Dog of a Picture

February 1982: NGM's digitally altered cover

In 1982, National Geographic published a photograph that became a major source of embarrassment for our Society.

The Geographic‘s editors digitally altered a photo of the Great Pyramid of Giza, moving it closer to a nearby pyramid so the image could be framed as a vertical and fit on the Magazine’s front cover.

But when readers discovered NGM’s manipulation, the sh*t hit the fan. Why would our Society — a trusted source of information — intentionally mislead its members? And: If the editors messed with this photo, then how can we trust anything else they publish?

NGS needed to convince its members and the public that this altered reality wasn’t a representative picture of National Geographic itself. One official response was a solemn pledge that NGM would never make that mistake again.

But apparently they have — albeit unintentionally. Take a look at this image, which NGM just published (February 2010) in Your Shot, and showcased as an Editor’s Choice. Anything look wrong?

Many readers saw the problem, and argued that this Editor’s Choice wasn’t choice at all. In a letter to NGM, one of them wrote:

“In ‘Your Shot’ in the February issue of the magazine you presented a photo by William Lascelles (Editors’ Choice). I’m absolutely disappointed that you printed this obviously faked shot in your magazine. Even people not experienced in digital photography can recognize that this is a fake. The dog is sharp, the house in the background (about some 30 yards away) is not sharp and the jets in the infinite range should be also not sharp, but they are. So undoubtedly the photography is the result of manipulation using software.”

Chris Johns

We’re told that 33 people have already written to NGM to point out that the image was photoshopped. In response, National Geographic posted this explanation and apology, which we hope will soon be published in NGM’s print edition.

But the incident raises some troubling questions for Editor Chris Johns:

David Griffin

1.  If 33 readers (at minimum) recognized this digital manipulation, why didn’t you? Or why didn’t David Griffin, your Director of Photography, who says: “We look at every photo to see if it’s authentic, and if we find that yours is in any way deceptive, we’ll disqualify it.”

2.  Why was the photographer’s near frame — which you asked to see, but which he manipulated in the same way — considered adequate proof of authenticity? Aren’t there better ways to be a digital detective, such as using digital forensics to examine the original image file?

3.  How do you plan to prevent this from happening again?

4.  As digitally enhanced and manipulated images become more common, and visual expectations rise, how do you intend to compete? Do you think the general public will become so accustomed to amazing photoshopped images that NGM’s photography won’t seem as compelling? More to the point: Do you worry that you are beginning to find reality less interesting than the photoshopped version? We ask because…

5.  In the online apology, you (or a staffer) write:

“… So go on out into the world and capture what you see. It’ll be better than anything you can make up and paste together on a computer screen.”

That’s a noble sentiment, and we believe it to be true. But after this episode, you can’t make that claim in a credible way. You and your photo team see thousands of authentic, unretouched images every month — of people capturing what they see — yet you decided to publish one that was “paste[d] together on a computer screen.”

See the disconnect? Any thoughts?

We look forward to hearing from you.

*     *     *

P.S. to Chris: This depressing dynamic — of the way pictures, any pictures, can sap Reality of its magic — is something you and the high priests of Photography should address someday soon. Here’s one of my attempts:

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Image credits
≡  NGM pyramid cover via Photo Tampering Throughout History
≡  Dog & jets via National Geographic
≡  David Griffin via ngm.com

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