Kerry Photo Altered, Used for Political Attack

Tuesday February 17, 2004

A UC Berkeley journalism lecturer’s 32-year-old photograph of future Democratic U.S. Senator and presidential candidate John Kerry has wound up in a forgery that suckered the New York Times. 

Ken Light, head of the photojournalism program at UCB’s Graduate School of Journalism, has found himself in the eye of a media and Internet storm after a clever forger inserted an image of Jane Fonda alongside his image of Kerry and posted the composite on the Internet. 

For Light, the fake was doubly ironic. “I teach the photographic component of the law and ethics class, where I show the students numerous examples” of manipulated news pictures.  

Light was a 20-year-old photographer when he captured a sober-looking Kerry addressing a crowd of Vietnam War protesters in Mineola, New York, wearing the anguished Lincolnesque expression that’s become a virtual trademark. 

The second photo, taken a year later by Owen Franken, caught anti-war activist/actress Jane Fonda standing at the microphone in a Miami park addressing fellow protesters gathered to harangue the Republican Party presidential nominating convention. 

By themselves, the two photos are interesting primarily as documents from another era. 

Then—according to a host of Internet postings—came the Internet prankster who calls himself Registered, an unabashed GOP partisan who loves to apply his digital imaging skills to tweaking prominent Democrats (see his entry at www.freerepublic.com/~registered). 

Combining the two shots—both posted on Corbis.com, a site that allows photographers to market their photos—Registered came up with a very realistic rendering of Fonda sharing the platform with Kerry at her side, an image sure to push the hot buttons of the Right because of another notorious photo, this one real. 

In 1972, Fonda became the bete noir of the right when she allowed herself to be photographed, clad in a North Vietnamese army helmet, at the controls of an anti-aircraft gun as she urged soldiers to shoot down the “American imperialist war raiders” who were bombing Hanoi and environs. 

The fabricated association of Kerry, a genuine war hero who won the Silver Star, with Fonda quickly ping-ponged around the rightist blogosphere. 

Adding credibility to the fake was the accompanying caption and headline, attributing the shot to the Associated Press. 

The most illustrious media outlet to be taken in was the New York Times, which cited the image in a Sheryl Gay Stolberg story datelined Feb. 12. The Times acknowledged the image as a forgery on Feb. 14. 

“My first reaction” to the forgery “was shock,” Light said. “Then you become disturbed because this is a very serious matter. It’s a presidential election, after all, and to have your photograph turned into something like this is very disturbing.” 

Light first learned of the fake in a phone message from the New York Times that came in over the weekend while he was out of town, a call that proved very disturbing to a photojournalist who’s on the record as “absolutely opposed” to any digital alteration of news photos. 

“The media is the guardian of the visual image,” Light said. “Fortunately, the media have risen to the occasion” and debunked the forgery. “The New York Times reported that the photo was forged and they printed both versions. Links to both original photos have been also posted at the journalism school web site (http://journalism.berkeley.edu), he said.  

Even before the Times published the first story citing the photo without qualification, Snopes.com, a website devoted to exposing urban legends, had correctly labeled the creation a forgery, tracking down and posting the original photos used to create the composite. 

Another, legitimate, photo does exist showing Fonda and Kerry at an antiwar protest, this one in Valley Forge, PA, on Labor Day weekend in 1970. They picture shows them sitting in an audience, several rows apart—still enough to provoke NewsMax.com to proclaim, “Kerry Photo Shocker: Candidates Teamed up With ‘Hanoi’ Jane Fonda.” 

That photo drew prominent play on the site of www.vietnamveteransagainstjohnkerry.com, run by Kinston, N.C., businessman Ted Sampley, a man former prisoner of war and GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain described to the New York Times as “one of the most despicable people I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.” 

Another prominent site, NewsMax.com, touted the photo, as did countless partisan weblogs. 

Photographic forgeries have a long, notorious history, going back at least to 1857. The most notorious examples came from Stalin’s Russia, where Old Bolsheviks were clumsily excised from photos as they fell prey to purges. 

The forgeries Stalin’s minions concocted were, by today’s standards, relatively crude and obvious to the semi-skilled eye. But today, thanks to computer programs like Adobe’s Photoshop, images can be fabricated out of whole cloth, or by a cut-and-paste technology Stalin’s appartchiks would’ve loved. 

One of the first images altered by a major American publication appeared on the cover of the February, 1982 edition of National Geographic, where the pyramids of Giza, Egypt, were moved closer together to fit the confines of the page, triggering a major debate about the ethics of photo manipulation. 

But, Light said, New York’s Newsday—ironically, the first major paper to blow the whistle on the Kerry forgery—trumped National Geographic by creating a composite showing disgraced skater Tonya Harding standing beside Nancy Kerrigan, the skater she had assaulted to increase her chances at winning a gold medal. 

“But it’s especially disturbing when it comes to politics,” he said.  

While a photographic negative, at the very least, is a stable, durable item, a digital photo is stored as a series of ones and zeros on a computer disk or a camera’s memory card—rendering the digital image far more susceptible to the machinations of a skilled forger. 

Several camera manufacturers are experimenting with cameras that inject an electronic watermark into each photo as it is taken, a technique that would make a forgery much easier to detect and ensuring the camera’s ongoing role as a primary source of evidence for law enforcement and the courts. 

But photoforgeries are here to stay and easier than ever to produce. Registered himself often posts his creation on FreakingNews.com., a site that hosts contests for photo lampoons of Democratic and leftist people and issues. 

A quick tour of FreakingNews reveals dozens of Photoshop forgeries of Kerry, including one featuring him in rapt conference with mass murderer Charles Manson and another of the senator perched on the toilet, reading FreakingNews. 

And Ken Light’s already thinking how he’ll incorporate his own experience into his classes.