Initially, there was a tendency to value images as a mere aid to the written word, often calling on photography when words did not seem sufficient. In the past years the relationship between historian and media has always been precarious, but the scholar of contemporary history often has a very large number of documents at his disposal, among which new types of sources assume increasing importance. They are photography, cinema and sound recording. In the case of photography, the main focus is on the mechanisms of image making, the camera and its optical, mechanical and photochemical parts.
In such a context the problem of manipulating photographic material is amplified, although even images that are considered to be fakes can be an interesting source for the historian in many ways.
According to Enrico De Santis, there are three possibilities to falsify a news item within a photo:
- Before the shot, by changing the scenarios;
- After the shot, through photomontage or photo-retouching software;
- In publication, for instance by associating false captions with the images.
One of the most critically discussed cases of image ‘forgery’ concerns Robert Capa’s famous shot of a Spanish militant being shot by the Francoists. In the 1970s, researchers directly examined Capa’s negatives and found the same soldier still alive in the subsequent frames. In the mid-1990s, it was also claimed that the subject was an anarchist who had actually died in combat, but not in an open field as in the image in question. Other theses demonstrate the authenticity of the photo, following research focused on Spanish investigations into the identity of the soldier.
With digital innovation, the immutability and authorial character of classical photography has almost lost its meaning. The notion of the original and authentic comes into question. Manipulation in itself is not exactly considered a negative element for the correctness of the information, if it is limited to colour variation or only contributes to a better image from an aesthetic point of view. However, not everyone agrees in this respect. This would explain the wave of controversy surrounding the post-production manipulation of certain elements that swept through Paul Hansen’s 2013 World Press Photo competition-winning photograph of the funeral of two Palestinian children.
Nowadays, however, it would seem inevitable to expect the image of the world we perceive to be altered in one way or another. In this regard, therefore, the most important thing is to try to remain as objective as possible and be aware that some of the images presented to us may not be ‘true’ in many ways, the criteria for judging which are often down to personal considerations.