Falsification of history

The Soviet Union

The most common examples of photograph alteration and falsification come from communist Russia. Unwanted persons, so-called "enemies of the people" were not only killed, but also removed from photographs where their presence was unwanted. Photographs were altered with the intent of changing the past.

Leon Trotsky was a close friend of Lenin, and shared his idealistic ideas about the communist state. In the following photographs he can be seen together with Lenin.


The next set of images are nearly identical, however Trotsky is removed from both photographs.


The historical reason for this alteration is that Stalin eventually began to see Trotsky as a threat and labeled him an "enemy of the people". After he was deported from the Soviet Union in 1929, Trotsky critisized Stalin's leadership, arguing that the dictatorship Stalin exercised was based on his own interests, rather than those of the people. This contributed substantially to Trotsky's removal from photographs and history.

Nikolai Yezhov, chief of the Soviet secret police, suffered a fate similar to that of Trotsky. For some time he was close to Stalin, staging the infamous Moscow frame-trials, where innocent people were forced to confess crimes against Stalin and the Soviet Union, and were consequently executed. In the photograph below, he can be seen walking together with Stalin.

In the modified photograph below, it is as though he had never existed

[ all pictures above were taken from The Commissar Vanishes ]

In 1998, Hoover Digest, a publication at Stanford University published an article entitled Inside Stalin's Darkroom. This is just another example of how history was altered by the Soviet Union.

The above examples illustrate how alteration of images can change history. Unwanted persons are removed from photographs and are thus also removed from history. Their connections to other historical persons(in this case Lenin and Stalin) are literally erased. Fortunately we have access to the original photographs, but who is to say that what we deem to be originals really are authentic? After all, if we had not known about the original photographs, we would have naturally assumed that the falsifications were authentic.


Private pictures

Keeping the above examples in mind, it is almost shocking to see companies advertising the same services that the Soviet Union used to recreate and change history. Companies such as The Town Local, www.MasterRestoration.com and www.digital-restoration.com provide the service of removing unwanted persons from photographs. Want to find a way to keep great pictures, without those people you would rather forget? Why not have us digitally remove those unwanted items from your photographs? This is how www.digital-restoration.com explains its services. Friends and family members can be removed from photographs to create the desired effect. Some examples can be seen on the following pages:

Reviewing these manipulations, it is clear that there is a market for removing girlfriends, boyfriends, family members and others from personal photographs. Is this right or wrong? Does owning a photograph give the owner the right to manipulate it in any way?

Removing a person from a picture is very self-deceptive. It is equivalent to lying to oneself about the past, and constructing fake pictures to "prove" a lie. When it comes to governments using this technique to shape public opinion or to increase their power, what comes to mind is corruption and the problem is more political than social. However, when a person is digitally removed from a family photo, as requested by another family member, the problem is a social one. Whether or not it is actually a problem depends not only on the context of the situation, but also on the reasons for the digital removal of persons. In Example 2, there is a picture of a wedding couple and the bridal party. In the digitally manipulated picture, the bridal party is removed, leaving only the bride and groom. From a deontological point of view, I would argue that the act of removing people from pictures is fundamentally wrong. It defies the whole purpose of photography and puts the power to alter history in the hands of every individual that desires it. It is disrespectful to the person(s) being removed, as well as to those who are in the picture, but are not taking part in the manipulation. A consequentialist argument, on the other hand, could claim that the couple was making the picture for personal use only, and was not causing anyone harm by altering the photograph. After all, it is their wedding picture. This argument holds, however, the reason for the manipulation must be considered. If the couple was trying to remove unwanted persons because they did not want them in their picture, then they are clearly wrong and unethical. On the other hand, if they made the digital picture because they lacked similar photos, and needed a photograph of only themselves, then the reason is ethical. In latter instance, the original would be saved.


The techniques described until now have mostly involved removing something from photographs. Picture manipulation, however, involves much more.

On June 27, 1994, Time Magazine and Newsweek featured two different copies of the same mugshot of O.J.Simpson.

The Newsweek cover is the original mugshot, whereas the Time cover is digitally manipulated. O.J.Simpson's face is darker, blurrier and unshaven3. The photographer that manipulated the picture said that he "wanted to make it more artful, more compelling"3. It is here that the ethical issues arise. News photographs should either be authentic or not be published at all. Any manipulation distorts the truth. It is clear that on the cover of Time, O.J.Simpson looks more sinister than he does on the cover of newsweek. The photographers intention to make the cover more compelling failed miserably, since the matter raised so much discussion. This goes to show that best intentions are often not good enough and that ethical principles should be applied when decisions are made.

Sources & References

  1. Biography of Leon Trotsky
  2. National Press Photographers Association
  3. Digital Photography - A Question of Ethics, by Bonni Meltzer

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.