One of my all time favorite hobbies, besides watching New York Yankees baseball games, is photography. Though I operate with an amateur’s digital camera, I love the challenge of taking that perfect picture. When I inevitably fail to get the perfect photo, I have the option to use tools like iPhoto and Photoshop to enhance my images. Yet, I rarely use these web tools for anything more than cropping or rotating an uploaded file. One reason is that I am a stickler for maintain the authenticity of the image—even if its only for my aesthetic and personal benefit. I find it interesting that human beings implicitly trust photography. One reason to explain this is that the brain computes visceral image as memories associated with major events, regardless of their historical authenticity (Morris).
You can imagine my chagrin when I read Errol Morris’s blog Photography as a Weapon. In a dialogue with Hany Farid, an expert on digital photography, the two discuss how countries, presumably enemies to the United States, use manipulated photography as a weapon or scare tactic. Morris uses the example of four Iranian missiles streaking upwards. This image is disturbing, especially for Americans, because there is no way of knowing if: the image is of a test launch; they are aiming westward; and how many missiles the Iranians actually have in their cache.
The question digital historians must ask is what tools can we use to detect fraudulent images? Farid points out that while manipulated images may fool the eye, they do not fool the expert. One way to detect a fraudulent image is to compare the photo against raw files. This assumes, however, that you can get your hands on the original camera. It is much harder to detect manipulation if one is viewing a Photoshopped image that has been cropped, reduced, and compressed into a .Jpg file. Farid notes that historians can purchase clone detection software to run against the photo, however, this only works if the image is a perfect replica of the original. The problem now for historians, and the rest of the world, is how to figure out if the threat is real. Clearly, if a digital expert misinterprets a photograph, say of a North Korean missile attack, it could cause mass hysteria, diplomatic tension , and a potential nuclear war.