Photographic truth and manipulation

We know photographs can be false yet we want them to be true. Indeed, the desire for photographic veracity has persisted, perhaps even intensified, even as knowledge about image manipulation becomes more widespread.

Reflecting on the Oscar ceremonies, MediaGuardian has documented the widespread use of Photoshop to enhance celebrity photographs in fashion and gossip magazines. Every cover, says one media insider, has been altered to some degree, with some of these changes exposed in the “Photoshop Hall of Shame” and “Photoshop Disasters”. So common is the practice that when an October 2008 Newsweek cover of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was not airbrushed, conservative anchors on Fox television complained that this amounted to liberal bias. (Fox knew about the political power of such changes because it had earlier manipulated the photos of two New York Times journalists it wanted to discredit).

Despite being widespread, digital manipulation provokes anxiety and unease, especially when news photographs are involved. The scandals surrounding Brian Walski’s 2003 photos from Iraq and Adnan Hajj’s 2006 pictures from Lebanon led to both men being fired from their jobs, and the governments of Iran and the US have been criticized when they released altered military images of missiles and a general.

What is commonplace in one visual domain (fashion) is regarded as taboo in another (news). Yet both realms are still regulated by a desire for photographs to be accurate and authentic documents. The persistence and power of this desire despite the long history of photographic manipulation (chemical and digital) is something that needs explanation.


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