Media Awareness Network
HomeFor TeachersFor ParentsMedia IssuesNewsSpecial InitiativesContent CartRéseau éducation-médias


Photographic Truth in the Digital Era

In November 2001 the National Capital Commission, the Crown corporation responsible for planning and developing Canada's National Capital Region, caused some controversy when they published a promotional brochure for the city of Ottawa that featured a digitally enhanced photo on its cover.

The brochure blended a view of Parliament Hill from one end of the Rideau canal, with a more picturesque section of the "world's longest skating rink." Even the section of the canal they selected was inverted, in order to create a more symmetrical image. At issue wasn't that the NCC had used a compilation of photos, but rather that they had presented this image as a real Ottawa scene.

Advances in digital technology mean that anyone with a computer and image-manipulation software can easily cut and paste a wide range of images into an apparently seamless whole. The old advertising slogan "Is it live or is it Memorex?" takes on a whole new meaning when trying to separate truth from fabrication in photos that appear to be real. Pranksters, hucksters and even journalists are proving that more often than not, we can't believe everything we see.

Examples exist in all visual media. In October 2001 the National Post featured an article about the Queen being given a cell phone for her birthday, accompanied by a photo of a smiling Queen Elizabeth waving her Telus cell phone. When alert readers pointed out that this model of phone was only available in Canada, the Post had to 'fess up that the cell phone had been digitally added to the photo. Film makers routinely integrate digital manipulation to enhance special effects in movies -- a few examples include, Tom Hanks' image digitally integrated into actual historical footage in the film Forrest Gump; Jurrasic Park's Dinosaurs; the creatures, space crafts and worlds in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; and, of course, the technical (if not critical) triumph of computer generation, Final Fantasy. On television, advertisers display virtual ads on the playing fields of sporting events. These ads appear to be part of the scenery, but they can only be seen by the television viewing audience. A more obvious example of digital manipulation is when cartoon spokescharacters "interact" with the live children who appear in cereal and snack food commercials. In magazines, photos of models and celebrities are routinely doctored to make the subjects more appealing. And, of course, digital manipulation is thriving on the Internet, where there are few gatekeepers and countless opportunities for misinformation.

Digital manipulation can add credibility to urban legends and hoaxes. In the days following the horrific attack of the World Trade Center, a photo of a tourist being photographed just seconds before the tragedy was widely circulated. Supposedly, the camera containing the shot was found in the rubble of the twin towers.

It didn't take long to discover that this image was from the "Tourist Guy" Web site -- a digitally manipulated "Where's Waldo" photo gallery of the hapless tourist plunked into a wide variety of historical and humorous scenarios.

Digital manipulation also feeds political humour. Since September 11th, the Internet has been flooded with digitally enhanced parodies -- most often at Osama Bin Laden's expense. Images like "Dr. Evil and Mini Bin" and George Bush as "The Turbanator" are just a few of the hundreds of digitally enhanced images that have been making the rounds via e-mail.












Digital manipulation can have serious social ramifications. Presently law makers in Canada and the United States are grappling with the legal issues surrounding the possession and creation of "virtual child pornography" -- computer-generated pornographic images that do not use actual children.

During the trial of O.J. Simpson, Time magazine received widespread criticism for manipulating a cover photograph of O.J. Simpson's police mug shot -- intentionally altered to make Simpson look darker and more menacing. Not only were there concerns regarding Simpson's right to a fair trial, but these images also fed public debate about racial stereotyping.

Source: National Press Photographers Association

Digital manipulation is the foundation of the fashion and beauty industry, where air-brushed and digitally enhanced portrayals of ideal male and female beauty promote standards of attractiveness that are impossible to achieve.

Source: Adbusters Quarterly, Summer 1995, vol.3, No. 4

In 1995, Adbusters paired a 1990 Esquire Cover that featured Michelle Pfeiffer and the caption "What Michelle Pfeiffer Needs... Is Absolutely Nothing" with a copy of the itemized bill for $1,525 in photo touchups that Diane Scott Associates, Inc. charged Esquire for their work in creating Michelle's flawless image.

