How a case of mistaken identity led to the discovery of manipulation in an image from the end of the Soviet era.
Last week, as large-scale protests dominated Moscow, a number of people were passing around photographs of the event on Facebook, Tumblr, and other social-media sites. One of the pictures being circulated, from the Associated Press (AP), was not, in fact, from 2012, but from 1991. As it happens, I had included this photograph in a post I published this past December, titled "20 Years Since The Fall of the Soviet Union" (photo #15), after which someone re-posted it, and others re-blogged it from there, as an erroneous documentation of current events.
Over the last few days, keen observers started noticing, and pointing out, that the photo was not from this week. A few took a closer look at the photo and discovered a section of the crowd that had some odd artifacts, lines, and apparent duplication -- hallmarks of photo manipulation. Those odd details are shown in the two photos below, one with outlines showing "cloned" areas, the other without outlines.
Several readers kindly contacted us and shared their discoveries, including Donna Meiss (via MIT professor Ken Oye), and Ernie Smith. After verifying that there was some apparent cloning going on, we contacted the AP, and told them the whole story. They got back to us after a brief initial investigation, and told us, "We've determined this was a case of cloning to reduce some lens flare. It's unacceptable under our news values and principles. We're looking into it further." I've since looked in the AP archives, and found they have removed the old image, and distributed a new version of the same image, without the cloning, so you can see what was hidden below (more crowd, minor lens-flare discoloration).
I've been posting hundreds of photographs online every month for nearly four years now, and this is the first image I've posted that has verifiably been manipulated. Photo manipulation of this kind is unacceptable under my, and The Atlantic's, guidelines and principles. I try my best to publish only what I believe to be honest representations of people and events. But in some cases, as here, the alteration can go unnoticed for years -- until enough eyes come into play (the fantastic magnifying effect of the Internet) and unseen details start to emerge.
Many thanks to Donna Meiss, Ken Oye, Ernie Smith, and everyone else who caught this issue and brought it to our attention. The photo will remain in place in the original photo story here, with a prominent link back to this article, explaining the whole story.