There’s an interesting dicussion going on over at CQ about a Reuter’s photograph from Iraq that appears to be staged. I think he’s probably right about that. It purportedly show "insurgents tak[ing] up positions" but the friendly gunman over to the right is almost certainly posing dramatically for the camera, rather than actually preparing to shoot anything.
Some of the comments go even further, suggesting that the picture is a Photoshop composite of two different actual photos. I don’t that’s the case myself, especially since it’d be much easier to simply ask two guys to stand where you want them to be, but it is possible.
This isn’t the first time a photograph from a wire service or a newspaper has been called into question, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s very very easy to create convincing fakes in Photoshop. Even when the photo is authentic, the policies of various publications who hire locals to take action shots calls into question the timing and circumstances of the pictures. Is a shot really of what they claim it is? Was it taken when they claim it was taken?
There’s a very simple way that any newspaper or wire service could use to answer all these questions and to reassure their readers that they are, indeed, an accurate source of news. All they have to do is make the full sized, original photo available for download.
Even today, in an era of broadband connections and high-resolutions most online news photos are hardly better than thumbnails. Not only is this annoying, it almost makes it very difficult to verify that a photo hasn’t been manipulated; resampling covers a multitude of sins. Far more important, though, is what isn’t visible.
All modern digital cameras stamp each file they create with hidden data called EXIF fields. At a minimum the EXIF data will show the date a photo was taken, the camera model used, the exposure information (shutter speed, aperture), and the focal length of the lens. Using this simple information, anyone familiar with photography can gather a huge amount of insight about a photo. Right away you know the time, the date, the approximate distance of the photographer from the subject, whether anything was moving (requiring a fast shutter speed) or whether people in the picture are likely just holding still for the camera.
Some high-end digital cameras (mostly used by photojournalists, conveniently) also have GPS modules are available. A camera with one of those will stamp an image file with the location where a photo was taken, as well as all of the above information.
So, my simple proposal is that all newspapers, wire services, and independent news photographers who want to be taken seriously begin posting the original, unedited, complete, and untouched files to the web for public download. The files may be JPG or RAW format, however they came out of the camera. If there’s a question about a photo then the photo and the data can simply speak for itself.
Will the mainstream media do this? I doubt it, at least not just yet. They’d likely cite copyright concerns, licensing agreements, etc. But they said the same things years ago about putting the text of their stories online, and again when online transcripts became common. I suspect that bloggers will lead the way, as usual these days. They don’t have the resources of Reuters or the NYT, but when a Flickr Pro account with virtually unlimited storage and bandwidth is a trivial expense, so there’s no reason for a blogger not to make a newsworthy photo available at full-size. People will soon come to expect it.
I humbly predict that the first organization that takes this advice will become the most trusted source of news photography on the web. Everyone else will be scrambling to catch up. Want to stop this sort of damaging speculation? Then hop to it, Reuters.
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