The Digital Journalist
We're Screwed
March 2003

by James Colburn

Last month I picked up a copy of the Washington Times to see a picture of Jane Fonda on the front page. It was so obviously 70's, what with her hair-do and all, that it wasn't until I read the caption that I found out that one of the out-of-focus heads in the back of the photo was Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and that this photo constituted "proof" that Kerry and "Hanoi" Jane had been buddies in the revolutionary struggle.

I looked at the picture and thought that anyone with half a brain and a modicum of photographic education would realize that the picture was taken with a telephoto lens and that Kerry had to be at least 15 feet behind Fonda with three or four rows of people separating the two. This being aside from the fact that the picture was taken two years before Jane Fonda went to Vietnam to become the right wing's whipping girl that she remains to this day.

It also interested me that the picture was taken by Leif Skoogfors, a photographer that I've always admired and consider a friend. Well, who should call up from Sweden that afternoon but Leif, all the way from Stockholm, asking if I' d seen his photo and how was it being played? I explained things and he seemed a little distressed, saying that he'd shot it with a telephoto lens and that Kerry had to have been at least 15 feet behind Fonda with three or four rows of people separating the two….

Leif was upset, and rightfully so, but he can and could pull out the negative or slide from some deep recess and prove his contention that… Kerry had to have been at least 15 feet behind Fonda with three or four rows of people separating the two...

Then I heard about the problems confronting Ken Light. It seems that someone had taken one of his photos, one showing John Kerry at a podium, and " Photoshoped" (yes, Virginia, it's an adjective now) in a photo of Jane Fonda next to Kerry. Ken was, naturally, offended and made efforts to get the web sites that had posted his bastardized to take it down.

What these two gentlemen had in common was not the fact that one of their photographs had been used as a propaganda tool but that each of them could prove their side of the story by producing an original negative or slide. Ken Light even wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece that, "All I can do is pull Roll 68 out of the file cabinet again. It's my visual record, my unretouched truth."

It's a good thing that Ken has roll 68 in the file cabinet. It's a good thing that Leif can pull out the original piece of film with his picture on it to prove to the world that what he's claiming is true.

What would have happened if these had been shot with a digital camera? David Hockney, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper said that he believes modern photography "is now so extensively and easily altered that it can no longer be seen to be true or factual" and that, "photography has been pushed closer to drawing and painting." The paper said that, "The veracity of what he calls the "chemical period" of images produced faithfully in the darkroom has been lost." And, in a real clincher, Hockney is quoted as saying, "My sister, who is just a bit older than me, she's a retired district nurse, she's just gone mad with the digital camera and computer - move anything about. She doesn't worry about whether it's authentic; she's just making pictures."

We're screwed folks. If David Hockney's sister if messing with pictures with abandon then nobody is going to believe that any picture is real. The age of the-proof-is-in-the-photo is gone.

We're now no better than caricaturist at the county fair putting big heads on small surfing bodies.

Also in this issue: Leif Skoogfors' A Face in the Crowd and Ken Light's Photo Fakery.

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer