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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

On Faking Photographs

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Have you seen the current TV commercial where some guy is trying to impress a girl through the use of faked photographs? It's pretty clever. She's admiring the pictures lining the wall of his apartment, and there's one of him and Lassie. "Yeah," he admits modestly, "Lassie saved my life once."

There's a picture of him with Marilyn Monroe. "What a cook!" he exclaims. His new girlfriend seems suitably impressed by his brushes with the late great celebrities. The visual punchline is when he goes over and throws a cover on his computer - where he's in the process of using some photo retouching software to add his face to Mount Rushmore. It's a clever and fun spot, and it probably sells a lot of software.

Faking photographs to impress somebody is also what the University of Wisconsin tried to do last week, except they got caught at it. Attempts to deceive take on a more serious tone when they're tried by a major university on the cover of their undergraduate application pamphlet.

The photo was of a bunch of kids in the stands at a University of Wisconsin Badger football game. You know the kind of picture - young, enthusiastic kids, decked out in UW garb and colors, cheering for the home team. The university's undergraduate admissions director, Rob Seltzer, approved the use of the picture, but ran it by Paul Barrows, vice chancellor for student affairs. Barrows pointed out to Seltzer that the photo showed only white kids and told him to "find something more diverse." After all, about three percent of the student body is Black, and they've got a serious minority recruiting crisis on their hands.

So Seltzer took the head of a black student, Diallo Shabazz, from completely different picture and electronically added it to the football crowd, making it appear that he was at the game, sitting with the white kids cheering for the team.

When the booklet was published, someone noticed that there was sunlight shining off Shabazz's head, but that the rest of the crowd seemed to be there on a cloudy day. Other students recognized Shabazz's image and thought it was strange, because he had never once attended a University of Wisconsin Badger football game.


The University has apologized both to Shabazz and the entire student body and promised to reprint the entire run of more than a hundred thousand brochures, at a cost of $64,000. They're also going to "explain the mistake" to prospective applicant who got one of the booklets in the mail.

No one will be disciplined or fired, says a University spokesman, because they "admitted their mistake and apologized."

Just days later, the University of Idaho pulled from its web site a photo of nine students when it learned that the picture had been doctored to remove two white student faces and add a black male and an Asian male's face to the group. University President Robert Hoover said that those responsible for the web site had been asked to find pictures of diversity to publish. Again, the culprit will not lose his job. He was merely trying to "show the diversity of the University of Idaho," which boasts a whopping eight percent minority enrollment.

Higher education officials are using the doctored photo scandals to try to highlight their attempts to reflect racial diversity in their student body. That's why the pictures were faked in the first place - to try to represent their campus as ethnically and racially diverse. It's part of their drive to attract minority students to campus, they contend. A mite overzealous perhaps, but well-intentioned.


Instead of showing a diversity of ethnics on campus, it demonstrates a diversity of ethics. Sheesh! Creating (and then disseminating as true) a faked photograph in an attempt to attract college applicants is misleading, deceptive, and simply wrong. It exposes colleges (these two especially) as essentially commercial institutions, using current advertising tricks of the trade to get unassuming kids to buy their product. They are more concerned with their appearance than honesty, more concerned with getting minority kids enrolled than with the truth. I wonder if they spend more money on their Photography Department than on their Ethics Department (if indeed they even have one).

There is a substantial difference between using photo retouching software to impress a date and using it to commit academic fraud. We expect more from a institution of higher learning than from an 20-year-old. (Well, maybe in light of this we don't anymore, but we should.)

Advances in media technology are making it easier and easier to lie. Funny how it doesn't seem to get any easier to tell the truth.

We used to be able to believe what we saw. Remember? "I saw it with my own two eyes!" "Seeing is believing!" "You can't argue with a photograph! It's proof positive!"

No more.

Increasingly it seems, we need to look behind what we're being told or shown and examine the ones who are doing the showing. We need to look at their motives, their records, and even their ethics (if any). That's basic media literacy.

But seeing major universities acting like used car salesmen (using the techniques of advertising, the tricks of digital photography, and a certain lack of integrity) is both revealing and discouraging.

Illusion sells better than truth. It looks better and is easier to believe. And now that our media revolution has made it as easy to create an illusion as to report the truth, it's going to make all of us a little less naive (or even trusting), I guess.

That's sad.