On Reality – Part 3a – What about those faked, staged famous photographs in Part 3?

August 15, 2006

Part 3 of this series (see below or follow this link) contained seven photographs, all except one image either staged or faked in some manner. I thought maybe you’d like some background on each of them. So here is the story of each of the photographs, noting the the accounts of each may differ – after all, we are dealing with legends.

Please note: This post is quite popular and I decided to update and expand it. Follow this link to reach the new, expanded post of Jan 9, 2007.

The first picture shows the execution of a prisoner. It is not a fake – the man really died after being shot in the head by South Vietnam Lt. Colonel Ngyen Ngoc Loan, Saigon Chief of Police. The picture was taken by Eddie Adams in 1968 Saigon. So what is wrong? Well, the execution was originally to take place inside a nearby building. The Colonel decided that the collected photographers needed more drama and better angles and light (not to mention keeping the inside of the building cleaner). So, the execution was staged on the street with a careful setup of the photo opp. Apparently it was important to the Colonel how his profile was displayed. Mr. Loan became a General, was evacuated to the US where eventually he died in peace. Mr. Adams won a Pulitzer Price. The prisoner simply died and disappeared. His wife never found out what happened to him. No trial and no one seems to know the exact crime committed. Incidentally, the photo as shown is cropped.

The second picture (two actually) is the root of the current Hajj journalism crisis. It is the “After” version paired with the “Before”, original version. It’s been thoroughly discussed below. No need to add anything. I still think the original version is far superior to the fake one. Not that either is that great.

The third photograph shows Bigfoot, or something, laboring away in the snow. There are dozens of Bigfoot pictures as there are photos of UFOs, Loch Ness monsters and other legends. These pictures invoke strong passions in some people. Documentaries are made for TV. Museums devoted to the subject pop up. Self proclaimed experts make speeches. Souvenir shops make money. Photographically, all or most can easily be explained as faked, staged or both. They may even be “real” enough to be explainable by natural events. They are part of a photographic trend going far back. We will examine that in more detail later. To me, this picture may simply show a heavily clad man climbing a snowy hill, shot by a focus challenged photographer.

Picture number four is one of the most famous of all times. It is – rightly so – a living symbol of courage, triumph, the American spirit and victory over evil. It certainly is a phenomenal image – taken by Joe Rosenthal on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in February of 1945. It earned him a Pulitzer Price and everlasting fame. Three of the six Marines died shortly after the flag raising. So what is the controversy? Here is what Wikipeda has to say:

“Following the flag raising, Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be developed and printed. [12] Upon seeing it, AP photo editor John Bodkin exclaimed “Here’s one for all time!” and immediately radiophotoed the image to the AP headquarters in New York at seven A.M., Eastern War Time. [13] The photograph was picked up off the wire very quickly by hundreds of newspapers. It “was distributed by Associated Press within seventeen and one-half hours after Rosenthal shot it—an astonishingly fast turnaround time in those days.” [14]

However, the photo was not without controversy. Following the second flag raising, Rosenthal had the Marines of Easy Company pose for a group shot, which he called the “gung-ho” shot. [15] This was also documented by Bill Genaust. [16] A few days after the picture was taken, back on Guam, Rosenthal was asked if he had posed the photo. Thinking the questioner was referring to the ‘gung-ho’ picture, he replied “Sure.”

After that, Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent, told his editors in New York that Rosenthal had staged the flag-raising photo. TIME‘s radio show, ‘Time Views the News’, broadcast a report, charging that “Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted… Like most photographers (he) could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion.” [1] As a result of this report, Rosenthal has repeatedly been accused of having staged the picture, or covering up the first flag raising.

One New York Times book reviewer even went so far as to suggest revoking his Pulitzer Prize.[1] For the decades that have followed, Rosenthal has repeatedly and vociferously refuted claims that the flag raising was staged. “I don’t think it is in me to do much more of this sort of thing… I don’t know how to get across to anybody what 50 years of constant repetition means.” [1] Genaust’s film also shows the claim that the flag raising was staged to be erroneous.”

Besides, there are many “versions” of the photo: here are two of them – the lower one to the right is the same as that shown in Part 3, the upper one to the left is published in the Wikipeda article quoted above. Now we are back to the “Reality” thing. Apart from the general controversy, which of these versions represent “Reality”? Both of them are manipulated as you can clearly see, one by a liberal dose of dodging to brighten the center, the other by (at least) an ugly, excessive border.

What about picture number five? Robert Capa was one of the most famous of war photographers. He covered just about every war from the Spanish civil war to the early part of the Viet Nam wars. His D-day photos, most of which were destroyed in a London lab, are some of the most harrowing war pictures ever shot. They famously inspired Steven Spielberg in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Capa was killed by a Vietnamese land mine in 1954. Yes, there was a Viet Nam war that early.

