Summary Discussion - Truth and Lies and Photography

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015



This blog set out to explore whether our belief and trust in photography has deteriorated in recent times such that we as the general public have little faith in the veracity of published images.  Trends show that our instincts are correct in that the level of image manipulation of photos that purport to portray the truth has increased exponentially in recent years.  However it is wrong to think that this phenomenon of image modification is a product of the digital age.  Investigation into early photography showed us that enhancing, correcting and manipulating images was an accepted practice from the start.  What is clear is that a photograph, even in its purest form can never show the world as we as individuals actually see it since each of us views the world in our own unique way depending on our genetic makeup and visual experiences.  So what we each think an image of the real world should look like is in fact likely to be different as is the way we perceive a photographic image of that world.  Truth is a moving target where it is impossible to benchmark an absolute truth about reality on which to judge a photo of it.    Sometimes we correct a photographic image to bring it more into line with the reality that we see,  i.e. Fix it to make it more representational of the truth as we know it or other times we manipulate its colour or tone to make it more aesthetically pleasing but still hold to the tenet that it represents reality.    Whilst the world is agreed that removing or adding pixels to a raw image is unacceptable if we want to submit  an image as representing fact; there seems to be no published guidelines on the extent we can manipulate colour or tone to render the resultant  image acceptable or unacceptable as evidence of fact.   It seems that given ever increasing the level of unacceptable manipulation being found in submissions for photo journals and scientific journals that the general position of the public not to believe an image until its proven to be unmodified is a valid position to hold.

However advances in digital technology are enabling us to manipulate, distort, and alter reality in ways that were simply impossible twenty years ago.  It is impossible to imagine what the technology of tomorrow will make possible.  It will become critical that we fully understand the power, limits, and implications of digital technology, which may mean adopting a different attitude and relationship with digital media (Farid)[i].


In conclusion if in the future photographs are to be used for their full potential in exploring the boundaries of science, evidence of happenings, in courts of law and true representations of historical events then we need to ensure that forensic technology keeps pace with digital advancements so that it is always possible to identify image manipulation.  Photographers need to protect our industry and develop and enforce international standards regarding image verification, validation, certification and Meta data recording.  I.e. Such recommendations could include:

·       All photo-editing software to comply with auditing standards for logging manipulations and technology that secures the content of this Meta data so all raw images can be verified. 

·       The international photographic community needs a clear set of objective guidelines on what is acceptable and not acceptable regarding image manipulation.

·       Images can be officially verified and certified to be within acceptable bounds of manipulation.


[i] Farid H Digital Doctoring: can we trust photographs? Hany Farid Dartmouth College Retrieved Mar 11th 2015

Aesthetics versus Ethics – Manipulation of Facts for Ulterior Motives

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015

More concerning than altering images for photojournalism is that similar trends of manipulating photographic evidence has been experienced in the scientific circles with the U.S office of Research Integrity reporting the number of scientific images contested for misconduct of inappropriate manipulation increasing from 2.5% to 26% from 1990 to 2001(Pearson 2005)[i].  Using altered photos for propaganda to change opinion has been used very effectively for political purposes since the early 20th century.  More recently it has been used to blatantly manipulate public sentiments.  During the 2004 Presidential primaries the photo (Figure 13) showing John Kerry on the podium with ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda was composited in an attempt to discredit him to voters as Jane Fonda had been branded  a traitor to her country.  The photo was a deliberate fake, made up of a composite of two separate images taken 12 months apart[ii].

