One of the journalists in Channel 4's satirical show used to hang around battle zones with a teddy bear in his trunk and place it at disaster zones a short time before cameras began shooting, in order to boost the dramatic effect.
I have no intention of doubting the integrity of photojournalists, most of whom work hard and risk their lives, but two cases exposed by bloggers during the second Lebanon War require us to resort to healthy skepticism.
The Reuters affair
Earlier this month, Reuters admitted that a photo by Lebanese photographer Adnan Hajj underwent improper treatment using graphic editing software. In another case of a photo showing an Israeli aircraft firing "missiles," it turned out those were flares and that this photo was also doctored by using a computer.
Both editing jobs were exposed by Charles Johnson, one of the owners of the Little Green Footballs blog.
Another photo showed a doll dressed in a clean wedding gown in front of a razed home. Another two photographs distributed in July and August showed a woman crying after her home was destroyed – twice in the space of two weeks. Yet another photo published in a newspaper showed what appears as bodies covered by white sheets, yet one of the bodies is sitting in a completely lively pose.
Another man who played a starring role in the blogs is Salam Daher, who heads civilian rescue operations in Tyre. Daher, labeled "Green Helmet Guy," is shown in 2006 and 1996 photographs following Air Force attacks on the village of Qana. AP strongly denied the photos were staged and even published a special photo of Daher (wearing a blue helmet) and explained who he was.
All this does not contradict the fact Daher repeatedly waved the bodies of children before the cameras (at times using the same body at different poses), while the photographers photographed.
Digital forgery has become norm
We can assume the Mickey Mouse photo is completely genuine, but we may still wonder whether the doll was placed in the area following the bombing. The Adnan Hajj affair shows that today there's no longer a need to stage photos. Instead, we can modify them using powerful graphic tools such as Photoshop.
Indeed, digital forgery has become the norm. Anyone who has met celebrities up close knows that at time the difference between them in reality and their faces, as modified by Photoshop and appearing on magazine covers, is rather significant.
Not really (Photo: Reuters)
The New Scientist reported this month that an algorithm developed by researcher Tommer Leyvand from Tel Aviv University can easily make people look more beautiful through an instant change of hundreds of facial features.
Charles Johnson and his friends at Little Green Footballs hold on to clear conservative political positions, yet their skepticism helps truth-seekers wherever they are and serves the press.
Even though dozens of channels and hundreds of news websites provide a sense of media pluralism, most of the photos and video stories from battle zones are distributed by a small number of news agencies: AP, Reuters, and AFP.
Just when visual broadcasting means (photos, video) are peaking, in the backdrop we can see emerging photojournalism's big crisis. Although Reuters was quick to announce it will make reviews of Middle East photos stricter, such doctored photo cases may indeed repeat in growing frequency, with forgers improving their tactics.
A photo will no longer be worth a thousand words
We're not only talking about a fundamental ethical problem that is only of interest to professionals. In the short run, the doctored photos may serve to dramatize Lebanese suffering and display the destruction sowed by Israel in Lebanon as greater in scope than it really is.
Yet over time, the weak party to the war will pay the price for the forgery, after human sensitivity to its pain will be dulled. This is tragic because the Lebanese people did suffer in the last war and many experienced genuine, non-doctored bereavement and destruction.
In the future, even when genuine photos from wars will be distributed, it's likely that the other side will plant changes in them and redistribute them in order to undermine their credibility and make audiences doubt them, as part of a propaganda war.
Once those insights are internalized, and the general public knows that it can no longer believe what it sees, a photo will no longer be worth a thousand words – it won't even be worth one word.