Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Believing the Pictures. Or Not.

There's an old saying that "photos don't lie." Well, that was before we had things like digital photography and Photoshop. Nowadays, photos can lie just as much as any politician or economist. And even if it's not Photoshopped, a picture is a slice of time that may not tell the whole story.

Take this iconic photo that you have surely seen by now:

It shows President Obama with his national security advisors in the White House situation room, watching the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed unfolding in real time. Much has been written about this photo and what it says on many levels: the sober intensity of the people in the room, the President not at the center of the photo, a black man at the pinnacle of power, the role of women in world affairs, and the terror and uncertainty of the moment as revealed in Secretary Clinton's evident gasp of horror. You can read one of the better analytical articles here.

A bit of the drama comes off the picture because, as we now know, Secretary Clinton was stifling a sneeze at the moment the photo was taken. Nevertheless, it's a classic photo that will no doubt be one of the defining images of the Obama presidency and the ill-named "war on terror."

Photos can lie through editing, too. Soviet Russia in particular was famous for heavy-handedly cropping individuals who had fallen from political favor out of photographs, and Iran was once caught out adding extra missile launches to a photo designed to impress potential enemies with its supposed military power...

But photos can be edited for other reasons as well ... the faces of victims of crime, for instance, are often blurred or pixillated out of photos, and the adding of black tape across the eyes of people in pictures is a staple of crime reporting. The height of bizarre photo editing was reached recently when the Hasidic Jewish newspaper Der Zeitung printed the White House photo reprinted above after editing out the images of Secretary Clinton and another woman in the background because they were "sexually suggestive" ...

Now with all due respect to Secretary Clinton - who, in my opinion, has done a good job so far as Secretary of State - the words "sexually suggestive" do not spring to mind when looking at this photograph. Ham-handed editing of the photo of a fully-clothed woman stifling a sneeze because it is "sexually suggestive" ranks right up there with enforcing female modesty by dressing the woman from head to foot in black robes that just leave a tiny slit for the eyes.

Photos do lie. Before digital photo processing, editors carefully airbrushed flaws out of pictures ... now, they do the same thing pixel by pixel with a mouse and powerful software.

When you can't believe either the photos or the words, what can you believe? Now, more than ever, is the time to observe Bilbo's First Law: Don't let anyone do your thinking for you.

And watch out for people with cameras and agendas.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Mike said...

I had heard something about the missing Clinton picture but had not seen it.

allenwoodhaven said...

It used to be said that the camera never lies. I guess the NRA would say cameras don't lie, people do...

KathyA said...

"Sexually suggestive"???!!! What the hell are they smoking?
Probably had more to do w/Hasidic attitudes of women in power.