What’s in a (Fake) Photo

In Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), author Errol Morris recalls the summer of 1936 in Great Plains, North Dakota and the heat weave that ravaged the area. Through government spending on photography, three accusations of fake photos printed by both local and national newspapers came to light, only one, as Morris wrote “appeared to be an out-and-out fraud”: The photograph of a herd cattle invading the state capitol during the drought, yet turns out after another round of accusations, was not a fake, but where the cattle was always located. I was mesmerized by the questionable photos, especially the taken-out-of-context cow skull in the middle of nowhere. Knowing that a prominent news organization like the Associated Press (AP) picked up on this image (and earlier in Morris’ book he mentions how the New York Times identified the wrong man as The Hooded Man and expressed their embarrassed in the interview) and altered their meaning(s) made me think falsity that oftentimes ends up being reported as truth. Think of celebrity death hoaxes, as countless users light up the Twitter scoreboard with the trending #RIPInsertNameHere (the latest faux-victim: Jennifer Lopez). The same applies to what a manipulated, ultimately altered photo does to the reputation of a celebrity.

I'm no fake (Source: DNT)

I’m no fake (Source: DNT)


Obviously it wasn’t easy to alter images back in the late 1930’s, free digital imaging software wasn’t for public consumption, and eventually it was revealed that the state capitol image was not superimposed. As Morris writes, “The advent of digital photography, photo manipulation software and that instantaneous distribution system known as the Internet, have only escalated the claims of […] photo fakery” (Morris 133). I think about how easy it is to manipulate photos and destroy reputations, even in the name of celebrity.

Most recently, beautiful female actresses have been the target of fake nude photo “leaks”: supermodel-turned-actress Kate Upton has threated to sue a website for photoshopping images from her Sports Illustrated cover, America’s sweetheart Taylor Swift went after the same website and sued for trademark infringement when Celeb Jihad posted a photo of a topless woman and labeled that it was Swift.

In 2006, actress Jessica Alba, with the help of Columbia Pictures (while then promoting her movie Into The Blue) called out Playboy magazine for “to obtain the photograph of Jessica Alba that was used without authorization,” implying that Alba was stripping down for the men’s mag when they printed the March 2006 cover (she in fact, did not.)

"Don't put me on that cover!" Actress Jessica Alba's controversial Playboy cover (Source: People.com)

“Don’t put me on that cover!” Actress Jessica Alba’s controversial Playboy cover (Source: People.com)

Although this picture of Alba isn’t fake (perhaps touched up and photograph, but still an image of the actress), it does fall in between those gray areas of the Dakota Drought photos. Misleading character representation.

It doesn’t stop there. Recently, with the help of the popular Twitter handle History in Pics “unearthed” an image of a young, vibrant Audrey Hepburn from her Funny Face days, which garnered nearly 2,000 retweets, with some digging, turned out to be a Russian stock photo. With images of like this, and other (non-celebrity) being passed around on social media sites, we have to question the authenticity of any photo presented to us.

A photo tweeted by HistoryinPics claiming to be Audrey Hepburn. Nope. (Source: HistoryinPics)

A photo tweeted by HistoryinPics claiming to be Audrey Hepburn. Nope. (Source: HistoryinPics)

Fake photos, photos that mislead us, propaganda, whatever you want to call it is more ubiquitous than ever. By questioning what we see, as inconvenient as it may be, may lead us to uncovering more truths or falsities about the images surrounding us and just make us more informed about our surrounding society.

About Christina Maxwell

I’m a young professional journalist with a dual B.A. degree in Radio-TV-Film and Journalism and I am currently working on my M.A. in Writing, specializing in Journalism and New Media Studies (both at Rowan University). Although my advanced degree allows me to have options in the future, for now, my main goal is finding a job in journalism. I am a journalist at heart. First hand knowledge, original reporting and precisive answers are what I strive for when I'm working. For the past two years, I have done freelance reporting with the Gloucester Township Patch, but my goal is to have a sustainable, consistent job in journalism.


  1. I love some companies who campaign against using photoshop.(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/17/aerie-unretouched-ads-photos_n_4618139.html)

    Living in the spotlight, celebrities are forced to look their best, even when they don’t. I am sure you have seen Lorde’s tweet (https://twitter.com/lordemusic/status/450460437998747650/photo/1)

    Morris does a fantastic job and getting the full story of out a photo and sometimes it is nearly impossible to do that without time and effort. Social media makes quick access to assumptions and enable views to come up to their own conclusion, whether they are accurate or not doesn’t seem to matter to the majority.

    1. I have read about the un-retouched ads (Aerie’s, the one you linked to, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign), and I think their message is really all about positivity and presenting a realist view on the world, which is great to see. I was definitely inspired by Morris’s approach to photos, just asking questions without much of a bias/slant in his views, makes us look at visuals with the same ‘objective’ approach.

  2. If only there was a way to identify how photos have been photoshopped, it would stop a lot of the problems with magazine covers and young girl’s self esteem. We’re creating a new ideal for body images that are impossible to obtain.

    That being said, it’s also more than fun to look at articles like this, that outline some of the photoshop failures that somebody, at one point, found acceptable to publish.

    Morris does a good job explaining how what goes on beyond the photo is just as important as the photo itself. We need to consider the intentions of the photographers as well here. Why do the models need to be skinnier? Why does one specific model need to be naked, when they refuse to pose in that fashion? I think it’s sending a larger message to society that these are the types of things in a culture we are meant to idealize.

  3. That’s a really great point, Katlyn. I think just the simple awareness for others, letting these highly influenced by the media people (any gender) know that there is a hidden agenda attached to these photoshopped images, and some of it isn’t healthy.

    I like looking at the imperfections of a photoshopped images, I really look at it with just a different perspective, a different lens. Interesting stuff.

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