When Words are Photoshopped: Captions and Their Truthfulness

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Yet another prize winning photographer has been accused of visual deception. Subsequently, Paul Hansen’s World Press Photo of the Year passed the forensic review that was set up hurriedly — by WPP — to address the scandal, but it has become clear that the image was substantially “improved” in post-production.

All commercial photos are enhanced, and few news photos have ever appeared without some artistic manipulation, so there is at the least a sliding scale involved. At some point, however, art becomes deceit, and with that the integrity of the press as an institution is at risk. Thus, the press needs its own watchdog, and from the beginning of photojournalism there have been those who were happy to question whether the images in the news were telling the truth.

I’m fine with that, but what I don’t get is why captioning so often gets a pass.

The photo above was captioned by Corbis as:

April 30, 2013. Israeli security forces arrest a Palestinian man during clashes with Jewish settlers, left background, near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, near Nablus.

Now, the photographer and magazine were playing by the rules, carefully identifying who, what, when, and where in sufficient detail to place the photo within the event being covered. We now know that the photo was not taken on April 29th and that it was near Yitzhar (the Jewish settlement) near Nablus (the Palestinian city) and not near some other settlement or city. Given either forensic or historical questions, those could be crucial details.

Those are not the only questions that apply, however. There also are political and moral questions, for example. In respect to those questions, a very significant detail has not been identified. Look closely: the man is double over in pain while trying to get something out of his eyes. He is a large, well-muscled man yet unable to resist the two soldiers grabbing him, so the pain must be debilitating.

Now look closer still: the two soldiers are trying to spray something into his face. The one is spraying–you can see that he is holding and firing a spray canister, and that the foam or mist is coming out as white blur. The other soldier is trying to hold and turn the man so that the first can hit him directly in the face. Hit him squarely in the eyes, that is, and for the second time.

The caption did not say:

April 30, 2013. Israeli security forces try to force a second dose of pepper spray into the eyes of a Palestinian man during clashes with Jewish settlers.

That would be the more specific, more accurate description of what is being shown. It also would shift the sense of political blame: instead of a man being “arrested,” as if a criminal, we have Israeli soldiers siding with the settlers who rioted following a stabbing. (The stabbing of a settler was of course criminal and should lead to an arrest, but ask yourself how rioting following a crime would be treated in your town.)

Instead of settlers violating the rule of law, here the Palestinian is the sole law breaker. Instead of soldiers attacked a wounded man to deliver a second dose of punishment, we have merely an arrest.

The saving grace of photographs is that they can show what is happening contrary to the interpretation that is applied to them. Even so, as many commentators have pointed out, captioning can significantly influence what is seen, what is remembered, and how it is used. The caption tells you both what to see and what to ignore in the photograph.


Most of us would see a vicious beating. The London Telegraph apparently wasn’t so sure, as it captioned the photo this way:

At least five people were killed when police fired on about 100 Muslim youths in the Kenyan capital who were protesting against the arrest of a radical Jamaican-born Muslim cleric whose teachings influenced one of the 2005 London bombers.

Well. I guess we are to think that they guy on the ground is one of the lucky ones–after all, he’s still alive, isn’t he? (Barely, I would guess.) And if he is getting a good beating, perhaps we are to think that it might be deserved: after all, he is associated with one of the London bombers.

The paper is showing the violence, of course, but it also is coaching the viewer in how to look past it, minimize it, pretend that even though nasty things happen on behalf of homeland security one really doesn’t have to say that they happen.

So it turns out that there really are two sets of rules: the rules that guide reporting what is supposed to be said, and the rules that ensure that some things are not said. That second list probably is longer than we would like to think (speaking of learned denial).

To give one indication, in my own not-scientific survey of documentary images, it seems to me that police brutality often is not mentioned. To the credit of the news organizations, it is shown, but it it not mentioned. That strategy probably is safer for the news organizations–they are less likely to be accused of being “political,” or of having their photographers beaten. But the omission is not just a prudent division of labor: it schools the public in seeing and not saying. In short, it encourages the worst form of bystander behavior.

