9. Seeing is No Longer Believing

In a digital world, the ancient aphorism, “seeing is believing,” is no longer true. We simply cannot believe our eyes today. Photographs, once the gold standard of believability, no longer inspire trust in communication. Advertisers and agencies (yes, including Rehak Creative Services) manipulate reality to attract attention. We created the image below from photos of five different breeds to illustrate the concept of an “all-star team.”

When images are manipulated in a way that is obvious like this, they can make a point while they make people smile. However, when they are manipulated in such subtle ways that people are not aware of the manipulation, the effects can be insidious.

Programs like Adobe Photoshop make image manipulation so simple, it has become commonplace. At one time, only Hollywood studios could afford to manipulate images the way any teenager with a laptop can today. When we went to a movie theater, we had the expectation of entertainment. We knew we were entering into a fantasy and willingly suspended disbelief for the duration of the show.

Today, however, the technology of image manipulation has spread far beyond the movie studio. Fashion advertisers routinely stretch women’s legs up to 25 percent, elongate necks, slim waists, raise cheekbones, whiten teeth, widen eyes, enlarge breasts and lengthen hair. The images in many women’s magazines represent a physiologically impossible-to-attain ideal for virtually every woman.

When overt, the use of such technologies can be excused. When covert, they cross an ethical line that erodes confidence in the currency of communication. When customers discover such counterfeit claims, trust and believability are the casualties.

The use of such technologies is by no means limited to advertising. The story of a Chinese news agency underscores this point.[1] According to the Wall Street Journal, Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, printed a photograph that showed a herd of rare antelope frolicking near a high-speed train in the background. The $4 billion railway to Tibet was a controversial project among environmentalists. The photo helped quell dissent and was declared a top 10 “photo of the year” by CCTV, China’s state-run television network.

Liu Weiqing, a 41-year-old photographer, had camped out for months doing a story on the antelope. The picture made his career – until someone discovered that two images had been artificially combined. Liu admitted that he had indeed used Photoshop to create the image from two separate photos. The image caused national outrage.  Mr. Lui and his editor resigned in disgrace.

Xinhua, China’s largest news organization, and other government news organizations published an apology for not “upholding the authenticity principle of news reporting.”

The war in Iraq produced a similar story that erupted in 2003.[2] A Los Angeles Times photographer combined two images taken seconds apart to create a stronger composition. While the photos did not lie, they crossed an ethical line. The Times, desperate to maintain its integrity and uphold its reputation, fired the photographer.

Both of these examples involve professional news organizations that set and uphold ethical standards. No such standards exist outside of professional news organizations.  Occasionally, these ethical standards do not exist within news organizations either.

In the Chinese and Iraq stories above, the ambition of the reporters/photographers evidently caused the ethical lapses. The lapses can also be intentional.

In 2008, NPR radio aired a discussion that was also posted on NPR.org. Titled “In A Photoshop Age, Can You Believe Your Eyes?”[3], the story gave details of how Sepah News, owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, doctored a photo to make a missile test look more successful than it was in reality. The photos showed the firing of four missiles, when only three really made it off the launching pads. The photo, printed widely by the Western press and news organization web sites, helped Iran appear more powerful than it was at a time when the U.S. and Israel were protesting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In an era when image manipulation is so easy and common, often our only clue as to a photograph’s authenticity is the source. Did the image originate with foreign propagandists or a trusted source?

Not all cultures and country’s have the same standards that U.S. news sources have. Reporters and photographers abroad may often feel free to stage or fake photos. In an era when photos can travel around the world in minutes and be reproduced in hundreds of outlets within hours, this can be a problem. A reader may look at a photo and feel that local standards exist in the global market when in fact they do not.

A local freelance photographer photographed an Israeli air strike on a target in Lebanon. He doctored the photo by magnifying the smoke to make it appear more dense and deadly than it really was.[4]

As newsroom budgets shrink in the U.S., fewer people will be available to check whether photos have been altered. News organizations now seek video and photos from readers and viewers whose loyalties, principles and Photoshop skills are unknown.

Outside of the news industry, advertisers, bloggers, and social networkers do not feel the ethical constraints that most professional news organizations feel.

Advertising art directors are paid to make products look as appealing as possible. They often enhance images without making the manipulation obvious. They hire home economists to construct the perfect burger, high-dollar photographers to capture it in the perfect light, and skilled retouchers to matte in wisps of steam. The end result makes your mouth water by fooling your eyes.

Although still photography is much easier to manipulate than video, numerous programs also enable cinematographers to enhance reality also. Traveling mattes, green screens and rotoscoping can put actors into any environment you want.

Even more difficult to use, but still not out of the range of teenagers, are programs like 3D Studio Max and Lightwave. They make it possible to create demonstrations of products and services that would be impossible to photograph, i.e., how tools operate within an oil well. They also make it possible to create virtual, fantasy worlds often seen in automobile advertising.

Online, one can find entire alternate realities such as SecondLife.com.

The trickle of manipulated images that began as entertainment in the movie industry has morphed into an avalanche. Manipulated images have lost their shock value and bred a generation of skeptics. Few people automatically accept the authenticity of images anymore.

Just as manipulation of words caused people to question what they heard, manipulation of images causes people to question what they see. Trust, the common currency of communication, has been devalued.

As we saw during Hurricane Ike, disbelief of the truth can victimize people as much as belief in an untruth.

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[1] The Wall Street Journal., Feb. 28, 2008, China Eats Crow over Faked Photo of Rare Antelope, Page 1.

[2] http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=28082. “L.A. Times Photographer Fired Over Altered Image.” By Kenneth Irby, April 2, 2003.

[3] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92829539.  NPR.org. “In a Photoshop Age, can you believe your eyes?” On The Smoky Trail Of A Faked Missile Photoby David Folkenflik, July 23, 2008.

[4] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5625098. NPR.org. Reuters Retracts Altered Beirut Photo,” by Renee Montagne, August 8, 2006.