Figure 13 Manipulated Images – Photographers unknown –2005  Kerry 1971 – Fonda 1972 Published to discredit John Kerry  Campaign[iii]

[i] Pearson H.,2005  Nature Image manipulation:  CSI: cell biology  Nature 434, April pp 952-953 retrieved Mar 3rd 2015

[ii] Retrieved Mar 12 th 2015

[iii]  Retrieved Mar 3rd 2015

Aesthetics versus Ethics – Manipulation of a Caption but not the Image

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015

Sometimes it isn’t the image that is manipulated but the corresponding caption purporting to describe what the image is showing.  The famous photo of the Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (Figure 12) was captioned with “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.[i] It was primarily the publishing of this image which spurred the US federal government to immediately send 20,000 pounds of food to the pea picker’s camp.  In fact the caption written by Lange was a pure fabrication, the woman in the photo Florence Owens Thompson was in fact an itinerant worker, but was not a resident of the camp; she was photographed near the camp whilst waiting for her husband and sons to return from town with a radiator part to fix their car.  This begs us to ask the question; does the end justify the means? Is it acceptable to not manipulate the image but to bend the truth regarding its circumstance?

Aesthetics versus Ethics – Manipulation of the Visual Message portrayed by the Image

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015

Creative cropping is a means of manipulating the message provided by what would have been the image had it been published as originally taken.  The iconic Pulitzer Prize winning photo of Napalm Girl which helped galvanise the US public to call for an end to the Vietnam War(Figure 11), was published with a right hand side crop to remove the photographer dressed as a soldier, who is distractedly working on his camera as if there is nothing important happening in his field of view.  When the photographer is included it changes the focus and meaning of the message entirely regarding the allies’ concerns for the Vietnamese people.

Figure 11 Nick Ut Napalm Girl 1972[i]

[i] Nick Ut / AP via

Aesthetics versus Ethics – Adjust to compensate for Compositional Blemishes

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015

Often it is not until a photograph is developed that we notice a compositional flaw that does not in any way impact the factual content of the photograph.  The photo from Kent State University which was awarded the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography (Figure 10 ) broaches the line between ethical and unethical manipulation.  The image on the left is the original image as captured but at some point in time the fence pole coming out of the girls head was ‘air brushed’ out.  According to the Time Life publishers, they are unsure when and where the retouching occurred. (Zhang 2012).[i]


Figure 10 Original Image: John Filo Mary Ann Vecchio crying over dead body - Kent State University Shooting 1970

As the digital age progresses it becomes more and more unclear as to what is acceptable and what is not, when changing an image purported to be for photo-journalism. Whilst clearly adding or removing objects (pixels) from an image (except for the removal of sensor dust), is unacceptable there is little clarity as to what constitutes unacceptable manipulation of tone, colour, or exposure[ii].  It appears that photographers are more and more uncertain as to the limits of acceptability as evidenced in the recent 2015 World Press photo competition; where 20% of the photos were disqualified by the judges for reasons including, addition and subtraction of image content. This was almost three times the number of disqualifications from that of the previous year.  Whilst in some cases the pixels were not actually removed but instead the tonality had been adjusted to be so dark so as to obliterate them, this was still considered unacceptable[iii].

[i] Zhang M.2012, The Kent State Massacre Photo and the Case of the Missing Pole– Retrieved March 3rd 2015

[ii] Scott A. 2014, Publishing the news : Retouching in Photojournalism.– Retrieved Mar 3rd 2015

[iii] New York Times., 2015, Debating the Rules and Ethics of Photojournalism Retrieved Mar 3 rd 2015

Aesthetics versus Ethics – Adjust to compensate for Poor Tonal Relationships

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015

Figure 9 Dennis Stock James Dean in Times Square 1955 – Magnum Photos

The manipulation of the tonality of images using ‘dodging and burning’ techniques has been used by since the earliest days in photography.  The iconic photo of James Dean in Times Square (Figure 9) demonstrates how a relatively ordinary image was transformed into an iconic image with sophisticated dark room processing.. The lines and circles on the test print on the left shows the strategies for manually dodging and burning the image under the enlarger, with numbers scattered throughout the image denoting different exposure times (Zhang 2013)[i].  Interestingly the ‘dodging’ on the right hand side final photo at the front helps disguise the visual distraction of the litter on the pavement.  Issues arise when the manipulation of tonality is such that objects in the image are subjugated into the image surroundings such that they are no longer visible.  This type of manipulations whilst not physically removing pixels mimics the result of actual removal.


