Photography As A Weapon

Errol Morris, who created the documentary, The Fog Of War, has an incredibly interesting blog entry on the New York Times website. The idea that photos in this day and age can be doctored to show anything, is nothing new. Technology has evolved and there’s everything from Photoshop to advanced CGI that have created some of the most realistic-looking movie scenes ever. However, Morris looks at how photography has been used as a weapon in modern-day warfare, a notion that is all the more real for those who remember Colin Powell’s famous UN presentation, attempting to convince the world that Iraq has/had weapons of mass destruction. He talks to Hany Farid, a Dartmouth professor and an expert on digital photography.

What I also found interesting perhaps, is how the photographs are presented. If Powell’s presentation (and those funny ‘thought bubbles’ on funny photos of every high school yearbook in the world) taught us anything, how you caption a photo is what changes its entire meaning. Usually, we don’t give this kind of a thing a second thought. But today, photography can bring a whole new meaning to LIFE magazine’s “Photos That Changed The World”. Today, these photos change and make history.

The photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 provide several examples. Photographs that were used to justify a war. And yet, the actual photographs are low-res, muddy aerial surveillance photographs of buildings and vehicles on the ground in Iraq. I’m not an aerial intelligence expert. I could be looking at anything. It is the labels, the captions, and the surrounding text that turn the images from one thing into another.

Photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003. (U.S. Department of State)

Powell was arguing that the Iraqis were doing something wrong, knew they were doing something wrong, and were trying to cover their tracks. Later, it was revealed that the captions were wrong. There was no evidence of chemical weapons and no evidence of concealment.

Reinterpretation of photographs presented by Colin Powell, by Daniel Mooney.

There is a larger point. I don’t know what these buildings were really used for. I don’t know whether they were used for chemical weapons at one time, and then transformed into something relatively innocuous, in order to hide the reality of what was going on from weapons inspectors. But I do know that the yellow captions influence how we see the pictures. “Chemical Munitions Bunker” is different from “Empty Warehouse” which is different from “International House of Pancakes.” The image remains the same but we see it differently.

Change the yellow labels, change the caption and you change the meaning of the photographs. You don’t need Photoshop. That’s the disturbing part. Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned. The pictures merely provide the window-dressing. The unending series of errors engendered by falsely captioned photographs are rarely remarked on. – E.M.]

NYT via Boing Boing


  • I don’t care for the captions or the photos. The point was Collin Powell was considered an honest, decent, believable guy by the American people, and he turned out to be as full of it as his boss in the oval office. He later said that he hesitated when they told him to do that presentation and didn’t want to do it. Too bad he played the patsy for them, and now that is his legacy.

Your Two Piasters: