Written by Emily Whalen
Earlier this year, I scrolled through Facebook and I happened upon a photo of two women at a protest holding signs declaring “Fathers don’t deserve a day,” and “End Fathers (sic) Day.” A quick inspection and you can see that colors don’t quite match up, lines don’t either, and sure enough one of the Fs is printed over the sign holders gloved hand. It’s not even a good photoshop job. But here it is, on my feed, shared by an angry friend who didn’t see what I did.
While this example seems almost silly, the ramifications of this image being shared with a simple click across all of Facebook and the internet can be frightening. “People take images as truth much more than words, and images can be manipulated. They can be used by someone with a vested interest to frame things in a certain way,” says Nathalie Applewhite, the managing director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
So what is the role of photojournalism in the age of Facebook and Fake News?
I don’t have to tell you the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. A sailor dips a nurse in a deep kiss in Times Square. Che Guevara stares defiantly into the distance in a close-up shot. A peaceful monk sets himself ablaze. Earthrise from the surface of the moon. One stark naked child running from an unplanned napalm explosion. A lone man staring down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Bodies falling from the burning Twin Towers. The body of a dead child on the shores of a Syrian beach. A black woman defiantly walking into a group of police officers in riot gear. Photojournalism has shaped our world for decades.
But what if these pictures weren’t what they seem? Would they lose their value? Though “fake news” our current buzzword, the concept of fake news isn’t new. Photos have been manipulated for years thanks to photo editing software. It’s what has made models and celebrities look flawless for years, hiding imperfection and making colors pop. In fact, photo manipulation has been around almost as long as the camera.
Recently RadioLab discussed Roger Fenton’s photo “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” which just may be the first fake news photo in history. In 1855, during the Crimean War, Fenton took two photos from the exact same spot. “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” shows a winding road and rolling hills littered with cannonballs while the other, unnamed photo shows the road completely clear. Documentarian Errol Morris became obsessed with the photos, trying desperately to figure out which photo came first. Were the cannonballs placed on the road, or cleared from the road? It was optical engineer Dennis Purcell who looked in the distance and saw that a few rocks had shifted position, tumbling down the hill indicating that the photo of the clear road came first and Fenton placed all of the cannonballs himself. Is Fenton’s photo fake news, or is it simply an artistic interpretation of the Crimean War?
A recent example of fake news vs. artistic interpretation comes from National Geographic, a magazine known not only for its epic photojournalism, but also for its journalistic integrity. Just hours after the total solar eclipse on August 21st, National Geographic posted Ken Geiger’s photo of the eclipse to their Instagram feed. Though the photo’s beauty is undeniable, showing various phases of the eclipse over the Grand Tetons, it is a composite of several images including one of sunrise over the Grand Tetons. However, the eclipse was never positioned over the Grand Tetons as the picture depicts. Though National Geographic does mention in the caption that the shot is a composite, it does still have one asking why they would use the composite, and not the actual photos of the eclipse.
With a camera phone in every pocket, and easy access to photoshop, it’s highly unlikely that fake photos will go away anytime soon. That doesn’t mean that photojournalism is any less valuable. Those photos not only reflect the world, but who we are in it. So many of the aforementioned images are seared into our brains, you still feel the emotions years, if not decades later: the hope of the end of war, the strength of a leader, the power of sacrifice, the awe of a new horizon, the fear of a child, the courage of one, the desperation of people trapped, the loss of a life barely lived, the resolution of a woman who won’t back down. But this doesn’t discount that we need to look at each new photo with a critical eye; sure it’s worth 1,000 words, but whose words are they and what story are they telling?