[i] Zhang M. 2013 Retrieved Mar 12th 2015

Aesthetics versus Ethics – Manipulation to Overcome Constraints

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015

From early times Photographers employed their technical skills to create images that satisfied their patrons’ requirements.  Early group family photographs were often composited from several images due to the unavailability of some of the participants at the time of shooting[i] (Figure 8).  In this image the poor post-production editing when viewed from today’s technology platform is patently obvious.

Images were frequently ‘corrected’ in post-development due to technical defects such as removing scratches in a negative, or in later times removing ‘red-eye’ in flash photography or adjusting for colour balance.

Figure 8 Werner A.and Sons  Daquilla Family (date unknown)

[i] Lodriguss J, Catching the Light The Ethics of Digital Manipulation -  Retrieved March 3rd 2015

Aesthetics versus Ethics – Manipulation to Satisfy Creative Urge

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015

An early instance of a photograph being deliberately staged for a creative outcome but resulting in the unsuspectingly public believing them to be evidential fact was a series of photographs staged by two young cousins in the UK. The girls used cut-out fairy illustrations pasted on cardboard in a whimsical tableau featuring the younger girl (Figure 7).   The images were created as pure fantasy and never intended to mislead. However, Arthur Conan Doyle the author who was also an ardent spiritualist published the photos where he interpreted them as providing clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena.  His reputation as an intellectual gave the photos credibility which was not officially debunked until the 1980s when the girls confessed to them being faked[i].

Figure 7 Elise Wright Fairy from Cottingley, 1917.

Enhancing images for aesthetic purposes has been part of photography since its inception.  The viewing audience however expects to be able to discern the purpose of an image in order for them to appreciate it as fine art rather than documented evidence of fact.

[i] Retrieved March 3rd 2015

The erosion of Trust in Photography’s evidential Truth

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015


Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.Ansel Adams


Our dilemma with seeking ‘truth’ occurs when delineation between these two types of photographs; artistic versus evidential or scientific are blurred.  I.e. Our concerns arise when we are viewing a photograph that we believe has been created for the purposes of accurately recording an instance in time but for a variety of reasons it has been manipulated to distort the perceived reality.  This manipulation can take place at the point of capture by choices in technology, exposure and viewpoint or at the point of post-development by choices in cropping, dodging and burning, cutting and pasting, airbrushing etc. 

As early as 1846 in the Mexican – American war photography was used to document war scenes but due to technical constraints of lengthy preparation prior to exposure, long exposure times and cumbersome development processes were at odds with a need to capture the action.  These early war scenes therefore required staging and were captured either before or after the battle.  As time progressed, the viewing public expected photographic evidence of war to depict actuality.  We now expect war photography to accurately portray action and actual events.  Robert De Capa’s famous image of the young Republican militiaman in the Spanish civil war, who was shot by Francoist rebels on a hillside in Cerro Muriano near Cordoba;  was  at the time of publishing in 1937 hailed as an epic realistic recording of the moment of death in battle. 

Figure 6 : Robert Capa Death of a Loyalist Soldier - 1936

Subsequent investigation into the events surrounding the photograph has left its veracity still in dispute.  Theories include that it was taken by Capa’s colleague or partner, that it was taken as a fluke by Capa as he pushed the shutter button at the sound of shots, with his camera raised over the parapet to claims that is a complete fake and shot part of a scene staged by Capa when he was unable to get scenes close to the battle (Knightly 1982, pp. 193 – 195)[i].  Capa was never forthcoming with information pertaining to the background of the image.  However its possibility of being a fake had sown the seeds of disbelief within the viewing public regarding the veracity of images purported to be truth and so reinforced  the trend of suspending belief in photograph’s recording the truth until proven as fact.  This distrust of the veracity of an image continued to take hold over the 20th century as people were inundated with more and more amazing special effects in Hollywood movies and later became aware of the power of image editing software to correct, manipulate and enhance an image.  Whilst the capability of software to change a digital image is now common knowledge few realise that manipulation in photographic images is as old as photography itself.

