Faking It: 10 Altered Photos That Illustrate How the Camera Creates Its Own Reality

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Over the weekend, the Guardian ran an article about an upcoming exhibition in London called Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War, and specifically the famous photo of Tony Blair taking a selfie in front of a hellish scene of flame and destruction. The image seemed to capture pretty much everything about the Coalition of the Willing’s disastrous Iraqi escapade, except for one thing: it wasn’t real. Instead, it was the work of artists Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps, who Photoshopped the image of Blair snapping his own picture onto the apocalyptic backdrop. It’s the latest in the long line of photos manipulated to make a point about politics, about celebrity, or about photography itself. Here are some others.

George W. Bush

Also on the all-too-believable front: the 43rd President of the United States reading a book upside down. Sadly, it wasn’t real, although the the fact that it could have been still says a great deal.

Robert Capa

Was this famous photo from the Spanish Civil War doctored? Was it, in fact, completely staged? The debate continues to rage, 75 years after the image was first published, but only Capa knew for sure, and he took the secret to his grave. Either way, though, it’s almost beside the point — the image remains an iconic depiction of the grim realities of war, even if it isn’t actually real. Such is the power of photography.

Kevin Carter

The story of this photo — taken in Sudan in 1993 — is made all the more tragic by Carter’s suicide, only six months after he took it. It’s a stark, harrowing portrait of famine, with the implicit narrative being that the vulture is waiting to devour the corpse of the unfortunate child. The picture is most certainly real, but perhaps not as clear-cut as it might appear — fellow photographer João Silva has explained that the photo was taken at a feeding center, where the girl’s parents had left her for a moment to fetch food, while two Spanish journalists who were also on the scene have suggested that the vultures were attracted not by the starving child but by a nearby dungheap. (There’s more on the history of the picture here.) This doesn’t in any way reduce the impact or veracity of the picture, of course, but it does serve as an example of how a single image can invite us to impose a narrative that isn’t always entirely reflected in reality.

Danny Evans

No, of course that’s not really Tom Cruise — it’s a terrifyingly realistic mockup of what he might look like in a parallel universe, where he was just an overweight middle-aged dude instead of a mega-rich Hollywood star and Xenu devotee. It’s the work of UK artist Danny Evans, who’s given similar treatment to many other celebrities — you can see more of his work here.

Josef Stalin

Stalin didn’t do the retouching himself, obviously, but we don’t know the name of whatever apparatchik was responsible for expunging the Soviet dictator’s luckless contemporaries from history. Anyway, we’re left with a pretty stark demonstration that the axiom about the camera never lying has always been untrue, even in the days before Photoshop — people habitually disappeared from Soviet photos as they fell from grace.

The Beatles

Spot the difference between the album cover (above) and a US-printed poster (below). No, not the colors.

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If you noticed the disappearance of Paul’s cigarette from the second image, go to the top of the class. In the 1960s, the Beatles were avatars of the counterculture; today, they’re respectable boomer icons who shouldn’t be giving the wrong message to kids. (When Apple Records found out about this little bit of latter-day sanitizing, they were not pleased.)

The murderous anti-American shark

Christ, look at the the things our soldiers have to face! If it’s not rabid insurgents and suicide bombers, it’s ravenous great white sharks trying to snatch them from the sea. The few! The proud! Except — well, it’s a fake. Sorry, patriotism.

Abraham Lincoln

… or not, actually. It’s Lincoln’s head stuck on fellow politician John Calhoun’s body, which only goes to show that this sort of thing has been going on since 1860 or so.

Alberto Korda

Not doctored per se, but Korda’s famous photo of Che Guevara shows how important it is to crop your photos correctly. The photo was taken at a memorial service in 1960 — the original finds Guevara standing by a palm tree, staring pensively at the gentleman who’s crept into the left of the frame. Cut out both the gentleman in question and the tree, though, and you’re left with what’s arguably the most famous photo in history.

Salvador Dalí and Max Halsman

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this famous photo is how little retouching it required. It’s not a composite — it’s a single shot, although it took 28 takes to get right. (God knows what sort of murderous mood the cats were in by the end of it.) All that was removed from the finished image were the wires holding up the props.