Lying with Photographs:
An Analytical Framework

UCR ARTS: California Museum of Photography
Curated by Douglas McCulloh

Lies are ever-present in human affairs, a tidal flow that rises and falls. Recently, lies have been at flood stage and photographs are central to the surge.

Statements, strings of words, are readily seen as assertions, claims. Photographs, on the other hand, are presumed to be a form of evidence. In Susan Sontag’s phrase, we assume photographs are “directly stenciled off the real.” Consequently, photographs, even dubious ones, carry credence in a way that words do not. Moreover, writes theorist Lev Manovich, “the reason we think that computer graphics technology has succeeded in faking reality is that we, over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, have come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.” For these main reasons and scores of lesser ones, photographs are ideal vehicles for lies. (Read More)

Additional Notes:
Sources for the Specimens
Mongrels and Crossbreeds
On the Nature of Lies
Marvels and Magical Beliefs 
On Abundance

1. Manipulated  (Read More)
    1.1    Fog and Pestilence    
    1.2   Don’t Believe Your Lion Eyes
    1.3   Wriggling, Writhing, and ‘Rithmatic’
    1.4   The Case of the Body Double
    1.5   Failed Photoshop’s Peak Point
    1.6   Face Reality
    1.7   ‘Triple-washed & Sanitized’

2. Manufactured (Read More)
    2.1   Cross Purposes
    2.2   Political Theater
    2.3   Asleep at the Real
    2.4   Expect the Wurst
    2.5   Black and White
    2.6   The Real Thing. Perhaps.
    2.7   Elongated
    2.8   In Space They Can’t Hear You Lie
    2.9   Cute Overload
    2.10  Dead Real

3. Recontextualized (Read More)
    3.1   Blue-eyed Boy
    3.2  A Glowing Future
    3.3  Blowing Smoke
    3.4 This Many Pictures...
    3.5  Targeted
    3.6  Costume Drama
    3.7  Fish Story
    3.8  Extracting the Truth
    3.9  Secrets Serviced
    3.10 Against the Wall
    3.11  Commemoration

4. Timeshifted (Read More)
    4.1  All the Rage
    4.2  Catnip
    4.3  Time Travel
    4.4  Masquerade
    4.5  Beach Pathology

5. Extracted (Read More)
    5.1  Chapter and Verse
    5.2  Whitewashing
    5.3  The Case of the Melting Cars
    5.4  Deadly Serious
    5.5  Striking
    5.6  Smell a Rat

6. Mirrored (Read More)
    6.1  Orange Appeal
    6.2  Crouching Panther, Hidden

    6.3  Fool’s Gold

7. Denied (Read More)
    7.1  Kidding
    7.2  Pregnant with Meaning
    7.3  A Lot to Learn
    7.4  Out to Sea
    7.5  Vial Lies

© UC Regents 2022

Failed Photoshop’s Peak Point

Failed Photoshop is universally seen as comedic. But as we laugh at subpar Photoshop, we miss a key message it contains: reassurance. Bad Photoshop offers soothing assurance that we can sort fact from fiction. This is the same reassurance offered by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—intellect will uncover prevarication. Our faith that we can sniff out lies is enshrined in practices from schoolyard grilling to political debate to trial by jury. Despite much evidence to the contrary, we believe lies will out, even when they take photographic form. There is an additional lesson in this particular example: subpar Photoshop can have real world consequences.

The Claim
The photographs show mountaineers Narender Singh Yadav and Seema Rani Goswami on the roof of the world, the summit of Mount Everest. The pair of climbers from the northern Indian state of Haryana were members of a 15-person climbing team that tackled Everest. Based on the photographs, Yadav and Goswami asked Nepalese officials to grant them the coveted Tenzing Norgay Adventure Award certificates affirming they climbed the world’s highest peak.

The Lie
Rookie Photoshop mistakes began to unravel the claim of a climb. Foreground flags hang windlessly limp. The climbers’ vivid blue and red high-altitude jackets are unreasonably crisp and unruffled. Shadows are inconsistent. The wrap-around mountaineering goggles show no reflections of snow or peaks. Finally, experienced mountaineers point out that the oxygen mask is not connected to the tank. Based on an investigation, Nepalese authorities banned Yadav and Goswani from climbing (or not climbing) Mount Everest and other Nepalese peaks for ten years.