Hany Farid, Dartmouth computer science professor and co-founder of Fourandsix Technologies, has been in the news of late on the pervasive issue of digital manipulation of photos in the media and his field of photo forensics. This not a new phenomenon – National Geographic took some heat a couple of decades ago for moving the Great Pyramids of Egypt to fix a cover layout problem and even the most venerable of photojournalists, W. Eugene Smith, the guy who said “let truth be the prejudice” used clever darkroom tricks like sandwiching negatives and intense burning and dodging to create his iconic images. In the digital age and with the sophistication of photoshop, it is now possible to do anything you want with photographs – including creating them out of whole cloth… er… pixels. The heart of the issue is that of “truth” and whether the images we are making and seeing can be viewed as “true”.
The adage “photographs don’t lie” no longer has the rock solidness that it may once have enjoyed – though it may be far more accurate to say that “photographs don’t lie, but photographers do.” What Farid is proposing is to create an accountability score for images to educate viewers as to just how much their eyes are being deceived, and that’s what his software does – rating images from 1 (minimal manipulation) to 5 (making me look like Leonardo Dicaprio). Nearly every photograph published in print or online is going to have been manipulated in some manner. It may be as simple as tweaking the exposure, or removing some dust spots or slightly sharpening the image to compensate for anti-aliasing filters over the sensor.
Most images published in magazines and in advertising go at least a step or ten farther. Portraits often have minor blemishes or wrinkles minimized or removed, stray hairs, stains on a coat lapel or dandruff on a shoulder delicately erased. In the case of celebrity and fashion, the final published image often bears little resemblance to the original. Does this affect the “truth” of the image? Without question, and I think Farid is making the point that viewers have a right to know by just how much.
There are all sorts of issues that come into play: Can we believe news images and does that change how we respond to world events? Do hyper-idealized images of celebrities and models impact body image and self-esteem, especially of young girls and women? Is it possible that there is a whole race of people with no pores, wrinkles, double chins or love handles? We shouldn’t be naive: image manipulation will continue to exist, and in some cases we just may not care – but there are definitely times we will want to know whether what we are seeing is fact or fiction.
- A nearly completely unretouched, un-manipulated image of Hany Farid originally photographed for Bloomberg Businessweek: