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.
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.)
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.
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.