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


Some denials that a photograph is factual are based in wonderful, fanciful assertions. They argue, for example, that a sprawling public scene with scores of participants and a multitude of observers is elaborate, concealed theater. The play is set at the border, the staging is hidden, the purpose is malicious deception. This claim is gloriously, heart-stoppingly ambitious: a vast scene of actors, photographers, directors, and complex, seemingly organic action, all accomplished under a blanket of utter secrecy. 

The Claim
Photographs show migrants fleeing American tear gas and smoke grenades at the U.S.-Mexico border. The argument made is that the photographs are fake, an elaborately staged photo-op: “Perpetrators of invasion instantly become victims in new #FakeNews narrative” and “Congratulations, you’ve been #Hoaxed!” Conspiracy-minded naysayers focus particular attention on a viral photograph of a migrant pulling her small children away from what seems to be tear gas against a backdrop of gulch, fence, and shimmering razor wire.

The Lie
The photograph is genuine, the event real. Reuters photographer Kim Hyung-Hoon shot the photograph on the Mexican side of the border, capturing Maria Meza, a 39-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras, fleeing with her children, a tear gas canister hissing in the swale behind them. Tracked down by reporters, Meza said she was merely observing the scene and did not try to cross the border. “I thought my kids were going to die with me because of the gas we inhaled.”

The event occurs after months of 2018 pre-election fear-mongering: threatening “caravans” of migrant women and children are aimed for the U.S. border. Rumors spread that a group of migrants plan to “rush” the border. On November 25th, the U.S. abruptly closes the San Ysidro checkpoint between San Diego and Tijuana, the second busiest border crossing in the world. ICE agents on the U.S. side fire tear gas and smoke bombs through razor wire barriers at unarmed families on the Mexican side.

Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy website writes: “Yesterday’s Headline is todays hoax. The illegal alien mother ‘fleeing’ from the border wall was all a lie. It was a setup. After further review, yesterday’s ‘horrific’ picture of a woman with barefoot children running from the US border wall was a hoax. . . . The woman with the children was just a photo-op.”

The Gateway Pundit site posts a marked up copy of the photograph to bolster its claim the images is staged. A group at left is labeled “posing as if fleeing” and an arrow points at a “camera man.” On the right is another arrow indicates a second “camera man.” At center, a figure is labeled “running toward him,” his future trajectory marked with arrows. Behind Maria Meza and her terrified children, a large clump of people is marked “standing around,” presumably actors waiting for their cue.