The September 1994 issue of Mirabella featured a beautiful cover model with a caption that read "Who is the Face of America?"

It turned out that the "face of America" appearing on the cover was not one model, but a composite picture that was created by combining six pictures of six different women.

Online marketers are eager to tap into the digital possibilities for creating virtual environments in which visitors interact with human-like interfaces.

On April 19, 2000, Ananova, the world's first virtual newscaster, made her debut at Designed to provide a "face" to Web-based news, Ananova's final "look" was composed of "the most striking features and faces from fashion magazines."

Questions About Digital Manipulation

  • Brainstorm examples of both subtle and extreme forms of digital manipulation.
  • When is digital manipulation acceptable?
  • When is digital manipulation not acceptable?
  • Under what conditions should viewers or readers be notified that an image has been digitally altered?
  • Is it easy to tell when an image has been digitally enhanced? What are some clues?
  • Have you ever noticed virtual advertising when watching televised sports? (An easy giveaway is when you are watching a game from the other side of the country, and the ads that appear on the billboards are for your local television station.) Are ads like these acceptable forms of advertising?
  • What are the copyright ramifications of combining existing images into a new image? Is permission needed from the creators of the original images?
  • How does context affect our response to digitally-altered images? For example, would an unacknowledged, digitally manipulated photograph in the Globe and Mail be more controversial than an altered image used by the National Enquirer?
  • When using digital manipulation to blend photos and images for the purposes of humour or parody, what has to be taken into consideration for the final image to be effective? (For example, for viewers to "get" the humour associated with "The Turbanator," the viewing audience must demonstrate a fair level of cultural understanding and be able to make the connections between the "tough action hero" movie persona of Arnold Schwartzenegger, George Bush and his response to terrorism in Afghanistan, and the underlying cultural messages about America and Americans.)
  • What are the social concerns relating to digital enhancement of photos and images?
  • Why are companies eager to "humanize" the Internet, through human-like interfaces such as Ananova?
  • What might be the consequences of our increasing interaction with virtual reality and human-like interfaces on computers and the Internet?
  • Read the essay Digital Truth on the PBS site and respond to the questions "Is photographic truth at an end?" and "Has it ever existed?"


Ask students how easily they can tell when a photograph is real, or computer generated. Then have them complete the "Fake or Foto Quiz" that has been created on the Web site of the 3D graphic company Alias|Wavefront. In this quiz, visitors must decide which of the ten images shown are real, and which are digitally enhanced -- and it's not an easy task!

Recommended Links

  • The PBS series "American Photography: A Century of Images" looks at the ethical ramifications of digital manipulation -- "which is as old as photography itself." At the PBS Web site, the essay on Digital Truth outlines the problems associated with the "slippery slope" we risk sliding down when digital enhancement becomes the accepted norm. (Their adaptation of the famous "assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald" photo into "Oswald/Ruby as a Rock Band" is a fascinating example of digital manipulation. Show students the altered photo first, and ask them if they can identify the people shown in this different context.)
  • The American National Press Photographers Association Web site offers an excellent online report, "Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography," that includes many famous examples of digital manipulation.
  • "Designing Ananova" at provides a fascinating glimpse of the thinking behind the world's first virtual newscaster.
  • features a gallery of political cartoons relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
  • Greg's Digital Retouching Portfolio offers a sample image gallery where you can use your mouse to roll over images and display the original scan before it was retouched. 
  • In February 2004 the campaign for American Democratic candidate John Kerry faced a scandal when doctored photos of Kerry made it appear as if he shared the podium at an anti-war rally with Jane Fonda. The doctored and original photos can be found at


About the Author

Jane Tallim is MNet’s education specialist




You have
in your content cart
Review your selections

Photographic Truth in the Digital Era - Teachable Moment  

top of page

© 2008 Media Awareness Network