Fauxtography: When Pictures Lie

Tracey Barnett ©August 2008

A terrified 12-year-old Palestinian boy crouches behind a barrel under the protective arm of his father as Israeli bullets whiz past them. Seconds later, the news video shows the boy slumped dead in his father’s lap, his father also wounded, dazed.

That image became an iconic symbol of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, picked up by media all over the world in 2000. Though New Zealanders may not recognize his name, Mohammed al-Dura’s death has become what Atlantic Magazine called the Pietà of the Arab world.

His death became a rallying cry for the second Intifada. Today songs exhort others to join al-Dura in martyrdom. Streets, parks and even postage stamps, have been created in his honour in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

A horrible repercussion of war, surely. But today this heart-breaking 59-second video poses a very different problem than the death of the innocent.

After years of fierce contention, a French court has now ruled that this footage shot by a freelance Palestinian cameraman was possibly a staged fake. If true, this would mark one of the most devastatingly harmful hoaxes seen in modern media.

It has taken eight years and a court of appeals to force France 2 Television to release the full 27-minute footage that allegedly reveals staged battle scenes, and rehearsed ambulance evacuations.

France 2 has stuck by its story. But pro-Israeli commentators argue that this is finally independent proof of “Pallywoood”, the purported Palestinian-Hollywood-esque manufacture of news footage to further the cause, despite its fiction. We may never know the whole truth.

But one thing is certain. The commentator who fought to take this through the long slog of the French court system won the battle, but lost the war.

No one in New Zealand, or the dozens of other nations that broadcast the footage, is going to remember a court case in faraway France eight years later. But they will remember the injustice they thought they saw with their own eyes, when they based their opinions on that moment accordingly.

Cameras don’t lie. It’s the people behind them who do.

From Iwo Jima flag raising to Stalin magically inserting himself next to Lenin in bygone airbrushing days, the visual image has always been a political weapon. The difference today is two little inventions, the Internet and Photoshop.

For every man and his dog who can now shoot video on a handheld home recorder and publish it to the web, there are millions more unquestioning viewers willing to take that footage as gospel.

Bad move. The traditional gatekeepers of the news are having a harder time keeping a hold of the reins themselves. They’re now feeding off the web as much as we do, and that’s not always pretty.

Last month a fictional fourth missile magically appeared in an Iranian missile launch photo that made the front pages of embarrassed newspapers worldwide. The photo had been picked up from the Sepah website, the media arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The website Boing Boing initiated a contest afterward called “Iran: You Suck At Photoshop”. Entries included the four missiles launched variously with Godzilla, Wiley Coyote and somebody’s giant cat inserted into the scene.

If news sources from the web are now flowing both ways, who’s minding the backwash?

Photo specialists were once the only people who could retouch Castro’s enemies out of the picture. No more. Now I watch primary school kids photoshop themselves into a Bart Simpson character at the click of a mouse. With this pervasive technology, that same photo can become a seamlessly manipulated editorial, courtesy of your nephew down the street. We just don’t know how to see it yet.

Last month Fox News was caught having a grand time manipulating the pictures of two New York Times journalists by broadening their features, darkening their eyes and yellowing their teeth. Viewers at the time had no clue.

Television first brought the reality of Viet Nam into everyone’s living rooms. But what happens today when news can be manufactured in our living room and land on our television?

The death knell for photographic trust isn’t just in news. It’s everywhere. The prestigious journal Science had to retract the work of a scientist whose research was supported by doctored mouse embryo pictures. Even Tourism NZ wasn’t particularly red-faced when they were caught blending a photo of dolphins into a picture with happy kayakers last year. Their defence was that the spirit of the travel experience was true.

Trusted editors like Reuters are firing photojournalists who add more smoke plumes to shots of Beirut burning. But even with tougher editorial restrictions, we’re bound to lose this battle, clone tool by clone tool.

The bigger question is, when we finally learn that we can no longer believe what we see, what will that cost us?

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