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View Moving the Body

Type: Technique of photo fakery.
Summary: Photographers can create misleading images by arranging the elements in a scene.


Photo fakery usually involves the use of darkroom tricks or image-manipulation software in order to alter a photograph. However, fakery can also be achieved simply by posing people or objects in artificial ways. The technique is known as “moving the body.”

The term derives from a series of photographs taken by Alexander Gardner and his assistants after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Some of the pictures show Confederate sharpshooters lying where they had been shot. But in 1975, historian William Frassanito noticed that the same body appeared in images taken at different locations. He realized that in order to create a more dramatic photo, the photographers had moved a soldier’s corpse and posed it in a new location, even turning its head to face the camera and leaning a gun against a barricade.


Two photographs by Alexander Gardner. (left) A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep. (right) The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter. In 1975 historian William Frassanito noticed that it is the same corpse in both pictures.

How to detect this kind of fakery

When a photographer creates a fake image by “moving the body,” the image itself is real, in the sense that the image accurately depicts the scene the photographer shot. It is the photographer’s description of what the image shows that is misleading. (“Moving the body” can be categorized as a subset of the “real picture, fake caption” phenomenon.)

For this reason,  journalistic methods of investigation are best suited to exposing this kind of fakery. For instance, just as Frassanito did when analyzing Gardner’s Civil War photographs, a researcher might examine all the images taken by a photographer in order to determine if there is any evidence that the photographer arranged elements in the scene. Does an object appear in different locations in different pictures, suggesting that the photographer moved it?

Or a researcher might interview eyewitnesses who were present when the photographer was shooting. They might remember if the photographer was moving things around.

If it is not possible to examine other photos or interview eyewitnesses, a researcher must rely on clues present in the image itself. Does anything seem conspicuously out of place in the image? This is typically the most difficult, and least precise, method of identifying if a photographer is guilty of “moving the body.”

Examples

The Lackawanna Shooter

On September 20, 2002, the New York Times ran a dramatic photo of a young boy of Arabic descent aiming a toy gun outside an Arabian food store in Lackawanna, New York. The scene was near to where an al-Qaeda sleeper cell had allegedly recently operated. The photo was taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Ed Keating. But rival photographers present at the scene accused Keating of staging the shot, claiming he had arranged the scene “like a fashion shoot.” Keating denied the allegations, but was nevertheless forced to resign from the Times.

The Perambulating Skull

In 1936 the recently created Resettlement Administration (absorbed into the Farm Security Administration in 1937) was providing aid and shelter to families affected by a drought in South Dakota. Numerous cattle were believed to have died during this drought, depriving families of their livelihood.

The Resettlement Administration provided local newspapers with images of the harsh conditions that were causing families to flee. However, when editors at the Fargo Forum (a Republican newspaper) looked closely at these pictures, they noticed that the same steer’s skull was turning up repeatedly in different pictures. The Resettlement Administration’s photographer was using the steer’s skull as a ‘moving prop’ in order to dramatize the claim that numerous cattle had died during the drought.


Two images released by the Resettlement Administration in 1936, both showing the same skull, posed in different locations.

Controversy

The Miracle Fire Doll

In October 2007 fires destroyed hundreds of houses in San Diego County. News photographers recorded many images of the subsequent damage, but one photo in particular, taken by Reuters photographer Mario Anzuoni, attracted attention. It showed a doll that had apparently survived a fire, even though most of the house around it had burned down. The photo was taken on October 23, 2007. The caption that accompanied it read, “A doll lies in the charred rubble of a home in the Rancho Santa Fe area of San Diego, California October 23, 2007.”

Bloggers almost immediately questioned the authenticity of the image. For instance, a blogger calling himself “An American First” wrote: “[The doll] is pristine.

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