How much can we rely on photographic evidence?

The incident this past weekend regarding Reuters’ photoshopped news photo seems to have sparked off a witch hunt in the blogosphere for other faked photos (the right wing in particular seems to be squealing in orgasmic glee over this: to them, it’s just more evidence of media bias rather than media suckage). Giving credit where credit is due though, it does seem they’ve uncovered more instances of photo manipulation. (I feel dirty linking to Michelle Malkin but here you go.)

Taking a step back, this raises a far more troubling question than the standard political rhetoric surrounding the issue: Going forward in the digital era, how much can we trust photographs?

Photography is on an unstoppable march towards the digital; consumer and prosumer film cameras are already DOA, and professional cameras won’t be far behind as digital technology catches up to and surpasses what’s possible with medium and large format film.To be sure, photos have always been subject to manipulation – photographers alter lighting and make up, crop photos, and apply any number of darkroom techniques to achieve a desired effect. But the extent to which you can doctor digital photos and the ease with which it’s done opens up a whole new pandora’s box as far as photojournalism is concerned.

Pasting celebrities’ heads onto nude models has been done since the earliest days of the internet. School photographers these days all offer digital removal of zits and other blemishes for yearbook photos. You can remove tourists from your vacation photos.

So given the fact that all of this goes on, how can we be sure that any photo we’re looking at is authentic? There are some techniques for spotting digital manipulations. You can hunt down the original unaltered elements that went into a doctored photo, or you can look for some tell-tale signs of manipulation in the photo itself (which is how the Reuters photo was uncovered). Theoretically, digital cameras leave digital fingerprints on photos which could be used to detect manipulation. But none of these techniques are foolproof – you can never be sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that the photo you’re looking at is undoctored.

It’s depressing that we now have to face this question when it comes to photojournalism, although it was almost certainly inevitable; photojournalists are human beings after all, and there’s a lot of pressure to take that iconic photo of a news event.

But in a way, this is just the tip of the iceburg. Let’s indulge in a hypothetical scenario:

A defendant is on trial for robbing a house. He left no fingerprints or physical evidence at the scene, but a neighbor with an established grudge against the defendant claims to be an eyewitness and offers a photo of the defendant fleeing the scene as proof. The defense would argue that anyone who’s even moderately skilled with photoshop could have cut and paste the defendant into the scene, and that there’s absolutely no way to verify that this photo is authentic. Is the evidence strong enough to convict?

I don’t think it will be that much longer before the first time photographs will be ruled inadmissable as evidence in court. Video evidence will follow in another decade or two when the tools Hollywood uses now become widely available.

The bottom line is that we can only trust it as far as we can trust the individual vouching for its authenticity. Which is to say, we really can’t trust them much at all.

Edited 8/15/06 to add: Cnet has a great collection of doctored news photos that have appeared in recent years, which illustrates the point I was making here perfectly.

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One Response to “How much can we rely on photographic evidence?”

  1. Zack Says:

    Great post. The phrase “the right wing in particular seems to be squealing in orgasmic glee” is one of my favorites…ever.


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