Photo Forensics | Hany Farid | Donnerstag, 15.10.2015

Photo Forensics: From Stalin to Oprah

We know to be wary of the photo hoaxes that litter the online landscape, the impossibly perfect women in fashion magazines, and the scandalous images in tabloids. But can we trust photographs in reputable news outlets, prestigious scientific journals, and government publications? In this series of posts, I will examine how the ubiquity of photographic tampering has eroded our faith in images. I will also discuss recent technological advances in the field of photo forensics that have the potential partially to restore this faith.
Photography lost its innocence almost at its inception. One of the most iconic portraits of Abraham Lincoln is actually a composite of his head on the body of John Calhoun, a staunch supporter of slavery. Apparently, this bizarre hybrid was created because Lincoln did not appear sufficiently heroic. Since then, images of other leaders have been manipulated to alter the photographic record: Stalin famously had his political enemies air-brushed out of official photographs, as did Mao Tse-tung, Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, and many others. These dictators understood the power of photography. They understood that if you could remove someone from a photo, you could effectively remove them from history.
This nearly iconic portrait (in the form of a lithograph) of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is a composite of Lincoln’s head and the Southern politician John Calhoun’s body.
Until recently, the creation of convincing fakes required considerable time and skill. Nowadays, photo-editing software has become so sophisticated that almost anyone with access to a computer can create a convincing photographic fake. Despite this revolution in the technology for creating forgeries, the nature of forgeries hasn’t changed much: attaching a person’s head to another person’s body remains a popular form of digital deception. Among the best-known examples of this technique was the August 1989 cover of TV Guide, which featured the head of popular daytime talk-show host Oprah Winfrey composited onto the body of actress Ann-Margret. And in July of 1992, the cover of Texas Monthly showed Texas Governor Ann Richards astride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle: a picture created by splicing Richards’ head onto the body of a model. When asked if she objected to the image, Richards responded that since the model had such a nice body, she could hardly complain.
This picture of Oprah Winfrey was created by splicing the head of Winfrey onto the body of actress Ann-Margret, taken from a 1979 publicity shot.
A digital composite of Martha Stewart’s head on a model’s body appeared on the cover of Newsweek.
The March 2005 cover of Newsweek featured a photograph of Martha Stewart with a headline that read "After Prison She’s Thinner, Wealthier & Ready for Prime Time." The photograph, however, was a composite showing Stewart’s head atop a (thin) model’s body; its intent was apparently to illustrate what Stewart might look like when she was released from prison. Although the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, doesn’t pose for magazine covers, she still wound up on the July 2013 cover of Marie Claire South Africa. The cover showed Middleton’s head pasted onto the body of a model wearing fashion from a local designer. Next to the image was the small print disclaimer "fan art tribute."
Another perennial favorite of forgers is the use of compositing techniques to suggest an association or relationship. It is believed, for example, that a doctored photograph contributed to U.S. Senator Millard Tydings’ electoral defeat in 1950: the photo of Tydings conversing with Earl Browder, a leader of the American Communist party, was meant to suggest that Tydings had Communist sympathies. In 1994, New York Newsday published a composite of Olympic ice skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in an improbable scene: practicing together at an ice rink shortly after Harding's ex-husband was discovered to have hired someone to break Kerrigan's leg. And in 2000, the University of Wisconsin at Madison—hoping to illustrate its diverse enrollment—doctored a brochure photograph by digitally inserting a black student in a crowd of white football fans (University officials said that they had spent the summer looking for pictures that would show the school’s diversity—but had no luck).
The photo of Tydings (right) conversing with Earl Browder (left), a leader of the American Communist party, was meant to suggest that Tydings had communist sympathies.
In the political arena, as Senator John Kerry was campaigning for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, a doctored photo of Kerry sharing a stage with anti-war activist Jane Fonda was widely distributed. Even after the photograph was revealed as a fake, it continued to damage Kerry’s prospects by drawing attention to his controversial involvement in the anti-war movement following his service in Vietnam. Pennsylvania State Representative Rob Kauffman distributed campaign literature in 2012 that featured a photo of him posing with his family, but used a doctored version of an earlier campaign photo. The only difference is that a small dog had been composited into the newer photo, prompting speculation about why his strategists thought Kauffman needed to be associated with a cute puppy.
Perhaps we have come to accept or even expect a certain amount of photographic trickery from Hollywood and politicians. But when it comes to "hard news" images like those from wartime reporters, the reaction to image manipulation has been decidedly different. In March 2003, the front page of the Los Angeles Times ran a dramatic photograph of a British soldier in Basra, Iraq, urging Iraqi civilians to seek cover. The photograph was discovered to be two images combined to "improve" the composition. In response, the outraged editors of the Los Angeles Times fired Brian Walski, a 20-year old veteran news photographer.
A digital composite of a British soldier in Basra, gesturing to Iraqi civilians urging them to seek cover, appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times shortly after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq.
Similarly, in August of 2006, the Reuters news agency published a photograph showing the remnants of an Israeli bombing of a Lebanese town—an image that, in the week that followed, was revealed by hundreds of bloggers and nearly every major news organization to have been doctored with the addition of more smoke. The general response was one of outrage and anger: the photographer, Adnan Hajj, was accused of doctoring the image to exaggerate the impact of the Israeli shelling. Embarrassed, Reuters retracted the photograph and purged its archives of nearly 1,000 photographs contributed by Hajj. In January 2014, the Associated Press (AP) terminated its relationship with Pulitzer-prize-winning freelance photographer Narciso Contreras. The cause for the termination was a September 2013 photo of the Syrian conflict that Contreras had altered to remove a video camera that was visible in the frame. The AP took down all of Contreras' photographs from their commercially available archive, nearly 500 in all, despite the fact that no other instances of improper manipulation were found. Santiago Lyon, Vice President and Director of Photography, was clear about the AP's zero tolerance for image manipulation: "Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable and we have severed all relations with the freelance photographer in question. He will not work for the AP again in any capacity."

Despite the firm stance of the AP and other news organizations, many of us are tempted to tweak a photograph for political advantage, for financial gain, or for aesthetic reasons. The fact that we can easily alter photographs to suit our goals or our vanity means that doctored photographs pervade our society, and, inevitably, this has led to a growing skepticism of photographs and photographers. This skepticism has provided the impetus for the nascent field of photo forensics. In coming posts, I will discuss several forensic techniques that may reveal evidence for image manipulation or evidence of image authenticity.