A Redbook cover of actress Julia Roberts carries a composite of Roberts’ head taken at the 2002 People’s Choice award, and her body taken at the Notting Hill movie premiere several years earlier. Publisher Hearst admits its mistake: “In an effort to make a cover that would pop on the newsstand, we combined two different shots of Julia Roberts. We acknowledge that we may have gone too far and hope that Ms. Roberts will accept our apology.”
Though photo manipulation has become more common in the age of digital cameras and image editing software, it actually dates back almost as far as the invention of photography. Gathered below is an overview of some of the more notable instances of photo manipulation in history. For recent years, an exhaustive inventory of every photo manipulation would be nearly impossible, so we focus here on the instances that have been most controversial or notorious, or ones that raise the most interesting ethical questions.
We’ll continue to update this gallery as more incidents come to our attention, so if you come across any notable ones you think we should include, feel free to send us an e-mail at
[Click thumbnails to view complete images.]
A photo purporting to show Senator John Kerry and Jane Fonda sharing a stage at an anti-war rally emerged during the 2004 Presidential primaries as Senator Kerry was campaigning for the Democratic nomination. It was later determined to be a photo composite. The picture of Senator Kerry was captured by photographer Ken Light as Kerry was preparing to give a speech at the Register for Peace Rally held in Mineola, New York, in June 1971. The picture of Jane Fonda was captured by Owen Franken as Fonda was speaking at a political rally in Miami Beach, Florida, in August 1972.
A political ad for George W. Bush, as he was running for President, shows a sea of soldiers as a back drop to a child holding a flag. The original image included Bush standing at a podium, but he was removed by digitally copying and pasting several soldiers from other parts of the image. After acknowledging that the photo had been doctored, the Bush campaign said that the ad would be re-edited and re-shipped to TV stations.
An image was widely circulated on the Internet showing a U.S. Marine posing for a photo with two Iraqi children holding a sign reading “Lcpl Boudreaux killed my Dad then he knocked up my sister”. Boudreaux claims that this image was tampered with from the original, in which the sign read “Welcome Marines”. A military investigation into potential wrong-doing was inconclusive. It remains unclear if this image is authentic.
A digital composite of Martha Stewart’s head on a model’s body appeared on the cover of Newsweek as Stewart was emerging from prison “thinner, wealthier and ready for prime time”, as the headline reads. Newsweek disclosed the source of the cover image on Page 3 with the lines: “Cover: Photo illustration by Michael Elins … head shot by Marc Bryan-Brown.”
An article in the journal Nature reports on the impact of digital photography and image-manipulation software in science. For example, Mike Rossner, editor of the Journal of Cell Biology, estimates that roughly 20% of accepted manuscripts to his journal contain at least one figure that has to be remade because of inappropriate image manipulation. And, in 1990, 2.5% of allegations examined by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which monitors scientific misconduct, involved contested scientific images. By 2001, this figure was nearly 26%.
In a doctored photograph, British politicians Ed Matts, conservative candidate for Dorset South, and Ann Widdecombe, conservative candidate for Maidstone and the Weald, are shown holding a pair of signs that together read “controlled immigration — not chaos and inhumanity”. This picture appeared as part of Matts’ election literature. The original photograph, however, shows the same two candidates campaigning for a Malawian family of asylum seekers to be allowed to stay in Britain. Widdecombe said she was “happy to be associated with either message”.
A digital composite of actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, only rumored at the time to have a romantic relationship, appeared on the cover of Star Magazine. The picture of Pitt was taken in Anguilla, a Caribbean island, in January 2005. The picture of Jolie was taken in Virginia some time in 2004. On page 8 is a disclaimer noting the image is a “composite of two photographs.”
A picture used on a campaign flyer for New York City Democratic mayoral candidate Virginia Fields shows her standing with a diverse group of people. Fields’ chief campaign consultant, Joe Mercurio, admitted the picture was a composite of four separate photos. The picture, according to Mercurio, was meant to show that she has broad support and was not intended to deceive anyone.
Florida Congresswoman Katherine Harris, who was running for a U.S. Senate seat the following year, accused some newspapers of doctoring photos to distort her makeup as a way to poke fun at her. Harris became famous when she oversaw the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election that gave George W. Bush a 537-vote victory in the state. “I’m actually very sensitive about those things, and it’s personally painful,” she said. “But they’re outrageously false. … Whenever they made fun of my makeup, it was because the newspapers colorized my photograph.” Harris and her staff did not, however, cite a specific example of an altered photo. The photo of Harris, shown here, is not known to have been doctored.