Sorting the Real Sandy Photos From the Fakes

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With Hurricane Sandy approaching the New York metro area, the nation's eyes are turning to its largest city. Photos of storms and flooding are popping up all over Twitter, and while many are real, some of them -- especially the really eye-popping ones -- are fake. 

This post, which will be updated over the next couple of days, is an effort to sort the real from the unreal. It's a photograph verification service, you might say, or a pictorial investigation bureau. If you see a picture that looks fishy, send it to me at alexis.madrigal[at]gmail.com. If you like this sort of thing, you should also visit istwitterwrong.tumblr.com, which is just cataloging the fakes.

The fakes come in three varieties: 1) Real photos that were taken long ago, but that pranksters reintroduce as images of Sandy, 2) Photoshopped images that are straight up fake, and 3) The combination of the first two: old, Photoshopped pictures being trotted out again.

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[Update, 10:30am: Alexis is at a conference this morning, so your morning photo-verification crew -- Atlantic social media editor Chris Heller, IsTwitterWrong's Tom Phillips, and I (Megan Garber) -- are taking over for the moment. Keep your submissions coming! You can send them to me at mgarber[at]theatlantic.com.  --Megan]

This image of NYC -- and of, yes, a double rainbow -- made the rounds on social media this morning. (It was helped along by a Facebook post from none other than George Takei.)

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And ... it's legit! The image is an Instragram dated this morning. It was taken by Kurt Wilberding, a professional photographer who shoots for the Wall Street Journal.

You can see other takes on the same rainbow scene, also dated this morning, at the Mild Amusements Tumblr.

Less legit, unfortunately, is this wondrous image

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You so want it to be real ... but it is not. Or, at least, it's not real when it comes to Sandy. The image, best we can tell, dates from December 2011. It was taken in the Philippines during Tropical Storm Washi.

Here, on the other hand, is one you don't want to be real ... but it is. 

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Here's another, clearer shot of the Seaside Heights roller coaster -- different angle, same scene -- sent from Brian Thompson, who covers New Jersey for NBC News's local New York affiliate. And here's a statement from New Jersey governor Chris Christie confirming Seaside Heights's Boardwalk devastation and mentioning that "the roller coaster or the log flume is in the ocean." Sigh.

And this is an image Gate C34 of New York's LaGuardia Airport. It's been getting lots of action on Facebook and Twitter.

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So the image is most likely a real one. It's been posted by JetBlue's blog. There are corroborating images -- including one sent from the Twitter account of the New York/New Jersey Port Authority -- that make clear visually what we know from news reports: that LaGuardia is, indeed, flooded. A high-res version of the C34 photo has been posted to Facebook by a fellow who seems to be a pilot.

Then again, that pilot -- after a cancelled flight due to Sandy -- was in Phoenix yesterday, according to another Facebook post, so it's unclear how he could have gotten to LaGuardia to take the photo himself given the airport's suspension of air traffic. Almost certainly, he's sharing an image he got somewhere else -- best evidenced by the lower-quality version of a similar image that was posted to Facebook several hours before the pilot's.

Also, we're not 100 percent sure that the photo originated with JetBlue. It's a tiny point, but as far as we can tell, JetBlue is served by Terminal B at LaGuardia, rather than Terminal C. So it's (a tiny bit) strange that JetBlue would be, itself, taking pictures of a gate that it doesn't use. Then again, it could just be that cabin-feverish airport workers and stranded travelers are roving the place, terminal by terminal -- and that this was the photo that the JetBlue folks chose to share.

Either way, we can't say for sure what the source of the image is at this point. So while it's likely the real thing, we'll call it "Unverified" for now, and will update when we find out more. If you have any tips, please do send them along.

Meanwhile, here's another verified photo

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The image isn't a still from a Christopher Nolan movie; instead it's a Reuters picture of the skyline of lower Manhattan shrouded in storm-induced darkness. That one lucky, lighted building? The Goldman Sachs headquarters. Though power outages encompassed everything from 14th Street on down -- and though the building at 200 West Street falls within that zone -- the building made use of a generator to keep the lights on. (Or to keep the power on, as it were.) This move was, unsurprisingly, controversial.

It's worth noting (Alexis here!) that part of the reason this photo is so striking is that it is very dark and the contrast is very high on the image. I took a look at other skyline photos of New York from earlier in the year and found that it wasn't that hard to make the Goldman building look ridiculously lit up by just pushing the contrast up and the brightness down. Like this:

Goldmanbuildingcontrast.gif

I also found that if you took the Goldman image above and performed the opposite operation -- increasing the brightness, decreasing the contrast, the building didn't look quite so awkwardly bright in the early morning light. 

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Does this all make the Reuters photo less real? No. But it's a good reminder that the reality a photograph captures is always subject to the vagaries of lens and light. Small tweaks in the way you capture light can lead to very different images. (If you'd like a deeper reflection, I'd refer to Errol Morris.)

Also verified is this incredible image of a tanker washed up last night on the shores of Staten Island.

tanker_real.jpg

And ... yes, it is real. Here's video from last night's ABC Eyewitness News broadcast showing the tanker at rest. The journalists heard a report of the tanker's grounding; they sent reporter Michelle Charlesworth down to check it out for herself. She was greeted with a scene that, save for being actual, was incredible. "We just couldn't believe it," Charlesworth said in her broadcast. "It looks like something out of a movie." 

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This is an easy one: this scuba diver in a flooded Times Square station was trotted out before the storm. Gizmodo (which is down) had it up at 11:05am. It's fake. At best, think of it as an artist's conception.

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Everything about the lit-up Jane's Carousel pictures from Dumbo scream fake. One, the carousel is gorgeous. Two, it's lit up like a beacon amidst the dark of the flood waters. Why are the lights on? Three, it seems difficult to get this photograph from that area. Shouldn't the photographer have evacuated? 

Well, yes, it turns out. Anna Dorfman, a book designer who lives in Dumbo, took this photo shortly before evacuating. She's confirmed that she took it. Another Instagram user and Dumbo resident, Ana Adjelic, also posted a photo of the carousel from a different angle. And we also got independent confirmation from a journalist Jeff Howe that another friend who lives in the area had sent him similar photographs. These may be the most improbable and striking images of the night, and they are real. There will be moments of serendipity and islands of beauty amidst any storm. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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