Doctoring Photographs without Photoshop

It’s all about the captions:

…doctored photographs are the least of our worries. If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.

The photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 provide several examples. Photographs that were used to justify a war. And yet, the actual photographs are low-res, muddy aerial surveillance photographs of buildings and vehicles on the ground in Iraq. I’m not an aerial intelligence expert. I could be looking at anything. It is the labels, the captions, and the surrounding text that turn the images from one thing into another. Photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003.

Powell was arguing that the Iraqis were doing something wrong, knew they were doing something wrong, and were trying to cover their tracks. Later, it was revealed that the captions were wrong. There was no evidence of chemical weapons and no evidence of concealment. Morris’s mockery of the sweeping interpretations made in Powell’s photographs.

There is a larger point. I don’t know what these buildings were really used for. I don’t know whether they were used for chemical weapons at one time, and then transformed into something relatively innocuous, in order to hide the reality of what was going on from weapons inspectors. But I do know that the yellow captions influence how we see the pictures. “Chemical Munitions Bunker” is different from “Empty Warehouse” which is different from “International House of Pancakes.” The image remains the same but we see it differently.

Change the yellow labels, change the caption and you change the meaning of the photographs. You don’t need Photoshop. That’s the disturbing part. Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned. The pictures merely provide the window-dressing. The unending series of errors engendered by falsely captioned photographs are rarely remarked on.

Posted on August 27, 2008 at 7:27 AM37 Comments


Amazing August 27, 2008 8:05 AM

Let me get this straight, words can be used to manipulate and deceive? Appending these words to photographs with no real visible informational clues enhances the deception? This is amazing and groundbreaking! Words… used to deceive, who’da ever thunk it!

Peter Galbavy August 27, 2008 8:12 AM

In the UK at least, the laws on defamation only apply to the captions associated with photographs and almost never (if ever, IANAL) with the image or the context of the image or it’s contents. The captions are certainly important.

:) August 27, 2008 8:14 AM

Also, subtitles, for foreign movies.
As not everyone knows some arabic or chinese, you can put words on others mouths just tampering the subtitles on any foreign movie. 🙂

Jeroen August 27, 2008 8:18 AM

True, but only to a degree. I can publish photograph of a yellow submarine, and put a caption underneath it saying it’s a red bell pepper, but that won’t fool anyone. While captions can be used to give pictures and incorrect/deceptive meaning, this only works with ambiguous photographs. The photshopped variant is far more dangerous, because, when done properly, it shows an unambiguous picture that precious few can recognize as fraud. Deceptive captions can be fought with a little critical thinking.

dil August 27, 2008 8:20 AM

That’s exactly what’s going on with photos from South Ossetia. We see desperate people. We see their destroyed houses. We see the war.
But we don’t know who are these people, where they are and who, when and why destoryed their houses. We just believe to what captions say.

Anon_007 August 27, 2008 8:43 AM

The price we have to pay is in trust. Can this source truly be trusted? Get’s back to the human factor, me thinks.

And then the accountability factor … let’s say 3 independent people or committees or whatever had reviewed things, and all was on the up and up. In time, it’s proven that it’s not – trust is broken, damage is done.

In a perfect world … alas, sometimes we have to simply trust those in authority, as there’s no other way to do so.

Given the ‘tax’ of merely checking out, say, a suspected Urban Legend involves this tax – one now has to pay the price of believing what was written/show (Rubber Bigfoot, anyone?) or go do some research on their own.

Therein lies the grind. We are busy people, we really only want the Exec summaries of things, and just don’t want to be bothered finding out when so many other things are vying for our time and interests.

Any rate, posts like this one make you stop and re-assess what’s truly important, and who can you truly trust?

anonymous August 27, 2008 8:48 AM

Also, subtitles, for foreign movies.

Is it possible that “Amelie” wasn’t a movie about a killer robot from outer space?

Dave Aronson August 27, 2008 8:57 AM

@Amazing: Words can even be used as a weapon (and not just on Dune). Now we’ll have to duct-tape people’s mouths shut before letting them on airplanes….

Spider August 27, 2008 8:57 AM

Its more than just captions.

