2Yesterday, a set of photos taken of President Obama at the Mandela memorial service showed him taking “selfies” with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and First Lady Michelle Obama looking somewhat perturbed at their antics. While many are quick to draw instant conclusions based on the appearance of those photos (because come one, it’s too hard to resist, right?) we sometimes forget that photos, like words (sound bytes) and even written phrases, taken out of context can be misleading.

Does a photo always tell the truth? Can the camera lie?

This CNN article sheds some light on the actual photos and in the included video, the photographer who took these pictures of Obama taking selfies with Helle Thorning-Schmidt gave it more context.

I touched on this topic in the opening epitaph* of my novel DARKROOM, by quoting  Eddie Adams, the photojournalist who made one of the most iconic photos from the Vietnam War titled: ““General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon.”

This photo did the equivalent of going viral in the 1960s and as a result, General Ngoc  became forever known world-wide as the man holding the gun.  But Adams soon realized that though this photo accurately depicted the event captured, it would subject the General to much more than he’d imagined.

Conflicted, Adams said,

* “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?”

“I would have rather been known more for the series of photographs I shot of 48 Vietnamese refugees who managed to sail to Thailand n a 30-foot boat, only to be towed back to the open seas by Thai marines.”

Subsequently, Adams apologized to the General and his family for the damaging after effects the publication of this photo had caused them.

I’ll admit, when I first saw the photos of President Obama and his severe-looking First Lady, I was tempted to think that the President was going to sleep in the dog house that night. But then, thinking it over, I realized that such photos taken out of context can really give a false impression. Either way, as I won’t likely know what was actually going on in their minds, I’ve chosen to give them all the benefit of the doubt out of respect and honor.

Have you ever been misquoted, misrepresented, or misunderstood in a photo, a letter/email, or even in a conversation? Tell me about it in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

Joshua Graham is a USA Today bestselling author, Winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.

Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.
  • Jason P. Stadtlander

    Very good article Joshua. Excellent points. I think in today’s world of information and such available media, it’s so easy to take things out of context. The advent of texting hasn’t made things any better. Emotions just can’t be conveyed through text as easily as picking up a phone. On the other hand, photos convey a lot of emotion but only in a very specific time frame and moment in history. It’s like capturing lighting striking before it actually hits a building.

    The emotions seen on someone’s face (such as Mrs. Obama) could just as easily have been her face turning after hearing a disturbing comment from someone beside her about a completely unrelated subject. Or, given that it was a memorial, she could have been thinking about Mandela himself. Hard to say or speculate.

    • joshuagraham

      The insidious thing about it is that some people (be it the photographer/journalist, or the viewer/readers) deliberately manipulate truth with “facts” to give a false impression. Nothing new under the sun, but it does cause one not to trust things automatically on the surface.

  • Rick Rhodes

    The only time I’ve had to deal with anyone manipulating my photo is when they were pinning it to a dart board. 🙂

    You are right about manipulating photos. I’ve seen some posting this photo of the President and First Lady with the wrong hands on their hearts, but when you look at the original it was flipped and altered. The most disturbing one though was this website manipulated a photo of him out with his daughters, and altered things to make it look like he had his hands down her pants. And they were claiming it was real and the other one was altered, but you could see where she was shrunk.

    • joshuagraham

      Rick, some people can be really irresponsible with all kinds of media out of spite/hate. It’s one thing to do as Eddie Adams did (notice, he apologized because destroying General Ngoc’s reputation wasn’t his intent), but another altogether to purpose to malign someone with incomplete, out of context information.


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