The expression, "a picture is worth 1,000 words," is often attributed to either Napoleon Bonaparte, or Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. This saying is meant to convey the power and impact of a single image in replacing pages of text.
However recent fake photographs from the 2008 Olympics, or the Iranian government show how easy it is to manipulate reality–thereby altering impressions and changing the conversation towards a particular point of view. It's quite easy to manipulate photographs, so why do we trust them in the first place?
I recently stumbled upon a terrific article in the New York Times titled, "Photography as a Weapon." The author of the piece, Errol Morris, is a filmmaker, and in the article he interviews Hany Farid, a Dartmouth professor and an expert on digital photography.
The article highlights some recently faked photographs of a missile launch by the Iranian government, where in an apparent attempt to cover-up a launch failure, the photographs were doctored with a photo application. Instead of showing a possible misfire, smoke clouds and a missile launch were inserted. The photograph was then made available on a website and republished in newspapers across the globe. It wasn't until a week later that a blogger (of all people) noticed the manipulation and published his findings.
While the whole escapade of creating digital forgeries is interesting, a larger question asked by the NYT article is "why do we trust photographs in the first place"?
Granted there are many avenues through which our minds process information–visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory etc. However, Hany Farid seems to think that many people have a special affinity for photographs and the emotion that they can sometimes evoke. "Vision is a pretty unique sense for the brain," he explains. "It's incredibly powerful–so it's not surprising that it has an emotional effect on us. The brain is very good at processing visual imageries and bringing in memories associated with images."
This mental processing is so powerful that even after an image is exposed as a forgery, many continue to remember the picture as accurate. Mr. Farid notes, "And there are psychology studies, when you tell people that information is incorrect, they forget that it's incorrect. They only remember the misinformation."
This brings us back to the photo manipulation of the Iranian missile launch. Even as the photographs are exposed as a forgery, many people will either not have this updated information, or forget the photographs are a fake. The image of the missile launch, and the ramifications and meaning of the launch are burned into our minds–long after the photo is exposed as fraud.
Jack Trout, in the marketing classic, "Positioning: The Battle for the Mind" mentions that the approach of positioning is to not, "create something new and different, but to manipulate what's already–in the mind, or retie the connections that already exist."
I believe the Iranian military is not trying to introduce a new topic by releasing these photos–after all, world powers already know they have military capability. However, fake or not, the missile launch photographs attempt to position a point of view and change the conversation.
With the introduction of these photographs, the conversation changes from, "Does Iran have the capability?"–to instead; "That one launch was a fake, but is Iran still dangerous? Could they strike a neighbor? Could they strike the United States?"
And of course, the cynics among us will ask–rightfully so, "How do we even know there really was a missile launch?"
Regardless, a new conversation is started and in the minds of most people, impressions are altered–mission accomplished for the Iranian military.
I don't bring up this particular instance of the Iranian photograph to have a political or military discussion. In fact, I'd like to avoid this.
I am, however, interested in how photography is used for marketing purposes and how images (altered or not) can ultimately end up changing perceptions, positions (in our minds), and therefore our actions/inaction.
Questions for DailyFix readers:
* Do you apply careful cynicism/diligence to the pictures you see on the web or in publications?
* Does the medium denote trustworthiness? Meaning a photograph in the LA Times is to believed over one captured in the National Enquirer?
* When a "trustworthy medium" mistakenly publishes an altered photograph, how do you feel? Angry? Cheated? Do you blame the publication or those who produced the photograph?
* What other examples have you seen where someone attempted to "change a conversation" or reposition an existing idea or POV with the introduction of a photograph?
* Every photograph is in essence altered reality to some degree (accounting for time, place and how the photo was framed by the photographer). Why then do we trust photographs in the first place?
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