Photography, Truth, Fiction, and Everything Inbetween

Before I start on my blog post I should mention that I grew up with a darkroom shooting both 35mm and 120mm photography, worked with several alternative processes, and processed all film in house. I only mention this because I think many people believe if a photograph is taken with film, it is a factual representation.  After spending years and years in a darkroom I can say without a doubt that doctoring photography in a darkroom is not very much work and that the only factual photograph one will ever be able to get is from the negative itself, but even that can lead to peril when considering what has been left out of the frame.

While I do believe that image manipulation is an issue currently facing historians, I do not believe this is a new problem to the field. To channel Poe briefly, in the digital age it is not as if image manipulation is new, but rather Photoshop has just made it much easier.  The work of Hany Farid at Dartmouth, while very useful, and even crucial to historical research, is nothing new. Inconsistent reflections and shadows could always be detected with a loupe scope and a careful eye, but I believe the major difference today is the high level of technology involved in this detection. Just as with many of the “advancements” digital technology has granted us, it is not a break through changing our way of life, but rather a dishwasher.

    The Economist article, “Keeping it real”, summed up this issue in one sentence, “Sometimes the best scrutiny is simply more people looking”. After looking though a 2007 MA thesis chaired by Dr. Farid and written by Micah Kimo Johnson, I can say that I do not understand the mathematics and physics beyond image forensics, but I am glad someone does. Another really interesting topic discussed in this thesis was image forgery in the sciences.  Johnson writes,

“In 2004, a team lead by Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk published groundbreaking results in stem cell research in the journal Science. Their results showed the successful production of stem cells from 11 patients, offering hope that new cures for diseases were around the corner. But other researchers began to find flaws in their work and by late 2005, one of the co-authors of the paper admitted that photographs in the paper had been doctored [26, 31, 56]. Hwang soon retracted the Science paper and resigned from his position at Seoul National University. After this scandal, other journals realized the importance of investigating images in submitted papers. The editors of the Journal of Cell Biology have been testing images since 2002 and they estimate that 25 percent of accepted manuscripts have images that are modified beyond their standards, while one percent contain fraudulent images”

I know we are all well on our way to becoming historians and making that big money/ solid gold rocket car we got into the field for, but lets be real, there is probably more reason to lie in the sciences. With all the grant money and government jobs associated with the sciences, I believe this is the field where the most damage could be done due to photo manipulation. And what do the editors of these scientific journals mean when they say that “25 percent of accepted manuscripts have images that are modified beyond their standards”, what standards are these? What if as historians we could modify speeches and writings, but just enough to further bolster our argument without overstepping the guidelines of a journal? This just seems backwards and disappointing. I am a humanities student through and through and thus I have been trained to be skeptical of everything, and I believe with a skeptical eye we as a field can continue to use images in our research without fear.

One last issue I would like to bring up that I believe is overlooked by the science minded folk who are doing this image forensic research is why the images were doctored in the first place. As historians I believe this could allow us to infer into the mindset of those in decision-making positions. The example I have in mind is of the Soviet soldier raising the Red flag over the Reichstag during the Battle of Berlin. While it has largely been acknowledged that the solider is wearing two watches (or maybe a watch and a compass), Stalin had one of the watches faded out. I think the fact he did this opens up questions not just about the looting of the Soviet soldiers, but about how Stalin saw the Soviet Union on the world stage in the post-war era, how he felt about the beginning of the Cold War, and to paint the Soviet army as victims of Nazi aggression. Historians have tended to write off sources that have been doctored as untrue to some mythical “true” past, but as a field we need to expand our understanding to utilize these forgeries and to ask new questions. As technology continues we will discover many forgeries to explore, lets do something with these images instead of just getting upset at the fact they do not represent some imagined truth.

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