The Moscow-Protest Photo That Wasn't What It Seemed

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.


The original caption on the image: Hundreds of thousands of protesters pack Moscow's Manezh Square next to the Kremlin, on March 10, 1991, demanding that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his fellow Communists give up power. The crowd, estimated at 500,000, was the biggest anti-government demonstration in the 73 years of since the Communists took power, and came a week before the nationwide referendum on Gorbachev's union treaty. (AP Photo/Dominique Mollard) Click here to view large full-size image (very large).

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.


The outlined section from left was copied and pasted into the area on the right. Click here to view large full-size image.



Same as above photo, just without outlines. The section from left was copied and pasted into the area on the right. Click here to view large full-size image.


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).


Caption: The un-doctored version of Mollard's 1991 Moscow photograph. Original caption: Hundreds of thousands of protesters pack Moscow's Manezh Square next to the Kremlin, Sunday, March 19, 1991, demanding the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his fellow Communists give up power.  The crowd, estimated at 500,000 was the biggest anti-government demonstration in the 73 years since the Communists took power, and came a week before the nationwide referendum on Gorbachev's union treaty. (AP Photo/Dominique Mollard) Click here to view large full-size image (very large).

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.

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Alan Taylor is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He edits the In Focus photo channel on TheAtlantic.com.

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