Take a look at the recent big foot scam. The caption of “frozen bigfoot in freezer” didn’t really fool anyone. It didn’t work because we had additional information (years of searching and not discovering any signs of bigfoot) that led us to disbelieve the captions.

Powell’s captions worked because there was previous supporting evidince ( the use of chemical weapons 17 years prior) plus the implication of additional secret information, plus the integrity of the United States government. If you have all of those, then people will believe any caption you can create. Although, the integrity of the government took a serious blow due to the revelations that those captions were not accurate, so any other photo’s will face much greater scrutiny.

CameraMan August 27, 2008 9:08 AM

Don’t forget BS like the Tuvia Grossman incident, where the Associated Press put out a photo in which a big, mean, ugly looking Israeli cop in full body armor, screaming and waving a club, stood over a frail looking young man covered in blood sitting on the ground.

The caption read simply “An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount”.

Clearly this big hulking brute had been beating this poor defenseless Palestinian and was now threatening the photographer- the Guardian of Truth and Social Justice in a World Gone Mad- against taking a picture of this brutal act.

What actually happened was (according to Wikipedia):

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2000, Grossman hailed a taxi with two friends to visit the Western Wall. When the driver took a shortcut through the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Al-Joz, a mob of about 40 Arabs surrounded the taxi, smashed the windows, and dragged Grossman out, whereupon they beat him. The mob kicked him repeatedly, stabbed him once in the leg, and then pounded his head with rocks. Grossman managed to run to a nearby gas station, where he collapsed, and an Israeli policeman wielding a club protected him, threatening the mob. This was when the infamous picture was taken, by some freelance photographers who were at the gas station, of Grossman bleeding and crouched under the policeman, who is shouting and waving his club.

How do we know this?

His dad wrote a letter to the New York Times complaining about them running a photo implicating the police officer who had likely saved his son’s life with some horrific if unspecified act.

Fred P August 27, 2008 9:37 AM


I watch movies and French and Japanese (both of which I have some ability to understand), often with English subtitles. With some frequency it’s funny how different the “translation” is from the original.

Much less frequently, I’m convinced that I could translate it better.

myself August 27, 2008 9:47 AM

I think the worst part is how people is able to ‘blindy’ trust certain people and therefore trust in the caption they put in their images.

We do not need Photoshop to have a lack of common sense.

Davi Ottenheimer August 27, 2008 9:52 AM

@ Cameraman

Good info. I often notice how photojournalists set out with a caption in mind, and then deliver a photo to editors with a story in mind, as facts on the ground become their victims.

The problem is not
changing captions and using selective images, which is probably most common in the real-estate business, but rather the prejudice and irrational fears that often drive perspectives in a way that all other information ceases to exist to an observer.

countfebo August 27, 2008 9:55 AM

Well, as we all know, ambiguous information gets naturally narrowed down by interpreting the context (here the captions) by the human perception. It does not have to be a caption, though. Simple movie shot montage suffices to achieve the effect, as already early russian filmmakers studied in the 1918. C.f Kuleshov Experiment.

Xoebe August 27, 2008 10:17 AM

The classic recent contemporary use of this is Norman Schawrzkopf’s photograph of an Iraqi oil truck, claiming it was a picture of a SCUD mobile missile.

Hey, it was just an “illustration”.

A very good example of the way a photograph can tell the opposite of what it appears to tell is the iconic classic photo of a Vietnamese general shooting a man in the head.

The man who was there, the man who took the photograph, regretted it for the rest of his life. The photograph was never really misinterpreted, either. It just showed something horrific. However, politics and marketing are the same thing, and nobody will eat cereal from a box with that picture on it.

Always be skeptical of obvious truths.

Clive Robinson August 27, 2008 10:58 AM

@ Davi, Cameraman,

“… deliver a photo to editors with a story in mind, as facts on the ground become their victims.”

A case in point was the front page of the U.K.’s “Daily Mirror” which published a photo supposidly of U.K. Squadies tourturing a man in the back of an army truck in Iraq.

The then editor Piers Morgan stood 100% behind the pictures. Turns out they where compleat fakes done by a couple of people in the U.K. to make a bit of cash out of the Iraq war.

