Monday, February 25, 2008

Photo, Shopped Around

Sure, if we were willing to sort out the facts for ourselves and think on our own, we wouldn't leave it to Drudge to tell us what to think of photographs. Or leave it to the serious journalists to tell us what to think of Drudge thinking about photographs.

Obama Photo Swaddled in Mystery of Its Intent
A silly photo of Barack Obama, dressed in some sort of traditional African garb, mysteriously made its way to the Drudge Report Web site yesterday. The photograph, which showed Obama wearing a turban and swaddled in white fabric, was taken in 2006, when the Illinois senator was on a tour of Africa.

But what did it mean? Was it a deliberately leaked smear image? Or an innocent snapshot of a guy humoring the locals by dressing up? The photograph, which might just as easily be seen as feminizing Obama as suggesting hidden Islamic sympathies, didn't yield many clues.


Our current relation to photography is, perhaps, similar to how people who've been burned romantically relate to new suitors. There's suspicion, a longer period of testing, a lot of vetting and a lot of asking your friends what they think of your new special someone. That doesn't mean you can't still be seduced by an image, but it makes every image have to work harder to seal the deal.
That is very well-written, and except for being untrue it is an excellent thought.

By "our relation to photography" does the writer mean that of the Washington Post's photo editors? I had assumed they believed every photo they published to be vetted and tested already and not merely in some trial period.

Or does he mean the public? The same public who believe any number of impossible things over breakfast, before they set the tabloid down on the subway seat? Again and again surveys show that surprisingly high percentages of the public believe things that have been proven to be untrue, usually because someone in power claimed them to be true, or because a media story said "there's a claim made, is it true?" without clearly presenting any fact check. Or because a television "news" show took the stance that all sides of an argument are equal -- no matter what the facts are.

Still, perhaps I worry too much.

Clinton on photo: 'Why is anybody concerned about this?"
"I know nothing about it," Clinton told ABC affiliate WFAA. "This is in the public domain. But let's just stop and ask yourself: 'Why are you -- why is anybody concerned about this?'"

Clinton said that she found questions about whether her campaign leaked the photo to be "really laughable."
Well, perhaps in the future there will be a way for technology to save us and reveal whether a photo is true, false, retouched, in context, miscaptioned, significant, upside down and backwards, a slam, a slur, an outright lie, laughable or merely a Rorschach Test.

Researchers Look to Spot Photo Hoaxes
The key, she said, is to use tools in combination. A criminal or hoaxer might be sophisticated enough to defeat one technique, but not all at once.

Fridrich's research takes advantage of the fact that all cameras have tiny flaws, so small they don't affect what the eye can see. For example, her software could analyze a set of photographs taken by the same camera and notice that a certain, defective pixel is always dark. Seeing that pixel light up would suggest an alteration.

Dartmouth College professor Hany Farid, meanwhile, has developed a set of software tools he collectively calls Q-IF. He sells the programs for up to $25,000 a year.

One tool looks for the use of clone stamp, a feature for duplicating or erasing objects in an image. Two cloned flowers would appear identical and lack expected blemishes.

Another exploits how cameras capture color images. Color is a mixture of red, green and blue. Rather than have sensors that detect all three for each pixel, they generally alternate in a specific pattern. That pattern gets disrupted with airbrushing.
Yep, that does cost a lot. But at least we won't have to think about it ourselves.

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