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.