Jul 02 2015

Altered Images 150 years of posed and manipulated photography

by Billy Kung

Currently on exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center until August, “Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography” is a fascinating and important show which focuses on disputed images in photojournalism and documentary photos that have been faked, staged, or altered.

Since the invention of photography over a hundred and eighty years ago, due to its mechanical, apparently objective nature and to its near replication of human sight, we often confuse photography with truth, as the common saying goes: “The Camera does not lie.” In particular, journalistic and documentary photography have always been seen as a powerful indicator that in its easy comprehension is innocent of both deception and the intent to deceive. In fact, photography’s relationship with reality is as tenuous as that of any other medium. Despite its apparent simplicity, it constitutes a rich and variegated language, capable like other languages, of subtlety, ambiguity, revelation and distortion.

In general, an accurate representation of the scene before the photographer’s camera is the basic tenet of any documentary photograph. Firstly, with the exception of portraiture, photographers must not direct a subject or use his or her presence to significantly alter an event; and no financial compensation of any kind should take place between the subject and photographer as failure to do so would change the nature of information gathering and the ability to capture reality. Secondly, during the post-processing adjustments, whether in the darkroom or in Photoshop, objects must never be added or removed or deliberately obscured. Thirdly, caption or information published with the photograph is almost as important as the image, for it not only provides a context in which the photo is taken but also context for the viewer as well.

Photographs have been manipulated to deceive reaches as far back as the time of its invention, but with the introduction of Scitex—a company which makes computer graphics systems—in the late sixties, the process became much easier, and unlike conventional retouching which may take hours or days of work by a skilled craftsperson, the changes can take effect immediately and are also virtually undetectable. The Scitex computer graphic system was essentially the precursor of the digital tools in image processing found commonly today in every computer and mobile phone. Back in its time, by scanning photographs and translating them into digital information which can be read by a computer, one can modify an image with immense precision.

Interestingly, the use of such technology is not as immediately problematic in advertising or the arts as it is in journalism. If a scantily dressed model in a beauty advertisement is given a slimmer waistline and all marks and imperfections are removed, there are not the same issues of accuracy and veracity that such retouching raises in journalism or other documentary uses of the photograph. But the fact that many highly respected journalistic publications have in the past taken to modifying photographs has provoked considerable discussion and consternation. The Pyramids of Gaza appeared on the cover of the National Geographic magazine dated February 1982 is a well known case in point. A horizontal photograph was made into a vertical image suitable for the cover by digitally moving one pyramid closer to the other.

At the annual World Press Photo (WPP) competition on 12 February of this year in Amsterdam, it came to a surprise for many when they revealed how 20 per cent of entries that made it through to the shortlisting stage were disqualified due to breaching the competition’s rules on what was permissible in altering images in post-production. Further controversy erupted when the Italian photographer Giovanni Troilo’s series of photographs titled The Dark Heart of Europe which was part of a winning photo essay in the “Contemporary Issues” category. One image in particular is of the photographer’s cousin and a woman having sex in a car (see accompanying photo in this blog), with headlights illuminating the bushes and a remote controlled flash illuminating the inside of the car, raising a series of questions of whether the picture was a set up.

After the announcement of the winners, the mayor of Charleroi wrote to WPP complaining that the photos were staged and that it was damaging to the town’s reputation. In response, the photographer defended himself saying, “My cousin accepted to be portrayed while fornicating with a girl in his friend’s car. For them it was not strange.” WPP initially defended the decision and the photographer with the statement: “The cousin had given the photographer permission to follow him on this particular night, to observe and to photograph him having sex with a girl in public. Whether the photographer had been involved or not, the cousin had planned to have sex in the car.” However, WPP judges eventually rescinded the award, coming a day after a leading photojournalism festival, Visa Pour L’Image, said it would not show any WPP photographs this year to protest what it said were staged works. Meanwhile, another image from the same series was found to be shot in Brussels and not Charleroi.

With all these transgressions and the discovery of digital processing that removed or obscured elements in the frame that were present in the RAW or original file raised an alarming question: what is the implication on the longstanding principles of trust and authenticity the industry had been relying on for so many years if such a large proportion of photojournalists are altering their images? I am afraid there is no easy answer to this question, and it really comes down to each and every single individual photographer’s professional ethics and principle. But at the first hurdle before an image is disseminated to the public, all professionals who handle images including photo editors and editors in the publishing industry, educators, art directors, curators and gallery owners must be more vigilant than ever.

The images on view in “Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography” offer a valuable insight into this disputable world of photo manipulation, both old and historic, raising an awareness of some of the ethical conundrums happening in the photography industry. Due to the length of the background captions and descriptions accompanying the photographs in this post, they are listed here below the slideshow. All information regarding the photographs have been provided by the Bronx Documentary Center. You may also see more examples here.