[i] Knightly P., The First Casualty, Kings English Book Printers Ltd Leeds.

Did Photography ever aim to only capture the ‘truth’?

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015


“You don't take a photograph, you make it.” Ansel Adams

 Photography was spawned from two very different parents; it is the result of a convergence of science and the arts. Up until the birth of photography around 1839, these two disciplines were clearly distinguished by ethics, ideology and technology.  Whereas, artistic expression is based on passion, perception and prejudice, science is concerned with the discovery of empirical facts, and conceptual interpretation of these facts to develop theory to explain reality of the natural world.  Whilst science seeks to explain reality, art is a personal quest of an attitude that may support or deny reality (Morris 1986, pp.1 – 8)[i]  However, the synergy between science and art can be seen in their need to involve creative thinking.  Whilst science may seem to be purely analytical most of the worlds most significant scientific discoveries have been through imaginings of creative thought.

The early photographers were typically artists who used the technology of capturing light to further their pursuit towards realism.  It is therefore not surprising that early photographs look ‘painterly’ and with the advent of the invention of the camera, painting and art became more ‘realistic’.  However the realism of the photographic image was often found to be too detailed and accurate, as with painting people wanted likenesses which flattered their vanity and did not want to be offended by the stark reality of their defects.  This customer demand for photographs to emulate paintings meant that in the very early days of photography photographers painted in backgrounds and ‘fixed’ portraits to satisfy the egos of their subjects.  As in paintings, where artists combined disparate subjects into the one composition; photographers ‘cut and pasted’ negatives to create aesthetic works. The Henry Peach Robinson image “Fading Away” (Figure 5) was a deliberate creation of composite of figures “as he attempted to realize moments of timeless significance in a "mediaeval" setting”[ii]

Figure 5 (Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away 1858)

In the 1850s and 1860s the debate on the artistic value of photography continued as it was disputed that the mechanical and chemical means of producing photographs was at odds with the imaginative, creative and expressive requirements of true art[iii].  However photographers argued that their artistry was in their ability to compose what the camera recorded.  This need for staging the subjects for early photography was not only to satisfy aesthetics but was necessary due to the long exposure times imposed by the technology, so the outcome of a photographic portrait in its formality and stiffness was not unlike that resulting from a formal sitting of the subject for a painting.  As the popularity of the Pictorialism movement grew photographers sought to intensify photography’s expressive potential through the use of soft focussed lenses, textured papers, multiple exposures, cutting and pasting negatives and manual manipulation techniques.

However in parallel with the artistic element in photography there was an early recognition that it is the value of photography to accurately capture in detail an instance in time that sets it apart from a piece of art.  François Arago the French physicist, astronomer and politician who secured French Government assistance for the Daguerreotype, was so impressed with these attributes of a photographic image that he postulated that it could be used for scientific purposes to accurately record archaeological research and restoration and also employed as an ‘objective retina’ where scientists could record the properties of light (Eskilden, 1980, p.7).[iv]   So from the first dawn of photography it is has had two masters, it has had to serve an artistic purpose to satisfy aesthetics and creativity and a scientific purpose of accurate recording of an instance in time.

As photographic applications expanded, as early as the 1860s, the value of photography as a reliable representation of the world and its credibility of evidence increased. Photographic evidence of personal identity, clothing, locales and signatures were increasingly used in courts of law where photographic affidavits successfully challenged hearsay evidence.  It was purported that photography made earlier forms of evidence ‘superseded by reality’ (Warner 2010, pp. 160 – 161). [v].  However this trust in its capabilities was soon to be eroded.

[i] Morris B 1986, Images Illusion and Reality, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, Australia.

