On Reality – Part 3a (Update) – Famous Faked Photos and How to Make Them

January 9, 2007

Here are some of the photographer’s secrets that many of us don’t really want to talk about. It all started in Part 3 of this series ( follow this link to the original Part 3 if you like) which contained seven photographs. All except one image were either staged or faked in some manner. I thought maybe you’d like some background information on each of them. Here are the stories of each of them. The accounts of each may differ – after all, we are dealing with legends.

Originally published August 18th, 2006, this post is still very popular. I decided to upgrade it a bit and republish it. For one thing, I added the photos I discuss so you don’t have to go back and forth to Part 3 of the series to view and read as you had to earlier.

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 Eddie Adams 1968 Saigon Vietnam  Execution of Vietnamese man by Colonel, later General. Ngyen Ngoc Loan, Saigon Police of Chief Loan, Saigon Chief of Police. The picture was taken by Eddie Adams in 1968’s Saigon. So what is wrong? The execution was originally to take place inside a nearby building. The Colonel decided that the photographers needed more drama, better angles and light, not to mention keeping the inside of the building clean. 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 later 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 seem to know the exact crime committed.

Adnan Hajj's manipulaated fake photo Israeli attack on Beirut, LebanonThe second picture (two actually) is the root of the 2006 summer Hajj journalism crisis. Here is the “After” version paired with the “Before”, original version. The ethics are thoroughly discussed in Part 3. No need to add anything except my view is that the whole thing was quite overblown. I still think the original version is far superior to the fake one. Not that either is that great.Bigfoot fake photo running in the snow

The third photograph shows Bigfoot, or something, laboring away in the snow. There are dozens of Bigfoot pictures just as there are photos of UFOs, Loch Ness monsters and other legends. These pictures invoke strong passions in some people. TV Documentaries are made. 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. This photographic trend goes 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, even though he never seemed to use his fame – he was a staff photographer in San Francisco after the war for a long time. Three of the six Marines died shortly after the flag raising. The memory of all, in particular the three survivors, gained some more fame in the recent Clint Eastwood film, following the John Wayne movie of 1949. So what is the controversy? Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

“Following the flag raising, Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be developed and printed. 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. 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.”

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. This was also documented by Bill Genaust. 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.” 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. 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.” 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 above is the same as that shown in Part 3; the upper one published in the Wikipedia 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 much darker and less detailed..

What about picture number five? Robert Capa was one of the most famous ever of war photographers. He covered just about every war from the Spanish civil war to the early part of the Vietnam 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 very grim opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Capa was killed by a Vietnamese land mine in 1954. Yes, there was a Vietnam War that early.Robert Capa photo Spanish Civil War Dying, shot soldier

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. This is 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. Whatever the truth of this photograph, no one disputes Capa was one of the greatest war photographers of all time. Personally, I think the photo is real.

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. For a while, he was the hero of Hollywood but went back to war. He was one of the founding fathers of the legendary Magnum Photo Agency, still the premier photographer society and agency of the World. Check out their superb essays in New York Times.

Hippolyte Bayard faking his own death, dragging himself dead out of river, taing his own death photo and sending suicide note to comptitorsLet’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. It seems Mr. Bayard was jealous of more successful inventors of photographic processes and made a strong stand. 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 Manipulated, Fake photo of dead Civil War soldierother 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

Faked Photo of John Kerry and Jane Fonda at Vietnam War DemonstrationAnd now a little bonus of magic and wizardly since you all seems to like the subject:

Many of you probably have seen this fake photograph in various political campaigns. The event never happened. The photo is a composite of two photos taken separately of each of the two equally famous individuals. The two photos involved in the composite were taken about a year apart. The picture is a complete fake – they never met or were at the rally simultaneously or if all..

Perhaps more than the other photos in this essay, this image raises a real ethical issue. Where is the true limit? Darkening the sky over Beirut? Moving a soldier into a more photogenic position? Faking one’s death in a deranged manner? Or is an utterly cynical fraud and smear campaign such as this photo beyond any reasonable limit? You be the judge. Fake Beach Photo from the Indian Ocean Tsunami killing hundreds of thousands

Here is another cynical example of the irresistible urge to make money on other people’s agony. This, of course, is a sample of the gross, myriads of fake pictures from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, killing hundreds of thousands. As you can easily tell, the fake is not very well done. For instance, no one is watching, in despair, the huge wave seemingly feet away. In fact, no one seems very concerned about their allegedly imminent death. And, oddly, every one must be on the beach, yet dressed for anything but the beach.

Incidentally, there are lots of fake 9/11 “photos” floating around, equally disgusting. There’d appear there is enough hardship, real pictures available without having to produce these hacks.

