NOTE: BagNewsNotes is now located at Please update your bookmarks.

You will be automatically redirected in a few seconds...

« Opposing Windows : Missing Targets | Main | Kiss Of Death »

Aug 07, 2006

Where There's Smoke, There's ... Smoke?



The shot above is Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj's original photo of an Israeli air strike, taken two days ago.  The one below is the photoshopped version that got him canned yesterday.  By almost all accounts, Mr. Hajj was caught trying -- in the most amateur sort of way -- to enhance the smoke in his original picture.

If you follow the links on this story, you'll see an absolute flood of coverage in the right wing blogosphere.  Using Rathergate as its claim to fame, the mob -- led by littlegreenfootballs -- is assuming that Hajj not only doctored other pics, but possibly also colluded in turning the Qana aftermath into a propaganda show.  (If you're not familiar with this thesis, Richard North's so-called "investigation" is the post at the center of the Qana conspiracy theory.)

In speculating why Hajj did this, however, the right is actually doing an admirable job confusing the situation with their own propaganda.  A much more interesting source of inquiry, I would offer, comes from a  discussion among a group of professional photographers that was in full swing on Sportshooter just as the story broke.

If there are points of agreement between the photographers and the wingnuts (including the belief that Hajj's excuse -- that he was simply trying to "eliminate dust" -- was ridiculous), the photogs are as amazed as reticent as to why the act occurred.  Of course, the right wingers want to believe that Hajj is a Hezbollah sympathizer and, thus, was somehow darkening the photo to make it more foreboding.  If that's true, however, that still doesn't explain why Hajj would execute this particularly awkward and bone-headed retouch.  (Well, the experts and checkers at Reuters who approved the pic might object to the "bone headed" reference, since they were none the wiser until the Rathergate crowd caught it, and flipped out.)

Along those lines, the most telling piece of information that came out of the Sportshooter discussion was the theory that perhaps Hajj wanted to be caught.

As a clinician, I have been taught that you follow the data, no matter where it leads, how weird it seems, or how divergent it is from your best (or favorite) hypothesis.  I've had a bit of a chance now to look over these shots and check out various other Hajj pics appearing recently in various media.  I've also taken a little survey of Hajj's work in the YN thread over the past four weeks.  I don't have a good explanation for the "why" either, but I wonder if the "motive" might be as much psychological as political.

Maybe you'll think I'm crazy -- once you hear this -- but it's possible Hajj might have been obsessed with smoke.


In this montage of his pics over the past two weeks, it's everywhere.  Short of doing an actual statistical analysis, it sure seems like Hajj's images at YahooNews over the past couple weeks represent a significantly greater percentage of fire/explosion/smoke than do his peers.).  What is especially interesting is the series he did -- practically a "smoke" study -- on July 24th.  His caption: Smoke rises from a Hizbollah stronghold in southern Beirut after being hit by Israeli warplanes.

Here are his other captions over that period, with dates.  (It's not a perfect match because not every single caption related specifically to smoke.  Almost all do reference it, though.)

Smoke rises from a Hizbollah stronghold in southern Beirut after being hit by Israeli warplanes, July 24, 2006.

A Lebanese Hizbollah supporter kisses a photograph of Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as smoke rises from a building that was targeted by Israeli air strikes in southern Beirut July 24.

Smoke rises from the Hizbollah stronghold in southern Beirut July 25, 2006.

Smoke rises from Arab Saleem area, near Nabatiyeh, in southern Lebanon during an Israeli air raid, August 2, 2006.

Smoke billows as a fire rages following an Israeli strike on Wadi al-Akhdar, near Nabatieh, south Lebanon, August 3, 2006.

Lebanese women walk past the smoking remains of a medical storage depot in Ouzai after it was hit by Israeli air strikes August 4, 2006.

A policeman runs to take cover on the Maameltain bridge, as smoke rises from the Casino Du Liban bridge (background), after they were targeted by Israeli air strikes in the north of Beirut August 4, 2006.

Smoke rises from the Casino Du Liban bridge, as damaged cars are seen on Maameltain bridge, after they were targeted by Israeli air strikes in the north of Beirut August 4, 2006.

Lebanese civilians (top and bottom left) walk past the smoking remains of a flattened building following an overnight Israeli air raid on Beirut's suburbs August 5, 2006.

And the doctored shot:

Smoke billows from burning buildings destroyed during an overnight Israeli air raid on Beirut's suburbs August 5, 2006.

So, is Mr. Hajj a Hezbollah sympathizer using subterfuge to maximize and enhance the perception of Israeli aggression?  Could he be a slightly shell shocked field photographer who has become a little too fixated on images bearing a specific physical expression of shock-and-awe?  Or, could Mr. Hajj have some advancing psychological anomaly expressed by a fetishistic obsession with smoke?

If it's the latter, by the way, Hajj's explanation for his actions -- that he was simply trying to "eliminate dust" -- actually makes some sense.

(image 1: Adnan Hajj/Reuters.  August 5, 2006.  Beirut.  Via YahooNews.  image 2: Adnan Hajj/Reuters.  August 5, 2006.  Beirut.  Via YahooNews.)