[ii] Retrieved Feb 26th 2015

[iii]  Retrieved Feb 14th 2015

[iv] Eskilden U. 1980, “The A-I-Z and the Arbeiter Fotograph ; Working Class Photographers in WeimarImage vol. 23, no. 2 December. P. 7.

[v] Warner M 2010, Photography : A Cultural History,  Laurence King Publishing Ltd.  Great Britain 

Is it possible for a Camera to ever faithfully record the world as we see it?


All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. - Richard Avedon - 1984

A photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how the camera ‘saw’ a piece of time and space. Garry Winogrand [i]


I am impressed with what happens when someone stays in the same place and you took the same picture over and over and it would be different, every single frame. Annie Leibovitz


Even if we diligently employ a camera to capture reality as faithfully as possible what we ourselves see, as photographers we cannot help but add a layer of interpretation by our choice of :

·       perspective via viewpoint,

·       tonality via exposure,

·       focus and blur by aperture and shutter speed,

·       distortion by choice of lens

·       granularity by our choice of film or sensor sensitivity

·       colour by our choice of white balance light temperature adjustment.

 But even employing all options of current technology, we can never hope to capture what the human eye sees when viewing the same scene.  Our eyes employ a variety of means including iris adjustment and chemistry to achieve an absolute dynamic range of around 20 to 24 f stops (Mc Mahon) [ii] when scanning a scene but a single glance, is more like 10-14 f-stops, which definitely surpasses most compact cameras (5-7 f stops), but is similar to that of digital SLR cameras (8-11 stops)[iii].The dynamic range of sensors used in digital photography is many times less than that of the human eye and generally not as wide as that of chemical photographic media[iv]. However even this has to be compressed in order for us to view an image i.e. The output dynamic range is reduced to  8-10 stops for computer screens, and 5-7 stops for print.  In addition, the human eye also has a significantly more pixels than high end 24-megapixel cameras (Cicala)[v].  The eye of someone with 20/20 vision, can resolve the equivalent of a 52 megapixel camera (assuming a 60° angle of view). [vi] So what your eyes actually see in terms of tonal range and image quality is exponentially more than a camera could ever hope to capture or for you to see displayed on a screen or printed. So at best a DSLR generated photograph is a very poor copy of what we as humans can perceive from the reflected light in the world around us.  We are just not able to capture in a photograph the same level of tonality, depth of field or sensitivity of what we can see with the naked eye.

Therefore absolute truth is a moving target; our ability to capture it even what we personally perceive as truth is limited by today’s technology.  However a photographic record has the advantage over what we see in that it is an accurate and detailed record of an event recording a moment in time for posterity, unlike our memory of the same event which evolves or changes with time. 


[i]  Feb 26th 2015

[ii]Mc Mahon R,  Retrieved Feb 26th 2015

[iii] Retrieved Feb 26th 2015

[iv] Wikipedia , Retrieved Feb 26th 2015

[v] Cicala R, Retrieved Feb 26th 2015

[vi] Feb 26th 2015

Is there such a thing as absolute visual Truth or is it an illusion?

Author : Pam Morris March 15 2015

We can start by examining what we mean by capturing the truth and is there any such thing as indisputable universal visual truth even before it is portrayed in an image.  We believe that if a photographic image looks like what we see then it has accurately portrayed the truth.  However what we see ourselves may be vastly different to how others see the world.  Our own eyes see light through a lens and our retina with its rods and cones are our sensor, which transmits signals to the visual cortex in the brain where the signal is interpreted as an image.  However our DNA contains the coding instructions for how our cones interpret light to create coloured pigments, therefore depending on the genetic code we inherit, people see colour differently (Morris 1986,pp.1-77)[i].  Our brains also interpret and add information to an image often filling in expected information or interpreting the same information differently.  This may be based on experience, present knowledge, future expectation or again our physiology.   The classic image of the dancing girl (Figure 2) demonstrates how our different individual brains interpret signals so we see differently.  Where some people see the girl in the image below as dancing clockwise, others see it rotating counter clockwise, depending on which side left or right is our brains dominant hemisphere (McGuinness)[ii].   

