Rant: STOP MISLEADING PEOPLE WITH PHOTOS!
By: Jason Weingart
July 25, 2013
There is nothing worse than a thief, the only thing that comes close to that is a liar. In photography, we deal with both on a daily basis. The public's trust in what they see is at an all time low, and rightfully so. Photoshopped or misleading images seem to be the ones that most often go viral, and leave photographers like myself scratching our heads. Should I compromise my integrity to make a few bucks or build a name for myself? So far, I have resisted the temptation to do so, but every time a fake image goes viral, my willpower drops just a bit.
The latest viral fake was the work of Kawika Singson, a photographer on the Island of Hawai'i. A dramatic image of the photographer standing on lava has spread across the internet like wildfire, instantly capturing the attention of millions and catapulting Singson to celebrity status. An excerpt from an article in the Daily Mail reads, "Despite some skeptics claiming the photograph must have been doctored, Mr. Singson said the flames and lava were real and it was so hot he could only stand there for a few seconds." I want to point out that I like Kawika. He's a nice guy. We are friends on facebook, and I'm a big fan of his work. He has some very dramatic, close-up images of lava (many much better than his viral photo). I also know how difficult it is for him to get his shots, after going through my own experience on the lava flow. I spent a lot of time reading through many articles on the viral image, and I could not once find where Singson claimed that the lava set fire to his feet, he only said, "That’s real lava, real flames, and it was really hot! I could stand the heat only for a few seconds”. Of course that did not stop sensationalist media outlets from using headlines such as Hot Lava Sets Adventurous Photographer's Feet on Fire and Photographer Gets So Close to Lava That His Shoes and Tripod Catch on Fire.
I was on the lava flow less than 3 months ago (check out the video here), so I have a pretty solid understanding of how it works, and what temperatures the different colors are. I instantly knew something was fishy about the image. The lava he is standing on is way too cool to make anything spontaneously combust, let alone a metal tripod. The lava that is hot enough to catch objects on fire glows a bright yellow color, and is extremely hot to be near. If you stood on it without special equipment, you would have a very bad time. It would cook you, quite literally, from the feet, up. The air within about 10-15 feet of the lava breakout points (where the hottest lava flows out of the ground) is about 200º F. Directly on or above the flowing liquid rock, you're probably looking at around 500ºF. Looking at the published images, it appears Singson isn't even standing anywhere near a breakout point.
I first said that it was probably photoshopped, but was very well done. I noticed the glow of the fire around his tripod and shoes. Savannah said that she thought the flames were real, but that they used an accelerant to start the fire. She hit the nail right on the head, and I agreed with her.
What's the harm, some of you might ask? Well the harm with misleading people with photography is that eventually people are just going to quit believing anything they see. Important events that are photographed could then be dismissed as staged or photoshopped. It's already happening, and instances like this are just throwing more dirt on photojournalism's grave. Almost every time one of my photos gets a lot of coverage, there are several people claiming it to be photoshopped. Just think of what history might be like if people instantly thought photos like Tiananmen Square or the Kent State Massacre were simply dismissed as photoshopped? Photographers should be working towards a solution to the problem, not adding to it.
It really is an amazing photo, and obviously I do not blame him for taking it. My problem lies with the fact that he misled people by not being upfront about using an accelerant to intentionally catch his feet and tripod ablaze. He then sold it (or at least I hope he sold it, as opposed to giving it away) as photojournalistic work to multiple media outlets. He then claimed that the image was real, and while it may not have been photoshopped, it was staged, then worded by himself and the media to distort the reality of the situation. A comment on a Facebook post about one of his images from the shoot reads, "My feet were getting really hot really fast, several seconds was all I could handle! but the gases were even worse than the heat,I did have a respirator but I didn't want to use it for the shot so I held my breath while standing on the lava." That is at the very least, misleading.
Finally it comes down to all of you. Before clicking that share button, take a close look at the image. Ask yourself if someone would stand to gain something by faking an image. Remember that big events, such as catastrophies and natural disasters are a breeding ground for photographic deception. Any time you see a photo of a dramatic sky during a hurricane, it is fake. The types of cloud formations that make good photos really do not exist in tropical systems, but are rather found in supercells or run of the mill thunderstorms. Below are several examples of Hurricane Sandy fakes. There were many, many more.
It's not just photographers that are contributing to the problem. Publishers and editors need to do a better job on verifying the authenticity of photos they use, and resist the temptation to sell copies by sensationalizing the news. There are endless cases of media manipulating the facts, any more it probably happens just about every day. A well known case of this is when Time Magazine used a heavily manipulated image of OJ Simpson's photograph on their cover. Guilty or not, this is irresponsible journalism.
Some cases even go beyond irresponsible to downright dangerous. When US officials killed Osama Bin Laden, someone leaked photos that were supposedly shot by military officials after the assassination. This caused outrage across the Arab world, and could have easily caused riots or terrorist attacks. As it turned out, those pictures were outright photoshop fakes.
With the rise of digital photography, photo manipulation is an every day occurrence. However, with a little common sense (Snopes) and some quick fact checking (TinEye), you can help stop the demise of photojournalism...or at the very least, you won't feel as foolish, when you realize that tornado sucking up a rainbow photo you just shared is physically impossible.
Until recently, Singson did little to quash those misleading claims. Weeks after the image was published he finally told CBS, "The flames on my shoes and my tripod did not start because of the lava..." Singson indeed used an accelerant to create the flames, and had a friend snap the shot. He went on to say, "It's just something that I wanted for my Facebook cover".
This is a composite image, supposedly of Sandy. The storm in the background was actually a supercell thunderstorm in Nebraska shot by Mike Hollingshead.
This is a legit photo, only it wasn't of Sandy, just an afternoon thunderstorm over NYC.
Using old images is a favorite of people trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
This was a flooded out McDonalds during Hurricane Sandy, except it was actually a fine art installation in Germany. No clowns were harmed in the making of this image.
This shark was supposedly spotted swimming in Sandy's storm surge. The shark is real. The flood is real. But the two were put together in photoshop.