The next two are a bit lighter. How can you avoid monsters and UFOs in a discussion such as this? There is nothing complicated about these two samples. They are, of course, fakes.

Three UFOs on a peaceful flight over Italy (maybe)Maybe you ask yourself – how do you do things like this? There is the old and the new way with many variations on pretty simple schemes. The old way relied mostly on darkroom work. The simplest form was to manipulate a print from a negative by dodging, burning or masking. Dodging means you reduce the light reaching the photo paper while exposing the negative on the paper. You can use a mask, a piece of paper or your hand to lessen the exposure of some part of the image. The result is that the print is “bleached” where ever you reduced exposure. The “bleaching” can go as far as to totally remove the original image from the print. Burning is the opposite of dodging; you add extra exposure to some part of the print, again by using various tools such as your hands covering the areas you don’t want to burn. The result is a print that is darker in the areas you burnt. Again, you can totally remove the original image, or part thereof, if you so desire.

There are many ways to manipulate the final print by using more than one negative, thereby combining several images into one final print. There are so many ways of doing this that it’s hard to summarize any particular darkroom technique. An example might be that you use one negative for half the exposure of the photo paper and another negative for the Loch Ness monster up for a bit of fresh Scottish air second half of the exposure. Then you have a print combining, equally, the two negatives. That may not be all that exiting a print but when you combine masks, dodging and burning, then you have a set of very powerful tolls available to you.

Yet another technique is to produce a new negative from one or more others. You can, for instance, produce a print using several negatives as I just described. Then you can take a photo of that print and now you have a new negative which you continue to manipulate in some fashion.

Other tools in your arsenal include special chemicals, both in developing the negative and in processing the print. Again, there are countless ways to proceed. A simple example is the “old fashioned” sepia print – it is simply a regular print processed with a special chemical.

There are many types of photo paper with different characteristics available. In black and white processing there are filters for higher and lower contrast as well as different intensity or flavoring of the print, such as warm colored or cool colored flavors. Color processing adds some more tools, for instance, the ability to change the mix of differently colored lights by using color filters in the printing process.

Let’s not forget the camera itself. There are countless ways to manipulate the image. You can use hundreds of filters. You fit exposure and depth of field to your perception of what you want as a final image. Soviet manipulation of photograph to eliminate those fallen from grace

Next, years ago we entered the digital photo world. Tools such as Photoshop have been around for many years. In its basic form, Photoshop does all of what I described above as dark room techniques. Burning, dodging, masking, combining images and applying filters are essential features of Photoshop. Then Photoshop adds many more tools for convenience and making the workflow from the camera to the print shop easier.Another Soviet purge example in a photograph with before/after views

You’d probably be surprised to know there are not that many things (within reason) that Photoshop can do that you cannot do in an old fashioned darkroom. The main difference is that it is usually quicker to do it in Photoshop. But the flip side is that few Photoshop users can beat a master printer’s dark room work. There still, in my mind, is a trade off between the “simplicity” of digital processing versus the incredible quality of a proper darkroom print.

Does all of this sound like esoteric geek speech by a pro photographer? Well, I am a pro photographer and there is not a single thing discussed above that I have not practiced. In fact, just about all pro photographers practice these methods and use the same tools. Perhaps the foremost practitioner of these “tricks” was Ansel Adams. He even wrote three books on the subject.

Manipulating Dick Cheney, the famous non-veteran with Practically all professional photographs that you have seen are manipulated in some fashion. So why are some viewed as “fakes” and others as “art”? The distinction is subjective. What is art to one person is rubbish or fake to another. It really boils down to the perceived intention of the photographer. Is the photographer manipulating you for some utilitarian reason or is he/she demonstrating artistic insight on some divine level? Most of the pictures above are pretty obvious manipulations with little or no artistic value or intention. Those are the simple ones. The “fine art” scene is not a simple one.

What about the remaining two picture sequences above? Both are from the nineteen thirties and the USSR. It’s easy to see that the picture on the right seems to lack the image of some person. You got to hand it to the Russians. They were real good at purging millions and they were pretty skilled at erasing any evidence the purged people even had existed at some point. That included manipulating photographs to reduce quesions on an embarrsing level for some obscure reason.

Finally, to the left is a little satiric fake of my own. Who can tell what Cheney’s legs really look like? Considering his priorities do not include being part of real shooting War while being a bit careless with shotguns in a friendly manner.

So here you are – knowing, perhaps a bit more about photographic history and how fakes and stages are done. 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.


