Photographic images can be altered and manipulated in various ways to change their meaning. Some of the most obvious and oft-cited historical examples are those in which discredited Party officials were clumsily erased from group pictures: Trotsky is erased, leaving Lenin to address the troops; Goebbels is erased, leaving Hitler standing next to a ghostly absence; etc. These historical instances of altered photographs seem quaint in the age of Photoshop, when any image can easily be changed, leaving no visible trace of the alteration. But the old motivations are still there, as when the Situation Room image released by the White House showing President Obama and his national security team intently watching the images from the raid on Osama bin Laden was altered when published by two Orthodox Jewish publications in Brooklyn to remove the only two women in the image, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason. This politically loaded erasure unleashed a flurry of photoshopped versions of the Situation Room image (all women, Osama replacing Hillary, officials as uniformed super heroes, etc.) circulating across the Internet. In fact, the “original” image released by the White House had already been digitally altered, to obscure the image lying on the desk in front of Hillary Clinton, and was accompanied, when it appeared on Flickr, by this disclaimer: “Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured.”
A different sort of alteration is aesthetically, rather than politically, motivated, when an image is cleaned up or improved, just to make a better image. The fence post is removed from above Mary Ann Vecchio’s head in the iconic image of the Kent State shootings in 1970, a fourth missile is inserted into an image of the Iranian Missile Test in 2008, or two images are combined to make a better composition in an image from Iraq in 2003, leading to the firing of Los Angeles Times staff photographer Brian Walski.
Various technical fixes have been proposed to control these kinds of alterations and make it clear when an image has been changed, but none of these measures will solve the larger problem. We manipulate images, in part, to obscure how much they are manipulating us.
The truth is that every photograph or digital image is manipulated, aesthetically and politically, when it is made and when it is distributed, and this is key to how they can be used to subtly influence us. The manipulation is possible because we believe technical images in a way that we do not believe traditional (handmade) images. We believe that technical images have a more direct relation to the real, so our default setting in relation to them is credulity. Seeing is believing. This makes it possible for us to be manipulated and influenced by technical images in a particular way.
Our belief in photographic images is a projection, so it can be influenced in all kinds of ways, from the making of the image within long-established image rhetorics to the way the image is presented and contextualized by accompanying texts. At a time when any photographic image, old or new, can be digitized and altered at will, we should not believe any image that we see in print or online or anywhere else. But we still do, because it is still in our interest to do so. Why? Because we need to believe in this visual connection to the real in order to make sense of what is happening in the world. Belief, or at least the temporary suspension of disbelief, is necessary in order for us to effectively apprehend the world at a distance, through images.
In the Information Age, technical images have become just another kind of information, or as James Gleick has it in the title of his current book, “The Information.” Gleick points out that the key to making the Information Age possible was taking meaning out of the equation. When you render meaning irrelevant, information becomes endlessly transmissible, as bits and bytes. It also becomes fungible, like money. It can be moved around rapidly and used for any purpose, good or bad, and becomes very difficult to trace. Having been disconnected from information, significance and meaning must be assigned independently.
Technical images have now become a form of information, to be consumed like all other bits and bytes. As we consume them, we should perhaps take a moment to reflect, not just on how we manipulate and change them, but also on how we are manipulated and changed by them.
—David Levi Strauss
David Levi Strauss is the author of From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition with a prolegomenon by Hakim Bey, 2010). He is chair of the graduate program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York.