about sought reputations rather quantifiable qualities as photography originally responded to. Maybe just the intent has shifted, and so framing the question in the prior era's intent's raison d'etre, may force us to miss the point of where we now seem to be. Truth or non-truth forces us back to descriptive s, rather then desiratives. (marketing desires)

[I think there's some truth (ha!) to your comments, but it's hard to separate intent from capability. By that I mean that there naturally are more people that intend to create unrealistic imagery today simply because it's now easier to do so, and both of those things cause a shift in viewer expectations. In short, I think we're in agreement, but you're expressing things from a slightly different angle. That said, there's no question that the intent of the Reuters image was to portray reality, yet some people still thought it was manipulated. - Kevin]

July 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGam

I must admit, that even 15 years ago in school, they already taught us to do some thinking before accepting a photograph as proof (with as examples Stalin's selective retouching, and the colour shade of OJ Simpson's face on magazine cover depending on if they took the guilty / not guilty stance). Additionally, knowing what is possible in PS helps.

Guess it comes down to education again? It seems you can't even force the big newspapers & press agencies to keep to 'photo editing rules', let alone the entire internet. So no other option than to try to teach people to think for themselves / don't accept 'facts' based on just 1 photograph?

July 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Thanks Kevin for a nice clear and concise article about "trusting" photography. I've recently had a sort of dialogue through blogs with Jorge Colberg basically on that point. Some of your readers might be interested in the conversation which you can find here : http://www.thevisualexperience.org/web/photography-photography-good-question-joerg/
I agree with you that the erosion of trust has been a slow process but I think it started longer ago than you state. I believe it started when people started to realize in the early 70's that all of John Szarkowski's five elements of The Photographer's Eye (an essay written for the MoMA exhibit, I believe, from 1964 of the same name) could erode faith in the photographic image. Simply said, your point of view or the amount of detail or kind of framing all changed the way an event was perceived. So little by little, people learned to distrust images. There's also the question you state about trusting "sources" and there you've made a very good point. So has GAM in his or her comment on how the internet has changed how photography is used, and therefore it's value as truth. Thanks for the interesting thoughts.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEdward Rozzo

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I think that the erosion of the trust of the photograph will actually help improve photography's status as a fine art medium. I realize that this status has improved greatly over time, but when something can be totally "made-up", it leans more to a work of art, created by an individual, and less of a documentation of reality.

I think the days of believing a photo are over. Even when things could not (as easily) be manipulated after the fact, manipulation was occurring with lens selection, lighting, camera angle...

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Streble

In response to Scott, I think that the evolution of photography as a fine art has already benefitted from the erosion of "trust" in photography. As McLuhan stated in the early 60's, any medium used to inform (as photography was during most of the XXth century) becomes art as it's substituted by other forms of information. The rise of TV killed photography as an informative medium (trustful) and turned it into an artistic form from the late 60's on. By now, as I state in my article linked above (in my blog of August 1) the artistic merits of photography are being lost. Here I'm quoting myself: "While young photographers are more and more smart-phone photographers, real photographers, those who do Fine-Art, those with a degree who have to justify their education, are becoming more and more autistic while playing in little corners in order to avoid the revolution taking place outside their world. Very often, narcissistic self-expression has taken the place of intellectual definition. This has impoverished contemporary photography immensely..."

The question now rests as to what photography has already become, and here Gam's blog above is an illuminating one. Photography is no longer called upon to "narrate" but to be impactful, to shock or make you take notice. As if photography has become advertising for the soul of each which needs confirmation and recognition. People look to Twitter and the Internet for information and, possibly, look more towards new fashion, films and products for intellectual stimulation. So where does that put the fixed image of photography?

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEdward Rozzo

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