16 Responses to “On Reality – Part 3a (Update) – Famous Faked Photos and How to Make Them”

  1. […] 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, […]

  2. Jules Naudet’s shot of the firstr 9/11 plane is – I submit – too serendipitous to be credible. It’s not faked – “just” staged. I think Naudet and his brother, and the folk around them, are all complicit in 9/11, and their “9/11” film is packed with evidence of fakery and manipulation.

  3. Karl said

    Every disaster seems to attract conspiracy theories. They aren’t really my cup of tea, but anyone can believe and support whatever they want. There certainly are fake pictures floating around of 9/11. I know nothing about the authenticity of the photos you mention.

    Thanks, Karl

  4. […] On Reality – Part 3a(Update) – Famous Faked Photos and How to Make Them […]

  5. […] On Reality – Part 3a(Update) – Famous Faked Photos and How to Make Them […]

  6. Libertan said

    The ‘fake tsunami’ which you have posted is not a fake photograph, however it does in fact *not* depict the tsunami. It’s part of a series of photos, the others of which are less ambiguous. The people are in fact running. They are not on a beach, but rather a concrete pier of some sort. If only I could find the series. I forget the cause of the wave; possibly a strongly channeled tidal bore. Besides, I think it’s a passable ‘tsunami photo’ since it looks real (and is real) and not every bit of coastline need be beach.

    Nice page.

  7. Libertan said

    Here’s a source for the ‘tsunami fake’


    Now I can rest in peace.

  8. Karl said

    Live and learn! Perhaps the “fake Tsunami” picture actually shows a rather unique Chinese phenomena. The link you provided certainly suggests that is the case.

    Assuming the picture is “real”, it shows how a telephoto lens can distort reality and how some careful positioning and composition can exaggerate the effects even more. Nothing new there. Our means of distortion and sensationalism are close to endless.

    Regardless of whether the picture is real or not – its apparent purpose is sensationalism through manipulation. The actual means don’t really matter. Thumps down.

    Please do not rest in peace – come back with more interesting insights!


  9. that’s why it will never wor. Ruud Orlagh.

  10. they’ll have you suicidal suicida. Mica Kingsley.

  11. Roy Tov said

    Thank you, very informative article. I have linked it at:


  12. […] is deze bekende nieuwsfoto uit 1968, van de executie van een gevangene tijdens de oorlog in Vietnam weliswaar echt, maar toch in scene […]

  13. Andrew said

    You might want to re-think what you said about Lt. Colonel Ngyen Ngoc Loan. He was a hero. Do some research. Also, he did not die in peace. His life was ruined because of this photo.

  14. Andrew said

    By the way you are also wrong about the Robert Capa photo.
    It is proved to be fake.

    • Karl said

      Hi Andrew – I appreciate your comments. Most possibly faked or arranged, famous and historical photos are controversial and subject to interpretation.

      Alteration of a negative or print, such as done by the Soviets, is often easy to detect and “prove”. Usually, it is easy to detect and “prove” that a digital picture is manipulated by software such as Photoshop: Zoom in and check the pixels – faked pixels look different than those not faked. This is the downfall of many a modern photographer or journalist aiming at more fame by “emphasizing” their point in an unethical manner, whether by adding clouds, moving people subjects around or putting pyramids on better perspective point.

      Attempting to prove that a photo is “arranged” in order to misrepresent the actual situation is much harder. There is probably no physical evidence – the image is not necessarily manipulated physically. Both the Spanish war/Capa and the Loan/Eddie Adams pictures fall in the possibly “arranged” category. So does the picture Iwo Jima/Rosenthal photo. Only witness accounts can “prove” if a photo is misrepresenting truth by being arranged. But witness accounts are unreliable as is shown in countless legal cases. The accounts in all three cases mentioned here conflict with each other. There is no absolute certainty. One can only make judgments as done in the blog. If you favor a different opinion, be my guest.

      I am aware that Mr. Loan viewed his life as ruined by the picture. Eddie Adams, the photographer, was devastated as well. However, it was not the picture or the photographer that caused the anguish – it was the act of killing a POW in cold blood that may have ruined Mr. Loan’s life. Compared to his victim, Mr. Loan died in a peaceful environment by natural causes, here in the US. No one blew his brains out. I know some view Mr. Loan as a hero from war torn Vietnam. But look at the picture and form your own opinion as to the heroism by Mr. Loan.

      Arranged or not, the Loan picture is relevant and it its publication is justified ethically, journalistically and morally. The POW was in fact killed in the manner shown in the picture. Mr. Loan did pull the trigger as shown in the picture. The issue whether or not the event was arranged for effect in a comparatively minor manner is relatively moot.

