Fool me once, shame on you. Fool National Geographic, shame on your integrity and kudos for your editing skills.
National Geographic magazine once gave a prestigious award to a fake photo, and even ran a fake photo on a magazine cover. One of the world’s most famous news photos is a somewhat fake photo, and your e-mail inbox may have some fake photos that have become urban legends.
The credibility of some photos are still debated, although most arguments have been debunked: for example the moon landing photos are real, as are the photos of soldiers planting a flag at Iwo Jima. Here are some famous images that don’t fit the bill.
The most famous fake photo in recent history is Brian Walski’s Los Angeles Times cover photo from Iraq that combines two separate images of an American soldier and Iraqi civilians for a more compelling fake photo. Sharp-eyed readers noticed two images of the same civilians in the background, and the newspaper fired Walski, but not before giving the news media a black eye.
Another Iraq Fake
Another fake photo scandal ensnared more than a photographer. London’s Daily Mirror newspaper fired an editor for using fake photos of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.
Vietnam Fake of Sorts
Vietnam War news coverage included perhaps the most famous fake photo. Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer for his photo of Viet Cong Col. Ngyen Ngoc Loan shooting a prisoner in the head. While it isn’t exactly a fake photo, the colonel moved the execution to an outside location so gathered press photographers would have better light and angles.
The most famous image of a blurry Loch Ness monster — the Surgeon’s Photo — is a fake photo, but it predates Photoshop, so it’s not just digital wizardry. Nessie’s “head" is actually a toy submarine with a sculpted head.
Fooling the Big Boys
An Indian photographer entered a fake photo in a prestigious National Geographic photography contest in 2008, and won the “Viewers’ Choice" prize. Photo experts say the photo bears obvious hallmarks of digital manipulation. National Geographic removed the photo from its Web site but has not officially acknowledged it is fake.
Covering a Fake
National Geographic used its own fake photo in 1982 for a cover that pushed two Egyptian pyramids closer together for a more compelling image.
Flood of Fakes
The tragic 2004 tsunami in Asia spawned terrifying real images of nature’s wrath, and even more fake photos. Some of the fakes even made it into newspapers all over the globe.
Rewriting the History Books
Detractors of George W. Bush don’t have to work hard to find embarrassing images of the former president, but one handy jokester still insisted on creating a fake photo. The famous photo of Bush reading to children on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was regularly circulated with Bush holding the book upside down. Come on, even his harshest critics don’t believe he’s that dumb, right?
John and Jane?
The other side plays the same game. A fake photo of John Kerry sharing the stage with Jane Fonda was making the rounds in the 2004 U.S presidential campaign. The image is a composite of two images from anti-war rallies and the two never appeared on stage at the same time.
The e-mail age has spawned plenty of visual urban legends, perhaps most famously “Tourist Guy," a photo of a man standing on top of the World Trade Center as a hijacked jet approaches on Sept. 11, 2001. The photo looks fake and is so obviously illogical, but enough viewers believed it to warrant a Snopes entry.
“Tourist Guy" is also digitally pasted into at least 1,300 other images shown here.They range from slight alterations of the 9-11 photo, with Dumbo or other objects flying toward the tower, to movie posters with “Tourist Guy" awkwardly replacing the stars.
How can you Know?
Finally, to be a photo watchdog for your newspaper or e-mail, Scientific American magazine has an interesting article on how to spot fake photos.