Words were being manipulated long before photography existed. They still are being manipulated with all the power and subtlety that we expect of Photoshop. When attached to a photograph, they can seem all the more innocent, as if providing nothing more than background information that can be checked instantly for its accuracy. Except that those words often are not innocent, and they are persuading us to not see, not check, and not ask.

P.S. To read a better caption of the second photo, go here. Despite being a conservative paper like the Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal is more descriptive, perhaps because the cleric’s connection was with London rather than New York.

About the author: Robert Hariman is a communication studies professor at Northwestern University, and is one of the authors behind the book and blog No Captions Needed. This article originally appeared here.

Image credits: Photographs by Nasser Ishtayeh/Associated Press and by Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

  • J

    Devil’s advocate:

    The man on the floor was until seconds ago in possession of the assault rifle the policeman is holding. He has taken the magazine out (clearly with bullets in) in order to make it safe – the only other explanation is that he’s changing mags halfway through a fight which seems odd. The soldier with his leg up has just kicked the box away so they can clearly see his hands and assess the risk he poses.

    The arrested Palestinian had been incredibly violent and an incapacitant spray used. That is why it’s still in the soldiers hand as it had just been discharged and it’s something of a faf to put back while trying to gain contol of a blinded man mountain who’s trying to get away from you. The other soldier is trying to exercise some control on the detainee to stop him blindly stumbling around such rugged terrain, as opposed to spinning him round for another shot, which incidentally won’t cause anymore pain than he’s already in.

    The most amazing thing about reportage photography is it captures without dispute what happened in 1/125 second, while lending few clues to the minutes before or after. this is where opinion resides complete with political, religious and philosophical motivations which tell you more about the writer than the incident.

    Just some thoughts…

  • Gimmeabreak

    Your bias here is really getting off the ranch for what most of us come to this site for. You seem to be siding with anyone who’s being “oppressed” without any evidence in either specific case. As Oldest notes, you have no knowledge here in either situation of the before and after events.

    Stick to photography.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Yeah. The author’s problem is clearly not that he wants captions to be unbiased, but that he wants them to share his biases.

  • Anthony Burokas

    “The one is spraying–you can see that he is holding and firing a spray canister, and that the foam or mist is coming out as white blur.”

    Wow. I’m surprised PetaPixel even allowed this article to be published. Not only do we not know the author’s intent, or that their interpretation of the photos is any more accurate than any other, but even the most simple elements are so clearly wrong.

    The foam coming out of a can that is in focus is a “white blur”
    No. The white blur is a person in the far distance and out of focus. You can clearly see their black headcover and white clothed body behind the can.

    It’s clearly pepper spray, the man is doubled over in pain, hands to his eyes, and the back of his head to the can. The officers aren’t going to spray the back of his head with it. It’s not hair spray.

    So it’s clear the written interpretation here can easily be as wrong as the captions the professor portends to discredit. The article should be deleted till corrected, or, as others noted, eliminated entirely as it’s not about photography, but merely taking issue with captioning by news bureaus.

  • Justin Haugen

    Second dose of pepper spray? Looks to me they are still finishing the first.

  • Matt

    Wow, really? I think the problem is this “professor”.

  • Bob Prangnell

    Not only professor but “communications studies professor” – so he studies communications but is such a blind idiot that he mistakes an out of focus person’s arm for some pepper spray. This just shows you the underlying belief system he has. Tosser

  • Boze sacuvaj

    I think when certain people constantly see biases against their beliefs, perhaps they are biased themselves.

  • Neil van Niekerk

    *ensure (not insure)

  • Syuaip

    discussing captioning is still part of photography..

  • DEH

    My first reaction to the author’s recaptioning of the first photo was the grade-school retort: “Says you!” Maybe his version of events is more accurate, or maybe it’s just biased in the opposite direction. This article is unhelpful, to say the least.

  • David

    i came here for photography not politics and this “professor”s opinions..

  • donniefitz2

    I couldn’t agree more. Why is this here? I want photography not politics here.

  • donniefitz2

    Please don’t make PetaPixel a platform for your agenda. I like it here. And clearly, the “foam” you see is a person’s garment in the background. Try again. Just don’t try it here.

