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Photography Is No Longer Evidence of Anything

by Elijah
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Photography Is No Longer Evidence of Anything

The world has been awash with conspiracy theories for weeks, spurred by strange artefacts in a photographic image of the missing Princess of Wales that they ultimately admitted had been edited. Some of them got pretty crazy, ranging from a cover-up of Kate’s alleged death, to a theory that the royal family were reptilian aliens. But none was as bizarre as the idea that in 2024 anyone could believe that a digital image is proof something.

Not only are digital images infinitely malleable, but the means to manipulate them are as common as dirt. For anyone paying attention, this has been clear for decades. The issue was finally resolved almost forty years ago a piece co-written by Kevin Kelly, a founding editor of WIRED; Stewart Brand; and Jay Kinney in the July 1985 edition of The Whole Earth Review, a publication published by Brand’s organization in Sausalito, California. Kelly had come up with the idea for the story about a year earlier when he came across an internal newsletter for publisher Time Life, where his father worked. It described a million-dollar machine called Scitex, which created high-resolution digital images from photographic film, which could then be modified with a computer. Luxury magazines were among the first customers: that’s what Kelly learned National Geographic had used the tool to literally move one of the pyramids of Giza to fit into a cover shot. “I thought, ‘Man, this is going to change everything,’” Kelly says.

The article was titled “Digital Retouching: The End of Photography as Evidence of Anything.” It started with an imaginary courtroom scene in which a lawyer argued that compromising photographs should be excluded from a case, saying that because of its unreliability, “photography has no place in this or any other courtroom. Nor, for that matter, does film , video tapes, etc. or audio tape.”

Did the article draw widespread attention to the fact that photography may lose its role as documentary evidence, or to the prospect of an era in which no one can tell what is real or fake? “No!” says Kelly. Nobody noticed. Even Kelly thought it would be many years before the tools to convincingly alter photos would become routinely available. Three years later, two brothers from Michigan created what would become Photoshop, which was released as an Adobe product in 1990. The application enabled digital photo manipulation on desktop PCs, dramatically reducing costs. By then even The New York Times reported about “the ethical issues involved in altering photographs and other materials using digital editing.”

Adobe, in the eye of this storm for decades, has thought a lot about these issues. Ely Greenfield, CTO of Adobe’s digital media business, rightly points out that film photographers and cinematographers used tricks to alter their images long before Photoshop. But while digital tools make this practice cheap and commonplace, Greenfield says, “there is still value in treating photos and videos as documentary sources of truth. What is the purpose of an image? Is it there to look beautiful? Is it there to tell a story? We all like to look at beautiful images. But we think there is still value in storytelling.”

To determine whether photographic storytelling is accurate or falsified, Adobe and others have designed a toolset that aims for a degree of verifiability. For example, metadata on the Middleton photo helped people determine that the defects were the result of a Photoshop edit, which the princess owned. A consortium of more than 2,500 makers, technologists and publishers called the Content Authenticity Initiative, founded by Adobe in 2019, works to develop tools and standards that help people verify whether an image, video or recording has been modified. It is based on combining metadata with exotic watermarking and cryptographic techniques. However, Greenfield admits that these protections can be circumvented. “We have technologies that can detect edited photos or AI-generated photos, but it’s still a losing battle,” he says. “As long as there is a sufficiently motivated actor determined to overcome these technologies, they will.”

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