Photo Skepticism: Friend or Foe?

The latest news photo hoax has me thinking about authenticity in photography again. In the most recent case, a chinese man doctors an image of a train and a bunch of antelopes. You can read the article to get the full story, but the image they show explaining how the fake was spotted is pretty interesting. I expected evidence such as cloned animals or something much more obvious. For example, one explanation depends on an antelope that kind of looks pregnant. Another says that the antelope would be more scattered if they were running from a train. One explanation is just flat wrong. It says that the train should be blurred and the antelope should be more in focus because the train is going 60 mph and the antelope are running slower. This explanation doesn’t hold up because the train is several hundred meters away. The antelope may not be going 60 mph but I bet their legs are and they are closer to the camera. I am not saying that the photo is real, but can’t we get an explanation that holds up to scrutiny?

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Luckly, there are real professionals working to scientifically disprove the authenticity of photographs. There is an interesting article on wired.com that talks about methods that companies like Adobe are developing to spot altered photos. Adobe seems like the last company you would turn to lead the hunt for photo hoaxers considering they have made a fortune off of convincing everybody how easy/safe/fun it is to enhance and manipulate our photographs. Nevertheless, as the industry leader in photo manipulation they have to address a growing concern about the authenticity of photography. So Adobe finds itself in an interesting conundrum. How do you use a technology that is meant to alter photography to identify the people who are creating hoaxes? Where does harmless photo enhancement end and illegal photo manipulation begin? How do you convince a skeptical population to trust photography as the truth? They have a quote from Kevin Connor, who is senior director of product management at Adobe. He says,

“There’s much more awareness and much more skepticism when (people) are looking at images. That’s why we think that’s something we need to get involved in. It’s not healthy to have people be too skeptical about what they saw.”

Not healthy to question what you see? That is a shocking statement when you consider what he is implying, that it is healthy to accept what you see as real without questioning. Yikes! The article closes without really giving much hope that there will ever be a trustworthy way of telling whether or not a photo has been altered. While that may seem like a tragedy, it is a side effect of an advancing civilization. Think about the past when photos represented the “truth.” That was a more dangerous time because it ignored the editorial nature of photography. Think of all the manipulation that happens to an image in camera. Somebody has to pick the subject matter. The photographer isn’t an emotionless bystander. He composes his shot with an agenda. He choses the exposure and controls the focus. These are editorial decisions. You can make the same old lady look like a saint or a witch just by how you choose to take her picture. To accept an image as “truth” regardless of how it was originated is dangerous. Defense attorneys, law enforcement, news organizations, protective governments, conspiracy theorists, traditionalists and photography purists will continue to find ways authenticate and de-authenticate photos. I can’t blame them, but I firmly believe that a skeptical population is a better alternative to blind unquestioning masses.

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