  • Rick

    You are right in what you say, but I think you have to think about another view of this scenes. Photographing such scenes is often a problem for the photographed persons. If you caption the pictures more specific you run the risk that media would be unacceptable for the future and is forced to leave instead of covering that stuff.
    Many countries observe closely what the media does.

  • Olafs Osh

    legit article.

  • Ci Kane

    Re “The caption did not say:

    April 30, 2013. Israeli security forces try to force a
    second dose of pepper spray into the eyes of a Palestinian man during
    clashes with Jewish settlers.”

    Surely that would be supposition on the part of the photographer which would then leave them open to criticism from the publications they supplied. Or is the professor suggesting the photographer should be guessing what had happened and putting that in his captions ?

    For example how does the professor know with 100% certainty that the soldier is trying to force a second dose into the Palestinian’s eyes. Could be the third. Could be one of the soldiers had punched the guy in the face and that is why he is wiping his eyes (or is Hariman claiming soccer players wiping their eyes is due to pepper spray and not an elbow in the face or kick elsewhere ?) and the soldier is trying to spray the first dose. That may be a small point and probably wrong but Hariman doesn’t know for certain so his caption is actually less accurate than the one he is criticising.

    Anybody who has covered even the smallest demonstration which has gotten out of control know that pictures can appear and disappear rapidly as you are also trying to ensure your own safety. This may be the only clear frame the photographer got of this incident with other people moving through the frame and other events happening so had no other images to be able to add a more in depth caption.

    Hariman is making assumptions about situations rather than dealing with actual facts and in doing so potentially damaging the reputation of the photographers in question. So as far as the title of this article goes it appears that it is Hariman who wishes to Photoshop the captions and not the photographer.

    Sadly any harm to Hariman’s reputation over this will be minimal compared to the potential danger to the photographer who has now been labeled as biased.

  • don_nod

    this is one of the best articles i read on Petapixle, for some that have commented that they dont want politics, it is clearly because they are living in a Barbie world thinking that ‘things happening across seas dont matter to me or wont catch up to us’ for that ignorant person unless they are part of the Israeli aparthied propaganda machine. Israelis conquered this land 65 years ago, exiled, expelled and terminated the local population called ‘the Palestinians’ and that caused a domino effect of refugee problems with Lebanon refugee camps, syria and jordan. there is no solution because Israel remain to occupy land and subject, eradicate, any arab population. for the NAY SAYERS, that land is in the MIDDLE EAST and there weren’t major issues between the Christians, jews and muslims until 1948 when large number of Jews having just gone thru the holocust, decided to return to a land there cult demed it was promised to them 2000 years ago!! ironically the some Jews seem to have forgotten what they suffered in Europe, and have decided to take it out on the Arabs, since its human nature to bully the weak. Today the palastineans are paying for Nazi crimes. there is no if buts or anything that is the reality of the situation. Because of the shame of other European and American inaction to prevent such horros in WWII they keep silent to what happens to the palatines.

    I want to know what warm blooded american or european or anyone for that matter go thru what Palestinians go thru daily and hourly, with check points and humiliation and torture. ohh wait they are criminalls becuase they “muslims” and they fight with rocks and homemade fireworks and occasionally out of desperation to the inaction of the world they blow themselves up!!!! Israelis have f-16 and organized army, world support, and are ranked one of the top 5 most powerful armies in the world, comparing them to Palestinians is like and elephant tow an ant.

  • Ken Jones

    “History is written by the victors.”

    It’s all opinion written with bias. Myriad articles have been written on the lie that is a photograph. Without actually being there and understanding the reason for the conflict one has to reply on another person’s point of view. That could be written word, a photograph, or even video. You don’t know what you’re not shown or told, and then form an opinion only on what you’ve been presented. You are always at the mercy of the presenter.

  • SiliconeLake

    Photography disturbed!

  • Dan

    Interesting article but the comments are even more interesting.
    Most commentators strongly disagrees with the alternative captions, probably because of their political views. One agrees with the alternative also probably because of his/her political views.
    Heated political comments are fun to read but not very convincing.
    What I got out of the article is that you need to be careful with the caption as they can change the meaning of a photograph drastically. Then the author gives two examples with alternative interpretations. The politics of the two situations are less important for the article. Some however seems unable to let anything that don’t fit their preconceptions go past without attacking it.