July 2008
Distributed by the Revolutionary Guard
Courtesy Bronx Documentary Center, New York
July 2008
Distributed by the Revolutionary Guard
Courtesy Bronx Documentary Center, New York


July 2008

Distributed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard


Numerous American news outlets, including The Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times and the Chicago Tribune, published this image of an Iranian missile launch on their front page. The image showed four missiles streaking into the air.  The photo was released by Sepah News, the official online news website of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The Los Angeles Times photo caption, published on July 10, 2008, read: “Near the Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard released this photo of four of the missiles launched from an undisclosed site in the Iranian desert. Medium- and long-range missiles were tested, including one with a 1,250-mile range.”


Only three of the missiles successfully launched; the fourth was Photoshopped in to hide the missile that failed to launch. Little Green Footballs, an American political blog, discovered the manipulation the day of the photo’s publication, calling it a “Photoshop fake.”

The Associated Press released the original photo the next day with the fourth missile unlaunched in the center; both Sepah News and Agence France-Presse (AFP) rescinded the photograph.

This was not the first time the Iranian state media was charged with altering their photographs. In 2007 they were accused of manipulating an image that claimed to show US manufactured weapons in terrorist operations in Iran.

Pyramids of Gaza, Egypt

February, 1982

Photo by Gordon Gahan

Caption as furnished by Getty Images:

“The pyramids dominate the desert at sunset as Bedouin travel by camel.”

Background information on this photo:

The cover of the 1982 February issue of National Geographic magazine demonstrated one of the earliest high-profile cases of digital photo manipulation. The horizontal image was altered to fit the vertical cover, shifting the two pyramids closer together. When the issue was publicly released, the photographer, Gordon Gahan, saw the cover and complained.

In a 1984 article in the New York Times, Fred Ritchin wrote that “Wilbur E. Garrett, the Geographic’s editor, defends the modification, seeing it not as a falsification but merely the establishment of a new point of view, as if the photographer had been retroactively moved a few feet to one side.” Ritchin saw this manipulation as the beginning of the digital era in photography.

The manipulation damaged the magazine’s credibility. Tom Kennedy, who became National Geographic‘s director of photography after the incident, stated: "We no longer use that technology to manipulate elements in a photo simply to achieve a more compelling graphic effect. We regarded that afterwards as a mistake, and we wouldn’t repeat that mistake today."

Although lesser discussed, Gahan reportedly paid the men on camels to repeatedly ride across the frame to get the photo he wanted.

Charleroi, Belgium 


Photo by Giovanni Troilo

Caption as taken from the photographer’s website in June, 2015. 

“My cousin agreed to be photographed while having sex with a girl in his friend’s car. For him it was not strange.”

Background information on this photo:

This photo was part of a winning photo essay in the 2015 World Press Photo awards. This image—depicting the photographer’s cousin and a woman having sex in a car, lit by the photographer’s remote flash inside the car—was in actual fact, deliberately set up. Staging a photo violates one of the core ethics of photojournalism, which is based on capturing real unplanned events as they happen.

WPP judges eventually rescinded the award after numerous other complaints surfaced and an uproar ensued from the photojournalism community; another photo in the series was found to be taken in Brussels, not Charleroi, as the caption claimed. Charleroi’s mayor and others complained that other photos from the series were staged.

WPP disqualified 20 percent of the finalists in the 2015 contest for manipulating, staging and altering photos in a variety of ways. “There was a huge amount of manipulation in the penultimate round. The jury was really shocked," remarked one juror.

June 27, 1994

Photo Illustration for TIME by Matt Mahurin

Original caption on the cover of TIME, published June 27, 1994:

“An American Tragedy”

Background information on this photo:

In June of 1994, both TIME magazine and Newsweek featured OJ Simpson’s mug shot on their covers. Placed side by side on news stands, one could see that TIME‘s cover had darkened Simpson’s skin considerably. The photo, representing a case already laced with racial tension, received massive public outcry.

The editor of the magazine provided a public statement on America Online, a national bulletin board with 800,000 subscribers, claiming, “no racial implication was intended, by TIME or by the artist.” On news stands, the edition was quietly substituted with the unaltered image.

Photo illustrator Mat Mahurin, who was given the image to “interpret,” claimed his edits had no racist agenda. “Much like a stage director would lower the lights on a somber scene,” he recalls in a book later published on the history of TIME magazine, “I used my long-established style to give the image a dramatic tone.”

Beirut, Lebanon

August 5, 2006

Photo by Adnan Hajj

Original caption as furnished by Reuters:

“Smoke billows from burning buildings destroyed during an overnight Israeli air raid on Beirut’s suburbs August 5, 2006. Many buildings were flattened during the attack.”

Background information on this photo:

Adnan Hajj, the photographer, was found to have used Photoshop to clone and darken the smoke in this photo to exaggerate the bombing damage.

This photo was distributed throughout the media before the manipulation was caught by a blogger. Reuters news agency, who worked with the freelance photographer, immediately fired him. Reuters then withdrew all 920 photographs by Hajj from its database after it was discovered that he had manipulated a second photo.

Basra, Iraq

March 30, 2003

Photo by Brian Walski


The photograph, taken in the earliest days of the Iraq invasion, shows a British soldier warning a group of Iraqi civilians to take cover from nearby fire. First published on the cover page of the Los Angeles Times, the image also ran in the Chicago Tribune and the Hartford Courant.