Now, examining the picture, it looks real enough. The soldier is shot in the head. Part of his brain is shattered as shown behind his head. Clearly a dead man. The trouble is that some sources report the man being well and alive after the allegedly staged picture was taken. In fact, it is said he thoroughly enjoyed his evening meal but was killed shortly thereafter. No one knows the truth. Mr. Capa led quite an interesting life. He always stayed in hotels – never had a home – and was constantly broke. He was known to misplace his Leicas, requiring the delivery of new ones from suspicious editors. Whatever the truth of this photograph, no one disputes he was one of the best war photographers of all time. Personally, I think the photo is real.

Let’s continue to photograph six. It is from 1840, France. This is a rather tragicomic affair. The apparently dead person is the photographer himself, Mr. Hippolyte Bayard. Magically, he could take his own picture after dying by drowning . He also managed to drag his dead body out of the river into the pose in the picture. Even more astonishing, he managed to send the death picture to his antagonists with a suicide note attached to the back. Apparently, Mr. Bayard was jealous of more successful inventors of photographic processes and choose to make a strong stand. I suppose you can call this a fake photograph. Incidentally, if the picture is indicative of his photographic process – we did not miss much.

To my astonishment, doing the research on this particular photo, I found that death hoaxes like this are quite common. Most might be somewhat more believable than Mr. Bayard’s pioneering effort but faking death happens all the time. Live and learn.

Photo number seven dates to the American Civil War. The war coincided with photographers becoming sufficiently mobile to do field work. Maybe some other time I’ll get into the history of photography during the time. I guarantee it is both hilarious – the tragedy of the war notwithstanding – and indicative how a new craft can go berserk in pursuit of fame and money. There is an incredible amount of faked, staged, altered photographs from this era. It’s not just an American phenomena – the same thing happened in the Crimean War. Alexander Gardner is the photographer of record of this Confederate soldier killed in the Gettysburg battle of 1863. The photograph is quite famous – in fact, it is viewed as one of the best to come out of the Civil War. Yet it is a fake. Here are some quotes:

“Of course, I had seen the photo of the dead “sharpshooter” lying before his stone wall between the large boulders many times over the years. It really is doubtless the greatest photo shot of a dead soldier to come down to us from the Civil War. And it has become more known since it was “discovered” to be a fake. Until 1995, I wasn’t aware of a stereo view that also existed showing the same scene. The four photos taken down the hill were new to me also, and I was, of course, in awe that the photographers had moved the body to make them.”

“Frassanito further wrote that the body was first photographed DOWN the hill and then, on inspiration, the photographer’s carried the body some 75-yards UP the hill to make the much more interesting composition at what would become known as “The Sharpshooter’s Home”. Source: here

So there you are – knowing, perhaps a bit more about photographic history and how fakes and stagings are age old tactics. They seem to be driven by a mix of tragedy, comedy, greed and stupidity. Coming up, we’ll look at more examples and reasons for these manipulations. So please stay tuned. Leave comments as you see fit – I really appreciate them.



7 Responses to “On Reality – Part 3a – What about those faked, staged famous photographs in Part 3?”

  1. fencer said

    I’m enjoying your discussion of faked and staged photographs a lot. Very educational…

  2. […] On Reality – Part 3a – What about those faked, staged famous photographs in Part 3?: This is a pretty short post, by my standards, discussing a set of very questionable photos. For this to make sense, you need to refer to….. […]

  3. […] On Reality – Part 3a – Those faked, staged famous photographs in Part 3? […]

  4. Michiel said

    i’m doing a dissertation on photojournalsim and am looking into the image of the execution of the viet cong by Eddie Adams. You mention it was going to be taken inside but moved, first time I’ve come across this. Where did you get the info from because I’ve looked around but can’t find anyone else mentioning this.

  5. Karl said

    Hi Michiel – Here are a couple of references to the “stage” issue. I’m sure some more digging would provide more detail.


    Eddie Adams himself raised a bigger issue about manipulation of the story told by the photo. He felt the Colonel (later General) was victimized for life by the photo not explaining the true circumstances. Adams felt the photo showed an unjustified murder of a civilian while the truth was the victim was a VC officer guilty of murdering civilians himself.

    That probably is the important issue here.


  6. moiffuffelcof said

    kukugiwycljazzkzwell, hi admin adn people nice forum indeed. how’s life? hope it’s introduce branch 😉

  7. mariaclark.journalism.cuny.edu

    On Reality – Part 3a – What about those faked, staged famous photographs in Part 3? | Leading Design Photography and Multimedia

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