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Eye on the News

Benjamin A. Plotinsky
No Truth in Beauty
The future of fauxtography is on the nightly news.
14 September 2006

During Israel’s recent war in Lebanon, bloggers again demonstrated that armchair amateurs can be more perceptive than professional journalists. First, they proved that news photographers had participated in staged war-zone shoots calculated to increase the pathos of Lebanese civilian casualties. Then they exposed an even bigger scandal: a Reuters photographer, Adnan Hajj, had used photo-editing software to insert billowing black smoke into a picture of Beirut and to alter a photo of an Israeli jet to make it look as though it were dropping bombs.

The proprietors of such blogs as Little Green Footballs, Power Line, Zombietime, and the Jawa Report continue to expose photographic deception in the Middle East, including, most recently, a shot of a Lebanese Red Cross ambulance supposedly bombed by a callous Israel. (The photos do show a perfectly circular hole in the ambulance’s roof; what they don’t show is that the hole just happens to be located where Lebanese ambulances have easily removable circular ventilation covers.) The bloggers have adopted an apt word for this sort of deception: fauxtography.

A picture still may be worth a thousand words, but now we’re realizing that nothing guarantees that the pictures are true. As University of Kansas journalism prof David Perlmutter notes, “[A]ny image on the Web can be altered by anyone into any new image. . . . The icons are sacred no longer.”

It’s not just photos whose veracity we have to worry about, moreover; moving images are becoming less trustworthy, too. So far, technology has limited amateurs to crude, transparently fake video efforts, such as the now-infamous Palestinian film that cobbled together separate bits of footage to “prove” that an Israeli warship had shelled civilians on a Gaza beach. But moviemaking professionals with expertise in computer-generated imagery (CGI), the lifelike animation in such movies as Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings, can make films that are just as misleading as Photoshopped pictures—and that aim to affect public opinion just as decisively.

Consider a comparatively innocuous example: Aliens of the Deep, a new documentary—though that isn’t quite the right word for it—directed by Oscar-winner James Cameron and currently showing at the IMAX theater in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. By searching for undersea life, the film maintains, we can prepare to search for extraterrestrial life, and it’s this emphasis on space exploration that mars an otherwise interesting underwater documentary. At one point, for example, the movie’s camera-toting submarines encounter a beautiful creature, a sort of hazy white ball, trailing a diaphanous net. “I have no idea what that is,” says an amazed Cameron. Unfortunately, on this dive he’s left the marine biologists behind and instead brought astrobiologist Kevin Hand, whose contributions consist of enthusiastic ignorance: “Oh my goodness! Look at that!” he says when he sees the creature. “Holy cow! Look at that thing. That is absolutely unreal. Oh my goodness. Look at that, it’s just amazing.” A marine biologist, less awestruck but more useful, would have identified it as the jellyfish Deepstaria enigmatica, and the kids watching the film might have learned something.

Such lapses are trivial. But the movie’s final scene, in which we see a submarine purportedly navigating no earthly ocean but rather the sea beneath the icy surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is another matter. Inside the sub are Hand and Dijanna Figueroa, another scientist. They encounter a few squidlike creatures, and Figueroa places her hand on the sub’s transparent front window. One of the creatures intelligently mirrors her motion. “Houston, Endurance. We have arrived on station at the coordinates, and we have some new friends,” Hand radios. The final shot shows the submarine and the squids heading toward an enormous lighted underwater city.

Of course, this last scene is imaginary and computer-generated. But it is visually indistinguishable from the rest of the movie’s actual oceans and sea creatures and submarines. The movie again sacrifices what could have been educational on the altar of outer-space exploration. Documentaries claim to film reality. When they rely on animation and special effects, they usually make clear that they’re briefly abandoning the filmable truth, and they tend to limit such creative effects to relatively likely things—a reconstruction of how a dinosaur might have looked, say. But Aliens of the Deep chooses tantalization over documentation, bestowing the veneer of likelihood upon what is only a dream in order to offer picture-perfect proof of the rewards we’d supposedly reap from space exploration. Not only does it misportray the discoveries that space exploration could yield—even if there is an ocean on Europa, the chances of finding life there, let alone intelligent life, are vanishingly thin—but also, splicing real-life characters into a fantasy sequence, the movie implies that a personal encounter with Europa’s residents might be feasible in the near future. It isn’t.

Aliens of the Deep also runs into some minor ethical problems in its repeated injunctions to explore outer space. NASA would naturally benefit from any increase in space exploration efforts, and the space agency actually planned to send a robotic probe to Europa. Yet nowhere does the film mention that Cameron, while making it, also sat on the NASA Advisory Committee. Since then, he has lobbied Congress to fund space science and, more tellingly, lectured NASA about the need for better public relations. None of it was enough to save the Europa probe, which NASA recently scrapped for want of funds.

But the documentary’s real problem is that, like the photojournalists in Lebanon, it inserts fakery into a medium that claims to show only the real, if for comparatively innocuous ends. In the relatively harmless deception of Aliens of the Deep, we can see the disturbing future of news fauxtography. The Adnan Hajjs of the world will become as adept at CGI technology as the James Camerons are. Then news footage, like still photos and documentaries, will become a lot less trustworthy.

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