Mr Morgan had to resign, which surprised many due to other incidents he had been involved with such as “insider trading” (for which two journos recieved criminal convictions) and other extreamly dubious activities.

However being a person with such self belief Mr Morgan has gon on to have his own television series and done numerous TV and radio intervies and reports and had time IIRC to act as a judge on reality TV and guest on various news programs…

So it would appear that nobody realy cares that his failier to properly authenticat the picture prior to printing alowed them to be used as propergander in Iraq and has probably been indirectly responsable for the deaths of a number of soldiers there…

Anonymous August 27, 2008 11:50 AM

The other “doctoring” is to use lower resolution that is technically available or take photos from a different angle, to provide a different perspective.

We’ve all seen the high-res available on Google Earth or from other aerial pictures — that the pictures Powell used were of such low resolution was an insult to our intelligence.

Frank Wilhoit August 27, 2008 12:37 PM

Years ago, one of the weekly nature-documentary television series did a behind-the-scenes episode where they revealed some the tricks of their trade. They showed a clip of some cute little fox cubs playing, tumbling about and just having all the fun in the world, accompanied by some happy, bouncy music. Then they showed the exact same footage accompanied by tense, dissonant music, which made it obvious that the cubs were seriously fighting. The music served as a kind of caption.

Clive Robinson August 27, 2008 12:39 PM

There is an increasing amount of information to indicate that the whole of Colin Powell’s presentation at the United Nations was based on false evidence and that this was known befor hand by the people at the top.

It has been said that Colin Powell knew full well that the information was at best suspect and that it shows in the way he presented it.

There is a publication in the U.K. called “Private Eye” that although satirical in nature has dug out some quite interesting information.

It would appear that a lot of the information originated in the U.S. and was “placed” into various media outlets. These where inturn picked up by various intelegence agencies around the world who then re-wrote them and passed them on to other agencies. These appeared to support the original and so credability for the mis-information built up.

Some of this information made it into various “online” sources including a PhD thesis that where “ripped off” by Tony Blair’s cronies at 10 Downing St. This formed the basis of one of the “dodgy dosiers” that was the source Colin Powell quoted.

Oh and one of the people involved with the dodgy dossier is now head of one of the U.K.’s agencies…

Pat Cahalan August 27, 2008 12:50 PM

Controlling metadata is key to controlling the context of any communication. Captions are one good example of this, but there are numerous others.

Albatross August 27, 2008 1:36 PM

If I were going to try to mislead someone with a digital image, I wouldn’t use Photoshop. I’d edit the EXIF information stored in the electronic image in order to change the date, time and provenance (camera make and model) of the photograph.

For example, when the last Harry Potter book appeared on the Internet as a series of photographs of the pages, the publisher scrutinized the EXIF data in the images in an attempt to track down the camera’s owner.

Someone with malicious intent could take the EXIF data from one of my photographs (found online on my website), set a different image to the same settings, and then for good measure register my camera’s serial number with the manufacturer using one of those registration cards we all throw out with the camera packaging.

It would then be easy to associate me with photographs that I did not take, such as copyrighted materials.

chicopanther August 27, 2008 2:05 PM

You should have used as an example the many “wrong captions” used by the left-wing (i.e., “mainstream” media in the USA (not to mention the BBC, Reuters).

Saddam was playing games with the inspectors, and you know it, Bruce. You know he was hiding stuff and moving it around, so stop trying to blame Bush et al for starting the Iraq war. Saddam started it when he invaded Kuwait, and he never followed the cease-fire stuff. You could say he violated his probation which is why he and his regime had to be taken down.

I used to read your site a lot, Bruce, but since you’ve let your left-wing views influence you, your information is mostly garbage. I sure wouldn’t hire you to do my security!

Skorj August 27, 2008 3:51 PM

I can’t trust an analysis from someone who uses that much alliteration in his writing! Wow.

gil August 27, 2008 5:25 PM

No need for captions, no need for Photoshop or any digital wizardry for a photo to be deceptive, just take a look at the brochures that come out for residential condos etc. A photo of a living room with a wide-angle lens makes wonders with perpective and can make a small living room look spacious.

