The 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said to be “be regular and orderly in your life like a Bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Vivian Maier took this to heart. No one ever knew this nanny was an artist of her own.
She took over 100,000 photos, mostly street photographs of downtown Chicago, and kept them for her own viewing, including her selfies. Taking pictures was her happy place, a creative outlet, that allowed her to see the world with a third eye. She wrote with light.
Today, Maier would’ve been an Instagram and VSCO sensation. While she may have resisted social media given her inclination as a loner, she probably would’ve enjoyed connecting with others who shared the same passion. The internet unleashes the weirdness in all of us, motivating us to share our work.
Van Gogh only sold one piece of artwork in his life, to his brother. His posthumous reputation speaks for itself, as does Maier’s.
Perhaps just as critical in determining the veracity of a photo is reviewing its context. Who published it and what story is the source trying to tell? It is election season, after all, and everyone has their own agenda.
Former Adobe vice-president Kevin Connor founded Fourandsix Technologies to develop a better system of fact-checking photos. The first thing he suggests people do in photo forensics is reverse-Google the photo to see if it has appeared online before. If you identify a match, check for edits. You should also, advises Connor, research original publish dates.
“For example, it’s not uncommon for an image to appear on social media claiming to be of a crowd in a recent protest, but reverse image searches then reveal that the image was actually taken in a completely different city years earlier.”
Connor developed the website izitru.com to help streamline the verification process. Photographers can upload their original files to its database to authenticate their images.
Last but not least, fact-checkers can run images through error-level analysis (ELA) on websites like fotoforensics.com. An ELA scans the compressed areas to reveal the modified parts of the image. But remain wary of drawing any conclusions.
“At best, ELA might be useful for directing your attention to certain areas of the image that may deserve future scrutiny, but you shouldn’t make any final conclusions based on ELA alone.”
In all cases, the best thing to do in determining image authenticity is to use common sense. Look at an image for clues. The below example shows a woman wearing a laughable t-shirt at a Clinton campaign rally, only to be voided by the original untouched version shared on Twitter.
Online images are innocent until proven guilty. Use your best judgment to sort the retouched marketing images, most notably in fashion and food ads, from the the news. But when it comes to real stories, we can’t afford fake. Media outlets like the AP forbid manipulation:
“AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way. The content of a photograph must not be altered in Photoshop or by any other means.”
PS: The below image of 300 dead reindeer struck by lightning in Norway last week initially looked photoshopped. But the Norwegian Environment Agency confirmed the report, even capturing a video of the aftermath.
The Financial Timestalks with novelist and photographer Teju Cole. I enjoy Cole’s work because he always comes at it from a unique point of view. He does not shy away from expressing himself — his views are blunt and often involved.
Cole also happens to be savvy Instagrammer who’s already posting mesmerizing stuff on Instagram Stories. He used to dabble in Twitter but is now active on Facebook and still scoping out Snapchat.
Below are some of the interesting talking points from the interview:
On being partisan:
“I recognise as a value that journalists always have an angle. It’s just that some people embed theirs and hide it under the name of neutrality, and neutrality is very often the favourite language of power.”
On ‘American exceptionalism’:
“we need to move beyond this ‘greatest country that’s ever existed’ thing. What is that? What is this, the Roman empire?”
On ‘All lives matter’:
“If I say ‘black lives matter’, it means what it means. You don’t go to someone’s funeral and start shouting, ‘I too have experienced loss!’ That shit is obnoxious.”
“I’m not in a constant state of rage — it’s not good for my health. But there’s much that’s enraging and there’s a great deal that’s saddening. I don’t think I would go on record as saying America’s already great.”
On creativity and online expression’:
“Yes. Any tool, as long as it has … robust enough parameters, any tool can be the avenue for really serious creativity. I really believe that.”
In short, Cole is a masterful noticer and storyteller. He makes sense of the world through words and art, often combining both, to illustrate the subtleties and overlooked matters in American and global culture.