I feel like doing a light entry today. So let’s talk about the notion of reality, shall we? And also try to answer the question as to whether you should get fired for changing a color…

I’ve talked about photoshoping models and actresses before. Shockingly enough, my blog entry has not stopped the practice. The web site Jezebel.com, for example, was recently under fire for publishing untouched pictures of Jennifer Aniston. If anyone still believed that models and celebrities in real life look like they do in magazines, those pictures are disturbing.

Or consider the untouched pictures of Madonna’s Dolce & Gabana ads:

Madonna Dolce - Media Manipulations

Untouched Picture of Madonna Dolce and Gabana

In both cases, of course, representatives of the stars demanded and threatened to bring the pictures down, without success.

Apart from flattering celebrities and the products they endorse, though, people can use these same techniques to make more worrisome changes.

Consider these two images, for example:

Obama and Arab Leader Manipulation

Left - Run by the Egyptian Al-Ahram | Right - Obama and other Arab leaders

The one on the right is President Obama and other Arab leaders at the last round of Middle East Peace Talks (note to self: those alone deserve a few future entries). The image on the left was run by the Egyptian Al-Ahram, and was subtly changed to show the Egyptian president leading the group. When discovered, the newspaper called the picture “an illustration” and refused to apologize.

Or consider this picture, of Malaysian politician Jeffery Wong Su En, getting knighted by the Queen:

Sir Wong and the Queen Image Manipulation

Sir Wong and the Queen

The trouble, of course, is that Mr. Wong was never knighted -the picture was photoshopped. The fraud was discovered but never explained.

Spot the difference in these two pictures:


Cabinet of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu

Both show the cabinet of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu. Can you spot the difference? The one on the left was published by Yated Neeman, an orthodox newspaper which clearly believes that women do not belong in politics.

This doesn’t just happen far from home. This is a famous picture in manipulation circles:

Famous Picture in Manipulation

1950 - US Senator, Millard Tydings, talking to Earl Browder

It is a 1950 picture of a US Senator, Millard Tydings, talking to Earl Browder, the head of the American Communist Party. Mr. Tydings had never met Mr. Browder, but he had stood up to Joseph McArthy during the McArthy communist witch hunts. Good Old Joe decided to pay him back by creating this picture and disseminating it widely. The picture cost Mr. Tydings his re-election. For our younger readers, the equivalent picture today would be one of a US senator having tea with Osama Bin Laden.

There is a long tradition of doctoring pictures during elections here. This picture was created using composite pictures to show Senator Kerry and Jane Fonda together against the Vietnam War.

Political Piture Manipulation

Senator Kerry and Jane Fonda together against the Vietnam War

Of course, it never happened – John Kerry never shared a platform with Jane Fonda. Nevertheless, untold numbers of voters saw this picture and associated Mr. Kerry with “Hanoi Jane”.

Or, closer to today, a flyer against the election of Chris Myers, showing him walking with President Bush:

Election Picture Manipulation

Chris Myers with Bush

Mr. Myers had never actually met Bush before.

Or this one – a campaign ad against Governor candidate Steve Beshear, ran by his opponent:

Campaign Ad Manipulation

Campaign ad against Governor candidate Steve Beshear, ran by his opponent

It was Mr. Beshear’s head surimposed on someone else’s body, with the roulette table added for good measure.

There are many more examples that I could draw upon, but the point is that Photoshop can be used for far more nefarious purposes than making celebrities appear thin. And, like any good manipulation, detection is fairly harmless – it’s a game of numbers, really. If the manipulator does his job well, millions will see the doctored picture, and thousands will eventually see the manipulation for what it’s worth. How many people, for example, will see the Madonna Dolce & Gabana ads – in print, on billboards, etc…? By contrast, only thousands will read and see the un-manipulated images. As a manipulator, even if discovered, as long as the manipulated image has a wider distribution than the ‘true’ image, you win. This is the distribution rule of manipulation.

This is why state media often doctor pictures relatively shamelessly. Iran state media, for example, widely ran the left picture of a first missile test:

Manipulated Iran Missiles 2Manipulated Missile Test Picture

In actuality, the third missile never fired (right picture).

China does this a lot too. For example, state media likes to show legislators in endless discussions, listening carefully to each other. The left is the state picture of one such event. The right shows the reality:

China Conference - Image Manipulation 1China Conference - Image Manipulation 2

Yes, the Internet can make it easier to spot manipulated pictures, but in practice this is less of a force than you might think. First, very few people have real expertise in spotting manipulated pictures. Second, you would need access to the Internet to hear of the manipulation, and many of the targets of this type of manipulation do not have unfettered access to the Internet. Third, the Distribution Rule always applies – as long as more people see the altered picture, having a few blogs and a few Internet web sites discuss the manipulation generates essentially no impact.

So what does all of this have to do with getting fired for changing a color?

In 2006, a Charlotte Observer photographer published this picture:

Charlotte Observer - Photo Manipulation

Charlotte Observer - Photo Manipulation

It was a good shot of a firefighter on a ladder. The trouble came when the photographer underexposed the picture, and decided to manually change the hue of the sky to better reflect how he remembered the scene. For this, he was fired.

The Charlotte Observer, like many Western newspapers, has guidelines that basically prohibit altering pictures except for very minor changes (cropping, for example). When the photographer altered the color of the sky, he contravened the guidelines and was fired (to be fair, this was his second offence).

This is sad for the photographer, but these types of policies are one of the few guardrails against widespread media manipulation.  Pictures have traditionally been considered facts – if you saw a picture of it, it happened. Without those guidelines (which blogs and many online web sites do not have, by the way), this reality is more subject to the Distribution Rule than ever before. Do you know the policy of your news provider?

This is not restricted to photos, by the way. Watch this video: it demoes a software that can alter actors’ bodies in real time on video. If you want an actor to be beefier, or an actress to be taller, shorter, or more busty, change the sliders and presto! The scene changes seamlessly to reflect your new reality. The software is still new and has some constraints, but expect that to change in a few years. Actors and politicians will soon be leaner, have better skin, and probably be taller in film and on television. Incidentally, that should make un-edited pictures even more interesting – if there is any place to see them by then…