Kjetil Kjernsmo August 28, 2008 2:02 AM

What really gave it away for me was the low resolution of the photos. They apparently had a pixel size of several meters, was of really bad quality, and generally proved nothing. Even civilian satellites take photos of submeter resolution and with stunning clarity, you just need a bit of time and luck. Powell simply used stock photography, and probably had a concern to not reveal their true capability.

The truly stunning thing is that most of the world leaders fell for such a silly display.

Sparky August 28, 2008 4:27 AM

@chicopanther: and exactly how do you “know” all this?

After the US invaded the country, they searched every square meter and basically came up empty handed.

Even if there actually was something there to be found, that doesn’t change the fact that the US knowingly and willingly manufactured evidence and blatantly lied to the rest of the world.

The only thing that rather surprises me, is that they didn’t just fly in some “evidence” themselves. I’m sure they have some leftover scare junk somewhere.

What gave the US the right to invade another country? Why should the US be allowed to have the largest collection of the nastiest weapons ever conceived by man, while another country isn’t?

It’s like doing psychological testing at high schools, and handing out guns to anyone who scores high in the “psychopath” column. The US have clearly demonstrated they are the bully who CANNOT be trusted with the global policing power they have claimed for themselves.

bob August 28, 2008 7:22 AM

I dont buy the “captions win” premise. Whenever I see “intel” photographs I look at the caption like it was an “MSRP”; its a recommendation, but its up to me to see if I agree.

@Sparky: Its very simple really; the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons for 4 years, and delivery systems for about another 10 after that. During that time we could have dictated terms to the entire world had we wished. We did not. Instead we rebuilt almost the entire WWII-damaged planet out of our own pockets (granted, there was some very un-humane behavior towards the defeated Germans right after the war but basically the US is the most generous, helpful country in the world; donating more to developing nations than the entire rest of the world combined.) So your statement is actually backward – the US is the only country who has proved it CAN be trusted to police the world. (frankly I wish we WOULD stop and let the EU or China could show the world how well THEY can police it, but so far nobody has raised their hand, they just bitch at the US to fix it when something breaks someplace)

On the other hand, the Iraqis used every weapon in their arsenal whenever the opportunity arose, including WMDs – even against their own population.

And now Iran is developing nuclear weapons and at the same time is saying they intend to wipe Israel off the face of the planet.

While 2+2 does not always add up to 4 in Weltpolitik you do have to admit it is at least > 2.

phred14 August 28, 2008 11:55 AM


And then the accountability factor … let’s say 3 independent people or committees or
whatever had reviewed things, and all was on the up and up. In time, it’s proven that
it’s not – trust is broken, damage is done.

Then you have astroturf – where someone who wants you to believe in their agenda comes up with “independent people or committees” that they control behind the scenes.


Also, subtitles, for foreign movies.

Is it possible that “Amelie” wasn’t a movie about a killer robot from outer space?

Heck, you don’t even need malice. For some reason, Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” turned into “Woody and the Robots” when they released the French edition. While we’re on the topic of Woody Allen, don’t forget that subtitles aren’t the only way you can subert the dialog, mistranslation works too, as in “What’s Up, Tigerlily?”

Woodwose August 28, 2008 11:59 AM

This is good stuff! Could I use this same technique on Craig’s List to sell my old AMC Pacer – classic urban vehicle, unique styling etc.?
Unfortunately everyone expects that of “For Sale” ads. So why do we compartmentalize our minds bringing up our BS detectors only for want ads and teenage son’s explanations, but not reports on the goodness of government programs, the winnings available thru lotteries or the miracle cures of Padre Pio?
What has happened to most folks to make them drop phrases like “I’m from Missouri”, and “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” from their lexicon of common responses?

CraginS August 28, 2008 12:34 PM

“Also, subtitles, for foreign movies.
As not everyone knows some arabic or chinese, you can put words on others mouths just tampering the subtitles on any foreign movie. 🙂

Posted by: 🙂
“What’s Up, Tiger Lily”, Woody Allen, 1966

Zaphod August 29, 2008 6:15 AM

@Sparky – I guess you would prefer, oh I don’t know, Russia maybe, to be the “world’s policemen”?

I say thank God it’s the USA.


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