Let's Play Phuzzle!

By John Long

It is the constant bombardment that is getting to me. No matter where you turn, people are destroying the integrity of photographs by manipulating the content and they have a million excuses. “It’s not really a documentary photo. It is not news; it’s just an advertisement. It’s a portrait, so it doesn’t count.” A little drip will wear down a mountain if you give it long enough. Case in point – The Grand Canyon.

For as long as I can remember there have been puzzles where you compare two (or more) almost identical drawings and try to find the differences the artist has built into them. In the age of electronics it was inevitable that photographs would become the material from which the puzzles would be constructed since it is so easy to use Photoshop to change the details in a photograph. I have heard that the most popular feature in the short-lived third reincarnation of Life magazine, the newspaper supplement (and now continued in PEOPLE) was the photo puzzle. One of my favorites was the puzzle where you had two almost identical photographs of Martha Stewart in a kitchen and we were supposed to spot the differences. The question becomes, if these photographs of Martha Stewart have been manipulated, why should we believe the truthfulness of a photograph of Martha Stewart on the cover of Newsweek? Same lady – what difference does it make where her picture is used?

In fact, Newsweek used a photograph of Martha Stewart just before she got out of jail and the headline said, “Martha’s Last Laugh. After Prison, She’s Thinner, Wealthier & Ready for Prime Time.” The problem was that Newsweek had no access to Martha Stewart in jail so they used an old headshot of her and put it on a photograph of a thin model to show how she had lost weight. It was a visual lie and it was on the cover of Newsweek. The puzzle was a visual lie and it was the most popular feature in Life.

And now the concept of a puzzle has been elevated to new heights (or dragged deeper into a tar pit of lies) by The Charlotte Observer. The Observer, as everyone remembers, was the paper that fired Patrick Schneider for manipulating photographs, and now they have a new feature: “Phuzzle,” a puzzle based on actual news department photographs. One photograph is supposedly the real one and one photograph has six subtle Photoshop changes. It's fun, it's challenging, it’s an online game that tests your ability to find small details. Oh the joy of it all! (www.charlotteobserver.com/images/graphics/phuzzle/)

[screenshot of Phuzzle game using a news photograph]

The irony is overwhelming. The same newspaper that fired a photographer for manipulating photographs turns around and glorifies the manipulation of photographs in a game. And these are not portraits or advertising photographs. These are feature photographs taken by the newspaper’s photojournalists, photographs that are from the news pages of the newspaper.

If this were an isolated incident I could pass on it, but it is a constant barrage. Practically all advertising is computer enhanced. Christmas card photographs are enhanced. Wedding photographs are routinely enhanced. Open eyes from other frames replace blinking eyes. It’s easy, it’s seamless. It is beautiful, and it is a lie.

Magazine covers are enhanced (Time, Newsweek, Men’s Fitness to name a few notorious recent examples) and the excuse is that it is the cover and they need to do this to sell the magazine. “We can doctor the cover with impunity but you can believe everything on the inside,” they say. It's okay to create a visual lie on the cover (a crying Ronald Reagan on Time or a thinner Martha Stewart on Newsweek) but that does not transfer to the inside material where they would never, never lie.

Plain and simple, this is bull.

Today, there is no “decisive moment.” There is only fantasy.

Photojournalism is the last bastion of honesty in the world of photography today and it is imperative we defend the integrity of the images we make. This is why a seemingly harmless puzzle is so insidious: they are celebrating a visual lie in the very place they should be demanding total accuracy and integrity.

There is no actual ethical problem with the Phuzzle; there is no intent to deceive the public. Rather it comes down to a matter of respect, respect for the honest photograph that documents history for generations to come. This is the true value of the honest photograph. We can never forget this.