Really weak photoshopping! But why even bother?
How does this compare with the OJ Simpson "darkening" back in the day?

Very quickly, I took the original photo into Photoshop and tried to replicate some of the changes that Hajj made, in the hopes of understanding what practical reasons he might have had for such a boneheaded move. If you move the levels around in Photoshop to get the general contrast range you see in the buildings and sky in the "after" shot, you end up with clouds in the middle zone that look a little thin. By comparison, the "before" clouds look more massive and foreboding, but the city buildings are not as punchy. Also, messing with the levels that way brings in unrealistic magenta and green patches in the smoke clouds from the center to the right. If he had wanted to compensate for that, the desaturation and burning tools would have been the way to go. Instead, he went with the cloning tool. Leaving aside the glaring mess that created, it did have the effect of making the clouds darker and taller. I don't know why he used the wrong tools. Maybe being a war photographer is a stressful job, or something. Could make one think of certain techie decisions as not all that big a deal, being photographs of a burning city and all.

The "after" photos offer billowing clouds of black smoke with reltively clear edges and several clearly defined puffy forms (in an unfortunately recognizable pattern). Many of Hajj's other photos pictured here feature a sense of the mass and substance of smoke. That sense of a body of cloud, that kind of visual weight, with clearly defined edges, is probably not all that easy to catch.

How can any photograph adequately communicate the reality of war, and which of the photographers' tools are legitimate ones to work towards that end ... since the question is as old as war photography itself, you'd think a consensus would have been reached by this time. Maybe it has.


I have no idea why he did it, but how is the doctored photo seen as some kind of Hezbollah or anti-Israeli propaganda? They both have a lot of smoke; the second one has two concentrated plumes of smoke, but in some areas (like on the right) there actually looks like there's less smoke. I mean, the doctored photo doesn't look that different or any worse.

I think he has a lot of photos of smoke because there's been a lot of smoke. A photographer might not be ready to get a photo when a bomb explodes, but after he hears the explosion, he can look in that direction and see the smoke... When I turn on CNN or the BBC, I often see scenes with smoke rising. On CNN International right this minute, they're showing live video of the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on a crowded Beirut street - people using their bare hands to dig through the rubble. As I type this, I hear Brent Sadler talk about being able to see the smoke from where he is.

As for his photos of Qana, many photographers also took pictures of that baby with the pacifier still attached to his clothes. I watched the coverage of that live on Arabic TV that morning, as they pulled bodies out of the rubble, and those were the scenes; it's too bad some people find the act of taking a photo disgusting, but not the act of killing the baby in the first place.

I have a lot of Photoshop experience. The repetitive circular pattern in the smoke is indicative of incredibly amateurish use of the rubber-stamp tool. Evidently, that patch of sky in the original photo really bothered him for some reason...

There are a dozen or more ways he might've wrecked the contrast. The auto-levels feature is a distinct possibility. Auto-levels finds the darkest pixel(s) in the image and turns it black, turns the lightest pixel(s) white, then adjusts the remaining pixels accordingly. The end result appears unnatural since there aren't many things in the real world that are 100 percent black or white.

It's difficult to believe that a professional photographer could've believed that he was improving the image with such heavy-handed manipulation.

I have trouble believing this clumsy photo-editing is some kind of sinister effort at propaganda. I can tell the difference between the two photos, but the overall "narrative" is the same--smoke after a bombing raid. How is the second picture more favorable to Hezbollah? If anything, the smoke in the photo-shopped image is thinner.

The transgression must lie in the dreadful possibility that other pictures have been doctored, that we can't trust our eyes. How can we judge what's going on if "reality" has been photoshopped?

If there is anything sinister going on, it must be that Hajj is actually an pro-Israeli operative trying to make the press look unreliable. How could anyone (especially a professional photographer) release such obvious Photoshop hackery and think that no one would notice. Impossible! I refuse to believe it. I mean I've seen better Photoshop work from eight year olds! Hajj must have known that the image would cause controversy.

As for the two images from 8/4, there's no great mystery there. you can see the foreground rubble from the second image in the first as well. It looks to be about 20 to 30 feet ahead and to the left. The plume of smoke has changed shape a little between the two pics indicating a short passage of time. Hajj, snapped the first picture then walked forward to the heap of rubble and snapped the second.

Perhaps a question more fruitful than the back-and-forth about image manipulation (did he or didn't he?) might go something like this: what is at stake in any single reading of a photograph as "manipulated" or not? In other words, what persuasive work do we expect photographs to do in the world, and how do instances like these somehow violate those expectations? What does our sense of being violated or lied to say about *us*?

I love the comment about the "obsession" with smoke, by the way. Photography is an art form and photographers do become fascinated with form, shape, color, and light, even in a war zone. If you don't think news and art should go together, read Hemingway's New York Times dispatches on Spain sometime.

Bag, your analysis is, at once, severe and compassionate, and I think, close to the truth of the photographer's motives or inclinations.

