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July 11th, 2008  |  Published in Reporting commentary  |  2 Comments


I love the smell of fauxtography in the morning and I will believe that the Grey Lady is really interested in exposing it when she beats Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs to the punch. Well done..again..Charles and hat tip Augean Stables and to Charles at LGF for the image.

But there’s more. One could take away the lesson that a tiny percentage of photographs and more generally motion footage is fake and miss a larger point. All visual material we see on news outlets is to some extent manipulated. We see only the angle the camera operator chose – still or motion – and in motion we almost never see the footage that is edited out. Even with no intention to lie choices are made by necessity and the criteria that drive choice are normally artistic, cultural, ideological, and commercial -  and only secondarily  accuracy or truth.

As any camera operator knows, even you dear reader, the camera always subtly or not so subtly changes what is before it. We all recognize that the photographic image is not the same as the thing itself. What we are often pursuing is verisimilitude – the appearance of truth. The press has learned long ago to pursue and sometimes improve -  by whatever technology is available – the images it presents to us as true. In this case the Iranians not the press are the not so artful dodgers, but it is at a minimum amusing that the French were the ones initially taken in.

Amusing because of the far more serious case of the al Durah affair – allegedly documenting the killing  of a Palestinian boy by Israeli troops in 2000 – in the French media progressively exposed over the years  as something other than what is purports to be. In a recent post at Augean Stables Richard Landes, the key figure in exposing Pallywood – the routine production of fake news footage in the Middle East,  documents the slow unraveling:

Like many such “public secrets,” this tale does not wear well over time. (The French call them secrets de Polichinelle, secrets like pregnancy that will, eventually, out.) What I did not expect, was how often the defenders of al Durah would reveal the nature of these dysfunctions I was trying to chronicle and explain. Now Larry Derfner has added his text to the dossier of self-revelatory texts that explain so much about the al Durah affair.

To understand the specifics of Landes’ argument with Derfner and others you will have to read Landes’ entire post – The “Public Secret Dossier“, but what I want to point to here is that the idea of a ‘public secret’ – or from a slightly different perspective – the elephant in the room – is often directly and openly referred to by the people most involved in trying to keep it secret. Here is Landes again further along in the same post discussing a 2003 article by Adam Rose:

Perhaps Rose had not seen the interview that Esther Schapira did with a PA TV official who explained why his team had inserted a picture of an Israeli soldier, firing rubber bullets at a riot caused by the al Durah footage, into the al Durah footage in order to make it clear that the Israelis intentionally targeted the boy in cold blood. His justification was strikingly similar to Rose’s:

These are forms of artistic expression, but all of this serves to convey the truth… We never forget our higher journalistic principles to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.

There it is – self revelatory, naked. It’s not the news,  it’s artistic expression.  The rock group the Eagles sang in the seventies: It’s the same old murder move – they just call it the news.  Some of it – most notably al Durah because of the historical consequences -  is fraudulent, but all photographically derived news is artistically manipulated to maximize the dramatic and support the point being made verbally. The most impactful images get published – the less dramatic and the inconsistent material goes in the bin. As important as it is to expose the dishonesty of a few; it is also critical to recognize that it is in the nature of photography that artistic choices are always made that ‘frame’ the truth even as the real world gives birth to it.


  1. Richard Landes says:

    July 12th, 2008at 12:07 am(#)

    always a pleasure to see someone go to the most impt part of the argument.

    Lazar has also posted at our site a case of a Zimbwabwean mother who faked the injuries of her children at the expense of roundly detested dictator Mugabe. But as Lazar points out, the channeling of this false material, even in a good cause, is simply not acceptable. this is one of the most important lines to draw where a free press is concerned.

  2. admin says:

    July 12th, 2008at 12:30 pm(#)

    I thought the most important part of the argument was the openness with which “Public Secrets” are often divulged. I would add that another way to make my point about photography is that it really is an art – despite all the debate among fine arts people over the years – and draws its practitioners into thinking like artists always in search of the iconic image. Photography uses the literal and specific – real of faked, sadly – to go beyond the particular and suggest a more typical or general truth. A painter of battlefield scenes can move elements around, enhance a facial expression or leave something out and he is still within the rules of his art. But when a photographer does it, it’s wrong and dishonest because he is trading on the accepted understanding that news photography is presented in effectively unaltered form.

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