As the dog in the 1993 New Yorker cartoon once said: “On the internet, nobody knows if you're a dog.” But on the internet people do know if you've photoshopped your images — or at least they'll try their best to prove you have.
The manipulation of photographs to influence public opinion is hardly a new phenomenon, but Lebanese photographer Adnan Hajj's now infamous photo of a suspiciously smoky Beirut skyline published by Reuters on August 5, 2006, has sparked off a new wave of interest in the blogosphere and elsewhere in what blogger Charles Johnson has dubbed “fauxtography“. Subjected to what the New York Times called “the swift justice of the Internet,” Hajj — a freelancer — was eventually fired by Reuters, but as a result of his actions, photos published online are being subjected to fractal levels of scrutiny, and the more emotionally charged the context, the more Zapruder-like the gaze.
So when photos of Cuban leader Fidel Castro appeared in both the Cuban news daily Granma and the youth publication Juventud Rebelde on August 13, 2006 (the day of Castro's birthday; a brief statement from Castro accompanied the images), anti-Castro bloggers were quick to pounce. These were the first images of Castro to be published since he underwent intestinal surgery and provisionally handed power over to his brother Raúl on July 30, and the news out of Cuba during this period has been scant. In the absence of anything concrete to report, both bloggers and the mainstream media have fallen back in the past two weeks on rumours, speculation and excavation of old artifacts. Bloggers inside Cuba have been tight-lipped, as they tend to be about matters of state, with the occasional communiqué or article being reproduced by the likes of regalado.blogia.com (ES) and proposiciones (ES), and this optimistic commentary from Havana journalist Elys Flors, who writes in English. A petition asking the US government to respect the sovereignty of Cuba was signed enthusiastically by intellectuals and celebrities throughout the world and pooh-poohed by anti-Castro bloggers. Speculation about Castro's state of health and the nature of his illness has been rife, and among the many rumours in circulation was one that Castro was already dead.
Jeffrey Beckwith of Cigar Envy was among the first in the blogosphere to reproduce the photos, and was happy to note that the Associated Press (AP) had run them with the following caveat: “The Associated Press cannot verify the authenticity or the date when these photographs were shot.” Referring to the photo of Castro holding a copy of Saturday's edition of Granma, Beckwith wondered “how serious the situation is in Cuba behind the shield of military mobilization and total news blackout of the past few days if it is necessary to publish a picture of Fidel Castro holding up a newspaper in a hostage-like attempt to show that he was alive as of yesterday.” Scrutinising the image further, Beckwith concluded that:
. . . a close examination at 1000% magnification of Fidel’s right hand in the first photo, where he is holding the newspaper at the bottom, shows a perfectly straight line of vertical pixels where his thumb and fingers meet the newspaper. This type of artifact is usually a sign of photo manipulation, although that is not definite.
One possibility is that the front page of Granma, shown in the photo and displaying yesterday’s headline, was photoshopped in over a blank page of newsprint originally held up by Fidel as preparation for a staged photo. Further examination of the photo should yield more specific information.
In a later post, Beckwith compared the latest images of Castro with one taken on July 26 and concluded that “facial details do not match up”.
AcademicElephant also leapt on AP's caveat, saying “I don't want to be the blogger who cried Photoshop, but even the AP is being strangely reticent . . . ,” adding:
We'll see what the rest of the day brings–Hugo Chavez is due to arrive in Havana shortly, and if Castro really is still alive there will be some sort of photo-op because Chavez isn't one to miss a chance to get on camera.
A disgusted Marc Masferrer wrote that “this early in the morning, I am grateful only that I had not had breakfast before viewing these photographs of Castro, complete in a Mafia wiseguy sweatsuit — seems appropriate, doesn't it? — mugging for the camera.” !Ya No Mas! posted the photo of Castro holding the newspaper (which, admittedly, looks like a photocopy) above an image from Reuters of an actual newsprint colour copy of the paper, and later compared a photo from Sunday with one taken on July 22, noting what appeared to be fewer liver spots and a darker beard in the more recent image.
The KillCastro blog said that “to me, it looks like a proof, not an actual newspaper. And it's possible that we are seeing here a double, or doctored photos in the Soviet tradition” and linked to the Castrianism: La Religión del Odio blog, which attempted to demonstrate, by magnifying and annotating portions of the images, that while the photos might have been photoshopped, they're not necessarily fake. Babalú Blog, whose coverage of the situation in Cuba has been exhaustive, posted a short, pointed comment on the photos plus a rather un-festive birthday greeting for their subject which at the time of writing readers had generated 77 comments from readers, practically all of them sympathetic. Blog for Cuba also took the opportunity on Sunday to compare versions of Castro's signature, saying “someone in Havana blew it if they expect us to believe that castro penned both these signatures.”
Then came the parodies, as bloggers, showing that they, too, can photoshop, started having their way with Castro's birthday photos. Last night, Babalú Blog ran a version of the “Castro holding Granma” image with a new newspaper headline — “El viejo bastardo apenas no morirá” (“The old bastard just won't die”) — and a Ned Lamont banner ad. Today, Marc Masferrer posted a version of the same image with Castro's head replaced by a grinning George W. Bush, and the headline “Castro Dead.”
Today, bloggers have turned their gaze upon photos published today in Granma of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez visiting Castro at his bedside, including an unfortunate one of the two heads of state holding on to a stick that just screams “caption contest” (Marc Masferrer has answered the call). Says Puerto Rican blogger Fausta, “what if the pictures of Hugo at Fidel's bedside were taken back when Fidel busted his knee and are now made to look like they were taken yesterday?”