The photo is a composite of two images taken seconds apart. After the Hartford Courant published the image, an employee noticed a duplication of civilians in the background. The Los Angeles Times confronted Walski, who confessed to having digitally merged the two photographs to improve the composition.

Walski was immediately fired for violating the newspaper’s code of ethics. In an apology to the Times, Walski said: “I have always maintained the highest ethical standards throughout my career and cannot truly explain my complete breakdown in judgment at this time.”

Valencia, Venezuela

February 2014

Unknown photographer

Original caption from FOX13 Memphis

BALTIMORE IN FLAMES: A massive fire has broken out in a building that was under construction and the Baltimore mayor’s spokesman says it’s related to the riots…”

Background information of the image:

On April 27, 2015, FOX13 Memphis posted a picture to their Facebook page of what appeared to be Baltimore engulfed in flames. While Baltimore was overrun with riots that night, the photo was taken in Venezuela a year prior.

A user on Imgur, an comment-based online image hosting service, exposed FOX13 Memphis’s mistake just a couple of days after the original posting.

FOX13 Memphis issued a public apology: “We messed up. As violent protests broke out in Baltimore Monday night, a member of our team posted a photo of buildings burning and people rioting. It wasn’t Baltimore. Our team didn’t fact check the picture the way we should have. We know you depend on FOX13 Memphis for accurate information. We will work to hold ourselves to a higher standard as we post to this page.”

The photo was taken in Valencia, Venezuela during a period of unrest in February of 2014. The photo was shared by several Twitter users, including New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, to show what was happening in Venezuela. The original photographer remains unknown.

Deleitosa, Spain


Photo by Eugene Smith

Original caption from LIFE magazine, photo essay “Spanish Village”, published April 9, 1951:

“His wife, daughter, granddaughter and friends have their last earthly visit with a villager.”

Background information on this photo: 

Eugene Smith’s photo essay “Spanish Village” was published in LIFE magazine in 1951 and was received with national acclaim among both readers and photographers. The photo series depicts a small rural village in Spain under the rule of dictator Francisco Franco.

In this photograph, an intimate scene of the wake of a Deleitosa villager, Smith retouched the wife’s and daughter’s eyes. Originally the two women had been looking toward the photographer, but in the darkroom he printed their eyes much darker and then applied bleach with a fine-tipped brush to create new whites, thereby redirecting their gazes downward and to the side.

The Smith College Museum of Art defends this decision, claiming the manipulation “makes the scene more accessible, as it appears the viewer is peering into an undisturbed and confidential moment," thus allowing the photo to capture “the emotional reality of the situation.” Eugene Smith himself admitted to his use of staging and retouching in an American Society of Media Photographers meeting in 1956, admitting, “the honesty lies in my—the photographer’s—ability to understand.”

German Reichstag building, Berlin

May 2, 1945

Photo by Yevgeny Khaldei

Caption as presently found on the Getty Images website:

“Red Army soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, April 30, 1945.”

Background information on this photo: 

This iconic photograph from World War II shows a triumphant Red Army soldier waving a Soviet flag over the Reichstag building in Berlin, signifying communist conquest over Nazi Germany. Many discoveries regarding the construction and continued manipulation of this photo have been made since its original publication.

In order to make this photo, Khaldei scaled the Reichstag with his own Soviet flag in tow, one that had been made by his uncle out of tablecloths for this purpose. He asked the soldiers to pose with the flag. Before the photo’s first publication in Ogoniok—a Russian magazine—the watches on the soldiers’ wrists were scratched out on the negative, concealing that the Soviets had been looting. Dark clouds of smoke were added in a later version on the photograph.

German magazine Der Spiegel wrote, “Khaldei saw himself as a propagandist for a just cause, the war against Hitler and the German invaders of his homeland.” When asked about the manipulation, Khaldei responded, “It is a good photograph and historically significant. Next question please.”

South Dakota Badlands, United States


Photo by Arthur Rothstein

Caption as taken from the Library of Congress website, June 2015:

“The bleached skull of a steer on the dry sun-baked earth of the South Dakota Badlands.”

Background information on this photo:

Arthur Rothstein, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, moved and photographed a steer skull at several locations in South Dakota during a severe drought in the region. Several frames of this exist, all showing different backgrounds. After one of the photos was distributed by the Associated Press, Republican opponents of President Roosevelt seized on the opportunity and articles about the staging of this photo were published in conservative newspapers around the country.

The filmmaker and writer Errol Morris wrote in The New York Times: “In Arthur Rothstein’s photograph of a sun-bleached cow skull, Roosevelt’s opponents had found their proof of government waste, duplicity and fraud.”

In an interview with Rothstein in 1964, he states that he was using the skull for “exercises in photography,” experimenting with “the texture of the skull, the texture of the earth, the cracks in the soil, the lighting” and “how the lighting changed from the east to the west as the sun went down.” He claims that he “had not taken the picture in the first place as an example of New Deal propaganda” and that he “had not taken the picture with the idea of it being used as a symbol of the drought.”

Billy Kung is photo editor at ArtAsiaPacific.