Home > Case Studies, Competitive Intelligence, Ethics > The camera never lies… or does it?

The camera never lies… or does it?

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

When people look at a photograph, they see a snapshot of history. That is one reason that people used to say that the camera never lied. Of course, today, with Photoshop people are warier and look for signs that the photo has been edited. There have been a number of notorious recent incidents of photo editing that highlight this problem. Examples include

However there is another problem with photos – and also news stories, and gathered information in general. That is the context. Understanding the context is crucial for effective business decisions. Gathering information is not the difficult bit. It’s analysing the information to convert it into intelligence that is hard. Without the correct context, poor or even disastrous decisions may be made. These may impact both business and individuals.

An example of how this can happen was highlighted in a sermon given by Rabbi Ivan Lerner on the sabbath between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Rabbi Lerner pointed out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת Emet) is made up of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Truth about an event isn’t just information about what is happening at a point in time, but also includes the events that led up to that point, and the consequences of the actions taken based on the event. It includes the beginning, middle and end. Rabbi Lerner gave an example from the famous photograph taken by Eddie Adams on the 1st February 1968.

Eddie Adam's Pulitzer Prize photo. This photo led to Adam’s gaining the 1969 Pulitzer prize for spot news photography, as well as the World Press Photo award. The photo showed the moment of execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Close examination even showed the bullet exiting from the prisoner’s head.

The impact of the photo was immeasurable. Calls were made to charge General Loan with a war crime for the execution of an “innocent” civilian. The anti-war movement used the photo to justify their protests against a war that was seen as overly savage, cruel and gratuitous.

The impact on General Loan was significant. A few months later, Loan was severely wounded and taken to Australia for treatment. When people realised he was the same man from the photo, protests led to him being evacuated to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Even then protests continued – and Loan returned to Saigon, leaving the army due to his injuries. At the fall of Saigon his pleas for help from the Americans were ignored although in the end, he and his family managed to escape and he moved to the US – where he took on a new identity. He opened a pizzeria in Virginia but in 1991, he was discovered – and business disappeared, with graffiti scrawled on the restaurant walls.

The story so far shows the event and its aftermath – but not the context that led to the execution. General Loan was vilified as a war criminal, while Nguyễn Văn Lém was seen as the innocent victim. Loan had to hide his identity and lost his future as a result. In fact, the executed prisoner – Nguyễn Văn Lém – was not an innocent. He commanded a Viet Cong death squad that had targeted South Vietnamese police and their families. He was captured near a ditch containing over 30 bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives – men, women and children. Lém was personally responsible for the deaths of several. Adams has confirmed that this was the case. The Viet Cong had attacked during a truce arranged for the Tet Holiday. Some of their victims has been at home celebrating.

Subsequently Adams found out more about General Loan. Loan was seen as a hero to the South Vietnamese. He wasn’t just a soldier. He fought for the construction of hospitals, helping war orphans and for a way of life that was destroyed. Adams regretted taking the photo because of what happened afterwards. (Eddie Adams describing his notorious Vietnam photograph)

…Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?…’ (Eulogy: GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN, Time Magazine, Jul. 27, 1998)

Information needs a context. When gathering information it is important to know the source and why the information became available. It is important to understand the context and when interpreting it, there should be no hidden agenda. The Adams picture failed in that it didn’t give the context and instead only helped to support and confirm the biases of anti-war journalists, letting them further their own agenda. As such, it ruined Loan’s life.

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  1. February 26, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    You have brought up a very superb points , appreciate it for the post.

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