December 29th, 2011

Official News Agency of a Totalitarian Regime Doctored a News Photo. Imagine That.

© Korea Central News Agency

The photo of the funeral of Kim Jung-Il distributed by the Korean Central News Agency, the official news agency of North Korea, was stunning: Limousines driving in formation behind a giant portrait of the Supreme Leader, rows of mourners lining their route, snow whitening the ground, a giant North Korean flag billowing majestically at the top of the frame. It was picture perfect. Too perfect, apparently.

Today The New York Times Lens Blog compares the image from the official news agency with one taken at almost the same moment by a photographer with Kyodo News of Japan, and distributed by AP. Working with digital forensics expert Hany Farid of Dartmouth, they show that the image from Korean Central was Photoshopped. The Lens blog goes into lots of detail, showing (with several close ups) that some men standing on the sidelines with a camera were erased, replaced with cloned snow. (Read more about their analytical methods and see the photos here.)

Lens reports that the doctored photo had been distributed by European Pressphoto Agency, Reuters and Agence-France Presse (AFP) before the retouching was discovered by The New York Times (which had also, briefly, run the image on its Web site). Once Lens reported

Undoctored photo, © Kyodo News

that the photo was doctored, the three agencies issued kill notices, Lens reports. “This photo was altered from the source and not by AFP,” the agency noted.

Gee, if you can’t trust an official news photo from the government of a secretive nation with a history of repressing journalism, who can you trust?

Maybe the agencies can be excused for not anticipating that such a stage-managed spectacle would be doctored. The retouching doesn’t seem politically motivated, as in all those airbrushed photos from Stalinist Russia. Why would a North Korean photo editor go to the trouble of Photoshopping out a few anonymous figures?

The Lens blog offers one explanation: “totalitarian esthetics.”

“With the men straggling around the sidelines, a certain martial perfection is lost. Without the men, the tight black bands of the crowd on either side look railroad straight.” When it comes to stage-managed spectacle, symmetry is all.