Figure 2  Dancing Girl (origins unknown)-


The brain will also compensate for the colour of an object to give colour constancy by automatically adjusting for colour shift of the ambient light temperature as its wavelength changes (De Alfaro)[iii]. This automatic calibration within our brain, called colour constancy, (Bayne 2009,p.150)[iv] ensures that we are not consciously aware of the colour change of an object when viewed under the green tinge in fluorescent light, the yellow hue of halogen or the changing light from the sun over time.  An example of the different ways people’s eyes adjust for white balance is very aptly illustrated in the photograph of a dress (Figure 3).  This image has recently caused uproar in social media as 65% of people see the dress very clearly as white and gold, whilst conversely 26% of people see it as being coloured blue and black (its actual colour). 


Figure 3 Caitlin McNeill The Dress February 2015

Our human view of the world is just one view of reality animals see a much different world to us, many them can see more colours and some invertebrates can see wavelengths of light outside our visible spectrum.  Whilst humans can perceive 1 million different colours, some insects and pigeons can perceive up to 10 billion. 

Animals such as cats, sharks, owls and geckos can see between 100 times to 350 times more than humans in dim light.[v]  Scientific advancement has enabled us to see the finite world via, electron beams, x-rays, infrared and ultraviolet rays making the invisible, visible and the unreal, real.  So this causes us to ask what is real since something viewed with the naked eye takes on another level of reality when viewed through additional technology.

Figure 4 Comparison of the detail Seen by Sharks vs Humans in Low Light[vi]

So, in summary there is no absolute ‘truth’ in our view of reality , since due to each individuals unique genetic make-up and physiological limitations, we all see the world differently just as each instance of a photograph capturing  the reality ,will capture it differently, with different levels of detail, different colours and different tonality.  As a consequence of the laws of nature, physics and the universe the same object viewed by two people are always destined to be seen differently and captured by the camera differently again.

[i] Morris B 1986, Images Illusion and Reality, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, Australia.

[ii]   McGuinness Mark , Feb 26th 2015

[iii] De Alfaro L, Retrieved Feb 26th 2015

[iv] Bayne, T., Cleeremans, A., Wilken P., (Eds.) (2009) The Oxford Companion to Consciousness  , Oxford University Press, 

[v] Frater J, Retrieved Feb 26th 2015

[vi]Image 2nd Mar 2015

Truth and Lies in Photography

Author: Pam Morris - March 13th 2015


It is an old adage “the Camera doesn’t lie “but people of today automatically question the credibility of an ‘unbelievable’ photograph. When did we stop trusting the evidential truth of a photograph and was our past faith in a photo’s inherent veracity to portray reality, naive at best? With the increasing propensity for people to manipulate photographs and the ever advancing technology on ways that they can be manipulated, we need to ask what is being established within the photographic community to ensure that we can always determine whether or not a photo is truthfully portraying reality.


The hypothesis that people have generally lost their faith in a photographic image depicting reality was born when a casual viewer of one of my photographs immediately dismissed it as a fake citing that it had obviously been edited in Photoshop®.  The photo of two butterflies (Figure 1) which had been displayed as captured and had not been post-processed at all, except for being cropped, was the result of hours of waiting for the perfect moment.  This critique highlighted the changed social attitude towards photographic truth.  Whereas in the past people generally assumed that a photographic image had captured the ‘truth’, nowadays people assume the opposite; that unless someone can prove otherwise, an ‘unbelievable’ image is assumed to have been manipulated.

This raises a number of questions :

·       When did this shift in attitude occur?

·       What is ‘truth’ in a visual image and in photography.

·       Has this the ‘truth’ always been manipulated but we have only recently become aware of its increasing prevalence?

·       What can we as the photographic industry do to ensure that viewers can assess the validity of an image.

Image 1 - Butterfies Pam Morris (1 of 1).jpg

Figure 1 Pam Morris Mirrored Butterflies 2013