A Half Truth is a Whole Lie

“…in the mid-1840s, a German photographer invented the first technique for retouching the negative.  His two versions of the same portrait- one retouched, the other not- astounded crowds at he Exposition Universelle… The consequences of lying have to be more central for photography than they ever can be for painting, because the flat, usually rectangular images which are photographs make a claim to be true that paintings can never make.  A fake photograph falsifies reality.” (Susan Sontag in On Photography)

As the medium of photography continues to develop, the manipulation of images becomes more drastic.  In media, I have always accepted photograph as reality.  I never questioned a picture’s validity.   Jeb Roberts mentioned in his blog, regarding the change to Jared Loughner’s mug shot by ABC news, the “slight alteration in the photo significantly skews interpretation in that the yellowed, sickly, out-of-focus look of the Times picture gives the reader a less human sense of the suspect, whereas the focussed, sharp construction of ABC’s picture adds a tad of dignity to the suspect’s maniacal grin.”

Comparing the subtle changes made by photographic manipulation in this photograph may seem trivial.  However, as I looked at other instances of altered images, I was struck by the false realities they portrayed.

Examine this photograph of a solder in Iraq, taken in 2005.

The top and left photo were manipulated and merged with other images to produce the final product (on the bottom right).  The original photographs show an Iraqi approaching with caution while a marine brandishes his weapon aggressively.  In the manipulated photograph the soldier’s aggressive stance and grasp of his weapon is hidden, making the Iraqi civilian look more aggressive in comparison. This photojournalist was subsequently fired for doctoring photographs.

Another example I found immediately grabbed my attention.  When I first saw the most recent issue of the Economist, I was struck by the Obama’s stance and isolation.  My initial impression was that this was a man who was exhausted, overwhelmed, and alone.

When I saw the original photograph, with the Coast Guard Admiral and local parish president by his side, my perception of Obama was more favorable.  I saw him standing alongside people rather than on his own, appearing to be deep in self-reflection.  While this change was subtle it had a real effect on my perception of reality.

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