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A Picture Sparks 1,000 Words, Including These 3: Is It Fake?

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Last week, World Press Photo authenticated Paul Hansen’s award-winning photograph of a Gaza funeral after Der Spiegel raised questions about the image’s authenticity. Computer scientist Neal Krawetz claimed the photograph was a composite. called it “a fake.”

Hansen won Photo of the Year for the shot of grieving Palestinian men carrying the swathed bodies of two children in a funeral procession. The Goya-like photograph originally ran in the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter.

Whether "Gaza Burial" is actually fake or just “enhanced to bring out important details” is a philosophical dilemma. “This is a question that has plagued photography since its inception. Should a photo, especially a press photo, be purely objective? Most people think the answer is an obvious ‘yes,’ but it’s not quite that simple … What if a photo is perfect, except that it’s taken at an odd angle — can you digitally rotate it? What about cropping? What if there’s dust on the lens/sensor/film — can you digitally remove it?” asks ExtremeTech editor Sebastian Anthony.

Whether "Gaza Burial" is actually fake or just “enhanced to bring out important details” is a philosophical dilemma.

In response, World Press Photo had Hany Farid, a Dartmouth computer scientist, and Kevin Connor, who built products for Adobe, and whose firm FourandSix Technologies authenticates digital images, examine the photograph. They said there was “retouching” but “no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing.”

Krawetz took Farid and Conner’s views as confirmation of his position that the photograph was altered. In response to Farid and Connor, ExtremeTech simultaneously backtracked and held its ground: the photograph showed evidence of “manipulation” but wasn’t faked.

What does it mean that we are so quick to suspect that a striking piece of photojournalism is a fake?

Though Photoshop may pose a threat to photography’s traditional documentary standards, one could argue that photography is more democratic — and maybe more accurate — than it’s ever been. Camera phones make all of us potential documentary photographers: witness the FBI’s request for photographs from the Boston Marathon finish line as possible evidence in the bombing investigation.

No matter how compromised photography is by Photoshop and digital everything, we still want to believe in its documentary qualities. “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1977.

The way Hansen defended his image is a way to measure what’s changed — or hasn’t. He said he “developed the raw file with different density.” To tone a photograph is to change its brightness, hue, or tint; before digital this happened in the darkroom through various chemicals. Chemical manipulation could also alter the density of film negatives — and thus the quality of their prints. By drawing an analogy between how he works in digital and how darkroom photographers worked, Hansen is saying photography hasn’t changed — he’s doing what photographers have always done, regardless of technology.

Interestingly, the other guys weighing in aren’t critics or photographers but computer scientists. Farid and Connor aren’t bothered by post-production changes as long as no pixels were removed. Krawetz’s concern that the image was “cropped and/or scaled” reveals a conservative definition of the photograph that not even the film age could sustain. Any divergence from the original — whether film negative or RAW digital file — corrupts photography.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the controversy is the discussion it’s inspired.

ExtremeTech takes the position that digital has fundamentally changed photography, and sees the painterly possibilities of Photoshop as an affront. But as Hansen points out, photographers have always altered their images. The site’s view of photography is more than a return to first principles, it’s a romance of photographic purity that never existed.

Viewfinders, after all, don’t point themselves.

Maybe we need photographic purity now more than ever — a clearer line between documentary and everything else? Or maybe we’ve made our peace with the digital medium, which is capable of simultaneously preserving our faith and stoking our skepticism.

Either way, perhaps the most interesting part of the controversy is the discussion it’s inspired.

From the comments section of Krawetz’s site, JMF says:

“The photograph was of a real situation — those people were walking down that alley holding dead children. Fixing the lighting and the individuals' faces might alter the photo beyond permissible standards, but is the photo still ‘real’? In my opinion absolutely.”

And, from Van:

“Wow, a photo of 2 dead children and you are all actually arguing about the qualities of the light. None of the criticisms… even if they are valid, actually alter the human truths captured in this image! All photography is a mediation of reality.”

Over at ExtremeTech, the comments question the nature of photography itself. Mymorna writes:

“Photography is subjective by default. What if a photographer only captures part of the total scene (and he always does, a photo never contains all the information about a situation)? It is photography's subjectivity (sic.) what makes it so interesting. It shows how a photographer perceives a situation.” 

Another, by the name of Glenn Scott, answered a question from Anthony’s original post:

“‘Is it okay for a photographer to modify a picture so that it looks exactly how he remembers the scene?’ That turns an Objective item into a Subjective item. What the photographer sees is not important. What he records is. If the photographer can record what he thinks he sees...well…they call that a painter.”

Take a look at the photograph and decide for yourself. With 18 pages of comments on ExtremeTech alone, what makes a photograph is no longer a question just for experts. Thanks to digital, we are all photographers now, and we are also all media critics.


This program aired on May 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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