Crisis Aesthetics

This an interesting item that I caught yesterday but didn’t have time to comment. It seems BP had a picture on their website that depicted their command center in Houston. Some digging by John Avarosis on AmericaBlog noticed that the picture looked Photoshopped — and it was. It turns out they added pictures to three blank video monitors so that the center appeared busier. In the Guardian article above, BP spokesman Scott Dean said that it was “the photographer was showing off his Photoshop skills and there was no ill intent.” He also mentioned that he has “ordered workers to use Photoshop only for things like color correction, cropping and removing glare.” Well, that’s a relief!

The whole incident, BP incompetence aside, is the place of imagery in digital news media. Notice that the article mentions Avarosis discovering the fake because of tell-tale signs of manipulation: perspective not correct, wrong size images, haloes, etc. This in and of itself is not really that surprising; bad Photoshop does tend to stand out. To me, the bigger story is the nonchalance of the explanation. A worker was trying out their Photoshop skills? So BP decided to reward the mediocre job by placing the fake photo on their front page? It’s so ridiculous on its face that it could only be spin. BP knew exactly what they were up to and I would not be shocked to learn they had a graphic designer on the payroll for just that purpose.

The larger point is one about imagery in today’s media. Faking news photography is not new (think Robert Capra’s Dying Spanish Soldier). What is fascinating is that we have reached a point where not only is it relatively easy to spot a bad Magic Wand Cut+Paste, but also that the software is so ubiquitous that BP can expect us to buy such a cockamamie response as a worker honing his skills. The explanation practically announces that it itself is fake and that this is SOP for crisis response. It’s no secret that the specter of image editing hangs over every news outlet (think Iranian missiles for Agence France-Presse). But I think we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. If we must view every photo with a  grain of salt, then we must also now look for the digital detritus that announces the deception. These photos weren’t unmasked by diligent newshounds but rather by amateur bloggers with a penchant for Photoshop geekery. The truth of the fake was more truthful than the fake. Or something like that.

Now, this might mean that we are becoming not only more savvy news consumers but also that Photoshop is so embedded in our experience that even decent manipulation gives itself away under scrutiny. However, that also means that the use of such tactics will become even more widespread. Much like photography, Photoshop is easy to do… badly. Perhaps we will eventually reach a point when all media is manipulated (to some extent, is is– cropping, contrast, etc.). The concern then is that those with nefarious designs will think nothing of flooding our purview with horrible fakes, throwing up a digital smokescreen that reveals nothing but a blanket of inauthenticity. If this is the case, why should we treat any photo as ‘real’? We may even reach a point where a crisis can be erased from common consciousness simply by a team of fresh-faced Comm Design majors working in a bunker somewhere.

The real has been a fractious thing for about a century now. This point of diminishing returns that I mentioned might be the harbinger of a new quest for authenticity, insofar as it can be represented digitally. Along with the rise of factions that believe a Photoshopped image is nothing more than PR, comes the advance of a generation of digital children finely tuned to discern Photoshop’s fingerprints. Of course, this new generation has also been raised in a digitally saturated environment for their entire existence. If it falls to them to make the call as to what is real or not and they are no longer able to tell the difference (don’t think there aren’t really good Photoshop jobs out there) then where does that leave the real?

There may very well be a bleak answer to that question that I don’t want to hear.

Update: As if on cue, John finds another crappy Photoshop job on BP’s site.


One Response to “Crisis Aesthetics”

  1. Crisis Aesthetics « Rottenart…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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