      Rearranging scenes or altering images is not a technical issue. Newspapers, magazines and stock agencies all have rules about their images, essentially based on technicalities. Such rules are less and less relevant as technology leaps forward much faster than any picture censor can track. A photograph is just one of many ways to interpret an event or subject. Photography competes with other ways of communication from eight-tracks to Twitter. The unique aspect of photography is that it freezes a moment in time by recording the light present at the time. Nothing can change, redo or alter what happened in that particular moment in time. Cameras do not capture events. Cameras do not record subjects. Photographs are made by passing light through an optical lens onto a surface that is sensitive to such light. This surface is capable of storing the data flow. This flow lasts only fractions of a second in most cases and will never, ever be precisely repeated.

      A newspaper article cannot claim such objectivity, nor can a TV anchor claim his or her announcements are anything but sequence of words with no direct relation to the subject or event. A Wikipedia article is not based on reality but on someone’s perception of reality. Larry King or Oprah just voice words related to nothing but, just, words. Dr Phil is a mouthpiece without a foundation in anything but ratings. Sarah Palin tells distortions, lies and misrepresentations to anyone or anything within shouting distance. So does Obama, Mel Gibson, Rush Limbaugh, BP spin doctors and Wall Street bankers. Dr Joseph Goebbels knew that repeating a lie often enough will make it the truth. Real truth does not exist.

      Ad agencies alter their images beyond recognition. Commercial food photography does not show edible food. Portrait photographers gladly remove your wrinkles or that mole on your forehead. Wedding photographers’ Rule 1 is to ensure the bride looks good all the time, in every image. Pornographers do not show loving couples starting families. Wildlife photographers often do not use wild animals. Fashion photos depicts fantasy imagery created by magicians. Forensic photographers believe that a lot of flash light result in more reality but they end up producing more distortion, not less. Reality TV does not show reality in any sense of the word. Amateur photographers endlessly look for the exposure that will please the most rather than reflect reality. Smile everyone. Mother, turn your face so we don’t see your glass eye or your scars. Dad, put down that drink. Fatboy, put that chicken leg up your arse and out of your mouth. Bring the smelling salt to Aunt Beatrice. Prop up Uncle Bob, please. No one blink. Hold still. Stop breathing. Look happy. Smile, everybody. Going, going, gone! Awesome, thanks everyone. Everyone outside, gather by the old oak tree.

      For that matter, light is not what it seems. It’s a specific set of electromagnetic impulses characterized by time, amplitude and frequency. An objective truth, right? Maybe so, but that amplitude and frequency changes instantly and does not generally objectively record reality. Time never repeats itself. Most light comes from the sun. The Sun’s light passes through space. It bends and is distorted in countless ways. The atmosphere changes incoming light in a myriad of ways. Clouds reflect the light. Pollution filters light. A square mile if arctic icecaps reflect more light back into space than does a similar sized mall parking lot. Buildings shut out sun light. Clothes protect our bodies. Our eyes react instantly to and interpret light using distinct rules aimed at saving our sanity. Photographic lenses apply all kinds of distortions to the incoming light. Digital sensors require software to make the recorded light palatable to critics, reviewers and consumers alike.

      Much of the light we think we see is actually reflected from some surface. Different surfaces reflect light differently, providing even more distortion. Light may be reflected off a mirror or off a black overcoat with much different results. The light from a light bulb is much redder then the light from a led. There is infrared and ultraviolet light. The dynamic range of light varies from high to low. Much light is invisible. Nuclear bombs produce an enormous amount of light. Reflections from snow are much bluer than reflections from your face. Light rays underwater bends as it passes through layers. Everyone knows that tanning in a small boat or on the beach will burn you unless you deflect the sun’s energy be smearing your body with various light reducing chemicals. Prescription eye glasses use coatings and filters to please your eyes. Sunglasses and glare reducing coatings accentuate similar capabilities built into your brains.

      This kind of argument goes on and on. Before you pass judgment on “faked” or “arranged” photographs, do take in the fact there is no real reality. Moralizing news paper censors may bemoan being caught with their pants down. Slippery journalists detest being exposed since they may end up without a salary. Subjects may have their lives ruined. Photographers may be remorseful. Yet, having the pants down or being exposed in some other manner means nothing to the World in general. All images we see are just subjective interpretations of “reality” based on very unpredictable and complex rules. Thus, applying technical rules to photography in a judgmental manner is pointless. Applying ethical rules is, on the other hand, quite relevant. But that is yet another story. Applying artistic judgments changes the issue dramatically. But that, too, is another story.

      Happy shooting, everyone


  15. […] on the internet—but it’s enough to plant seeds of doubt. The source I have is KGL Photo Blog, and this is the text copied verbatim from that post: Execution of Vietnamese man by Colonel, later […]

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