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Can You Believe Your Eyes?

People have manipulated images since before the invention of photography. Today's digital technology has simply made it easier and more common than ever.

By Bill Marsha

How amazing the first photographic images must have been to their early-19th-century viewers—the crisp, unassailable reality of people and events, without the filter of an artist's paintbrush.

And what an opportunity for manipulation. It didn't take long for schemers to discover that with a little skill and imagination, photographic realism could be used to create manufactured realities.

"The very nature of photography was to record events," says Hany Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College and a detective of photo fakery. "You'd think there would have been a grace period of respect for this new technology."

But in fact, fakers had already had practice before photography became widespread in the second half of the 19th century. A famous engraving of President Lincoln from the 1860s is actually Lincoln's head stuck on top of a senator's more regally posed body from an earlier engraving. The manipulation continued in the early days of photography: re-arranging the guns and bodies on Civil War battlefields to look more dramatic for the camera, and later, erasing political enemies, literally and figuratively, from the picture.

In recent years, with digital technology, it's become easier than ever to manipulate photographs. Now, anyone with a computer and Photoshop can do it.

"With just a few keyboard strokes and a click of the mouse, any of the imperfections that may come along with the reality of life may be removed," says Kenny Irby, head of visual journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Aesthetics now drive the value of an image more than the authenticity."

That's made it hugely tempting, Irby says, for photojournalists to retouch and "improve" their pictures in sometimes subtle and often powerful ways. Most news organizations have strict rules prohibiting this.

Less clear-cut, however, are "photo-illustrations," which typically involve pasting together several images for editorial effect rather than deception. News organizations generally require that images be clearly labeled as photo-illustrations so that readers know they're not single photographs. But even when those rules are followed, such composites can be controversial since many people fail to read the fine print, and the overall effect can be misleading.

The fashion industry has never been subtle about retouching images, with skin blemishes removed and bodies frequently slimmed down (or enhanced in the case of fitness magazines). In 2003, actress Kate Winslet posed for the cover of GQ magazine. The image was so extensively retouched that the actress herself complained. "I can tell you they've reduced the size of my legs by about a third," Winslet said. In France, where fashion is big businesss, the government is currently considering legislation requiring publications to disclose when images have been altered.

Rewriting History

Historically, however, governments have more frequently been the offenders, rather than the monitors, when it comes to image tampering. During Joseph Stalin's brutal rule of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and '40s, he routinely had his political enemies arrested and killed. Then the government would meticulously erase any photographic evidence that they had ever existed. The Soviets weren't the only ones to do this.

"All of the great dictators throughout history did this—Castro, Mao, Hitler," says Professor Farid. "What's interesting is that it speaks to the power of photography. They knew that photography made history. They weren't just removing them for a personal vendetta; they were removing them to change history."

As photo manipulation has become commonplace, it's had a huge impact on the public's willingness to trust the images they see. Farid says he sees this in courts where he is sometimes called on to testify about the authenticity of photographs that people used to take as irrefutable proof.

"I'm concerned about this backlash that suddenly we don't believe anything," says Farid, who is designing a computer program to detect doctored photos. "That's where my work comes in, trying to bring back some semblance of trust into things we see."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, November 23, 2009)