back to blog

Altered Images at the Bronx Documentary Center

Slide 1

Unknown photographer, Valencia, Venezuela, February, 2014 On April 27, 2015, FOX13 Memphis posted a picture to their Facebook page of what appeared to be Baltimore engulfed in flames. While Baltimore was overrun with riots that night, the photograph was taken in Venezuela a year prior. The photographer remains unknown.

Slide 2

Distributed by the Revolutionary Guard, Iran July, 2008 Numerous American news outlets published this image of an Iranian missile launch on their front page. The image showed four missiles streaking into the air. It was released by Sepah News, the official online news site of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Only three of the missiles successfully launched; the fourth was Photoshopped in to hide the missile that failed to launch. Little Green Footballs, an American political blog, discovered the manipulation the day of the photo's publication, calling it a "Photoshop fake." The Associated Press released the original photo the next day with the fourth missile unlaunched in the center; both Sepah News and Agence France-Presse (AFP) rescinded the photograph.

Slide 3

Adnan Hajj, Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2006 Adnan Hajj, the photographer, was found to have used Photoshop to clone and darken the smoke in this photo to exaggerate the bombing damage. This photograph was distributed throughout the media before the manipulation was caught by a blogger. Reuters news agency, who worked with the freelance photographer, immediately fired him. Reuters then withdrew all 920 photographs by Hajj from its database after it was discovered that he had manipulated a second photo.

Slide 4

Arthur Rothstein, South Dakota Badlands, 1936 Arthur Rothstein, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, moved and photographed a steer skull at several locations in South Dakota during a severe drought in the region. Several frames of this exist, all showing different backgrounds. After one of the photos was distributed by the Associated Press, Republican opponents of President Roosevelt seized on the opportunity and articles about the staging of this photo were published in conservative newspapers around the country.

Slide 5

Eugene Smith, Deleitosa, Spain, 1951 Eugene Smith's photo essay Spanish Village was published in LIFE magazine in 1951 and was received with national acclaim among both readers and photographers. The iamge series depicts a small rural village in Spain under the rule of dictator Francisco Franco. In this photograph, an intimate scene of the wake of a Deleitosa villager, Smith retouched the wife and daughter's eyes. Originally the two women had been looking toward the photographer, but in the darkroom he printed their eyes much darker and then applied bleach with a fine-tipped brush to create new whites, thereby redirecting their gazes downward and to the side.

Slide 6

Giovanni Troilo, Charleroi, Belgium, 2014 This was part of a winning photo essay in the 2015 World Press Photo awards. The image, of the photographer's cousin and a woman having sex in a car, and lit by the photographer's remote flash inside the car, was set up. WPP judges eventually rescinded the award after numerous other complaints surfaced and an uproar ensued from the photojournalism community; another photo in the series was found to be taken in Brussels, not Charleroi, as the caption claimed. Charleroi's mayor and others complained that other photos from the series were staged.

Slide 7

Yevgeny Khaldei, German Reichstag building, Berlin, May 2, 1945 This iconic photograph from World War II shows a triumphant Red Army soldier waving a Soviet flag over the Reichstag building in Berlin, signifying communist conquest over Nazi Germany. Khaldei scaled the Reichstag with his own Soviet flag in tow, one that had been made by his uncle out of tablecloths for this purpose. He asked the soldiers to pose with the flag. Before the photo's first publication in Ogoniok, a Russian magazine, the watches on the soldiers' wrists were scratched out on the negative, concealing that the Soviets had been looting. Dark clouds of smoke were added in a later version on the photograph.

Slide 8

Brian Walski, Basra, Iraq, March 30, 2003 The photograph is a composite of two images taken seconds apart. After the Hartford Courant published the image, an employee noticed a duplication of civilians in the background. The Los Angeles Times confronted Walski, who confessed to having digitally merged the two photographs to improve the composition.

How—and why—do photojournalists change their photographs? A new exhibition, Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography, on view at the Bronx Documentary Center through August 2, posits that the history of altered news pictures might provide an alternative history of photojournalism itself. In the 1850s and 1860s, war photographers such as Roger Fenton (in Crimea) and Alexander Gardner (during the Civil War) rearranged cannon balls and bodies to make the image more true to life, since action photography was impossible. By the 1930s, Robert Capa used film and Leicas, which allowed him to capture action but brought different sorts of problems. How did Capa manage to capture a Spanish soldier dying from a bullet wound? The unforgettable picture first appeared on September 23, 1936 in France’s VU, and modern researchers still debate whether Capa was at the place identified in the caption.

Altered Images was born out of such questions, and from director (and award-winning photojournalist) Mark Kamber’s desire to reinforce a code of journalist ethics that he perceives to be at risk, largely because of the economic and technical crises that now threaten news media.

The show includes over one hundred cases of alteration, from the 1850s to the present, each accompanied by informative captions. We see the image as originally published, what the show calls the “Representation,” in the form of front pages of newspapers, pages of magazines, and screen shots. A text describing the “Reality” identifies the alteration and the reason behind it, in numerous cases including quotes from the photographer.

Alteration in photojournalism is not a new story, but it has become simpler to do with the rise of digital journalism, confirmed here by the fact that the majority of examples from this exhibition date from recently. The most recent front-page story dates from January 11, 2015 when world leaders joined a Paris demonstration for the slain journalists of French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo. The Orthodox Israeli paper HaMevaser, altered a photograph of the march taken by Haim Zach, removing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, and President of Switzerland Simonetta Sommaruga. Their presence, as women, violated religious beliefs of publisher, editors and readers —a reminder that such censors always believe in the justice of their work.

We are left prompted to ask different kinds of questions: what kind of information remains immune to alteration? What kind of photographic evidence cannot be altered? This exhibition, refreshingly, does not pretend to offer answers.

–Mary Panzer

Sign up for Aperture's weekly newsletter: