Tuesday, August 29, 2006

SHARK TALE: Anatomy of a faux-tographic hoax



You see them in your e-mailbox every day: Photos that take your breath away. Remember the snapshot of the guy standing on the World Trade Center as an airliner approaches behind him? The shot of a shark leaping up to snap at a rescue diver dangling from a helicopter? A photo of President Bush reading from an upside-down children's book?

All "faux-tographs" -- hoaxes made possible by the magic of Photoshop. Some are so good, even experts have a hard time seeing the telltale clues that they're fabricated. The camera doesn't lie, but sometimes geeky pranksters do.

Recently, we heard of a photo floating around the Internet of a giant, "Jaws"-like shark caught just off one of our area's most popular beaches. It didn't take long to find it, and it was shockingly large. After a day of phone calls and emails, my colleague Brian Pearson punched holes in the prank, but he also did something rare in the urban-myth detective business: He found the actual hoaxter! His story appears today in The Enterprise.

Why do people do it? In our case, it was just a friendly joke. In other cases, though, the reasons for "faux-tography" are more sinister. David Mikkelson, founder of the greatest mythbusting site on Earth, Snopes.com, says this:

"The online world is fraught with clever photo manipulations that often provoke gales of laughter in those who view them, so we speculate that whoever put together this particular bit of imaging did so purely as a lark. However, presumed lighthearted motives or not, the photo [of the tourist at WTC] provokes sensations of horror in those who view it. It apparently captures the last fraction of a second of this man's life . . . and also of the final moment of normalcy before the universe changed for all of us. In the blink of an eye, a beautiful yet ordinary fall day was transformed into flames and falling bodies, buildings collapsing inwards on themselves, and wave upon wave of terror washing over a populace wholly unprepared for a war beginning in its midst."
Wouldn't it be nice to believe in everything ... anything ... something? Why must there always be someone ready, willing and able to undermine our trust, whether in a baseball player's natural ability to hit a ball, our leadership, or simple photographs? That's a sad thing in today's world, where mendacity has become an accepted tool in achieving too many twisted goals. So don't believe everything you see (or read), even if it looks real. A little skepticism and suspicion -- a little, mind you -- is a good thing. A lot might make this world too cynical and we really don't need the bad mojo right now, but being a tad skeptical of things you see and hear doesn't hurt anyone, especially you.


Chancelucky said...

You forgot the photo of the Tsunami wave coming up to the tenth floor of some coastal resort. You quoted snopes. I tend to think of fauxtaux shop hoaxes as a visual version of the urban legend. They appeal to something we want to believe, so we suspend disbelief for a story or an image that's more appealing than reality.

SingingSkies said...

I don't know how much time I spend 'defrocking' visual and verbal urban legends. Yet the same people keep sending them on, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the pictures and stories may be fabricated.

There's something about the photographic legends which grab the gullible and draw them in. Probably something to do with the "camera doesn't lie" trustworthiness that we've come to expect, and don't examine, regardless of the source. This in spite of how many times we've been wowed and awed by the technological marvels of movie-making and years of "photo touchups" to make the "beautiful people" more beautiful.

You're right. A bit of skepticism is a good thing. Besides, it's sometimes fun figuring out if it's "live or Memorex".

Democracy Lover said...

Here's some real news from your neck of the woods:

U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst Targeted For Suggesting New Independent 9/11 Investigation

Ron Franscell said...

My first blush after reading the Iconoclast story is that the military might have overreacted (that's not news, even in these here parts.) My second blush is that Sgt. Buswell doesn't seem to be a very astute intelligence officer, since there seems to be plenty of evidence of the plane crashes at the Pentagon and Shanksville, so maybe his bosses lost confidence in his analytical abilities. Can't tell from "No comment."

The best 9/11 conspiracy-debunking site I've seen is this one.

Anonymous said...

that's a damn big fish.