None of the other pictures seem to be doctored, and the one which is, is awkward. But, to put all this in perspective, think of the engravings Winslow Homer did of the Civil War for Harper's Magazine, or the posed dead bodies for Matthew Brady's battlefield photographs. The reasons are to dramatise, for those who aren't there, the horrors being experienced by the observer. Reuter's "rules," while admirable as a general guideline for authenticity, were applied too strictly in this case. They should have admonished the photographer, and edited more carefully. There can't be too many people who want to be there doing that kind of dangerous work. For the wingnuts to criticize this in order to diminish the horror is unconscionable.

Fortunately, now that this guy was caught doing a weak (and unnecessary) touch up job fewer babies will die.

I gotta put on my rovian tinfoil hat for this one. Tend to agree with stiffmittens. What better way to get the world to disregard photos of mayhem, death and destruction in Lebanon than to have an "Arab" photographer get caught doctoring a photo. Without a timeline, I can't be certain, but it appears the littlegreenfootballs crowd jumped on this like a firecracker. Do you suppose someone alerted them? All weekend I've been hearing snippets of reports that the damage in Lebanon/Qana was made up or exaggerated or self-inflicted, depending on the time of day. Sounds like a deliberate and protracted effort by people with an agenda. AIPAC maybe?

I have to agree with Stiffmittens on this one. The picture he was caught out on is horribly photoshopped. My 5 year old niece could do a better job.

But oddly enough this story has been spammed to a numerous organisations by GIYUS.ORG. A program set up by the Israeli foriegn office (using over 5,000 trainee diplomats) to push pro-Israeli agendas across. This article was annouced for spamming yesterday. It is even on Slashdot, which is a tech site by nature.

Yes the pictures are faked, but it should not distract people from the fact of the number innocent people dead and displaced in Lebanon.

want to see real smoke? try this:
Simpson in Tyre . Israeli air strikes pound Tyre.

why don´t you post the entire URL I sent [smoke] ?

ligia, try this.

maybe it seams like a big deal because they were manipulated on a computer. haven't photographers dodged and burned and messed with contrast in the darkroom since the beginning of photography?

maybe it seams like a big deal because they were manipulated on a computer. haven't photographers dodged and burned and messed with contrast in the darkroom since the beginning of photography?

In the doctored photo, I thought the column of smoke on the left looks more like a fist.

Maybe its a subliminal thing.

Well, (almost) no matter how you change a picture, war has gotta suck, although, I have never been in a battlefield as a combatant or a civilian. The closest I can think of, for me, was being in several earthquakes in L.A. (Please don't laugh, its frightening to have your whole world shake in that way.) Imagery doesn't get to the real impact of the moment. In our discussion of photographs of smoke, perhaps what is most troubling to us is our feeling of not understanding the various conflicts we have arrived in today and worse, the feeling of being lied to about it.

In English we have sayings, such as: "when the smoke clears" or "when the dust settles" or "in the fog of war" and even, "with hindsight" we will know more. What troubles us in these photos, and our anxiety about them, is perhaps a reflection of our experience in this process – that is, the feeling of bullshitted or lied to.

We don’t know. Here, we have an exact phrase in English – it was a smokescreen.

In truth, we don’t know or are uncertain about many things in our current experience about the war(s) and (urban) battlefields, the political and religious animosities, much less the economic tugs-of-war.

This smoke is emblematic of our experience and (wishfully thinking) our search for truth. The smoke is emblematic of our position: sometimes, we don’t know what is and what isn’t real.

God, how tragic for the people of Lebanon that this "scandal" is allowing the the right to deny the destruction of an entire country.

thom hit on something interesting. That it was done on a computer. The computer enables much more refined and less easily detectible changes. The problem arises when things are substantially changed in NEWS photos. We expect news photos to be 'real' and in 'real' time. We know, of course, that this isn't always the case, as in the old newsreels that we now know were manipulated to the nth degree. But the public expectation is that it is "real." The photographer's burning and dodging don't substantially change the image any more than shifting the color to look like a sunset instead of noon. Unless, of course, the time of day is an important factor.

What this photographer did was a clumsy manipulation which looks to be a triple image. It is (and should have been) easily detectible. Which is where my problem with it arises. It is so sloppy and simplistic that I find it hard to believe that it was not done on purpose for some nefarious reason. It enables one side to decry propaganda and doubt to be cast on all images coming out of this conflict. At least all images from Reuters. Also, the editor would have had to be out to lunch or in on it.

I'm w/ Cactus on this. Sounds like a Rovian Judo flip.

Oh, the pictures of the conflict are causing the problems, huh? Well, let's use a poorly manipulated picture to make people distrust the pictures they see.. like putting lies into your opponent's mouth, turning a war hero into an anti-war flip-flopper or leaking a "scoop" to Truthout that isn't true, so they look like liars...

It's a war of dis-information. Rove is a classic sophist - a guy who can win any argument because he's able to win any argument - regardless of any connection to truth or falsehood, and by any means necessary. (They made Socrates drink hemlock for sophistry, btw).


As a peice of art, however...
The obvious repetition of the smoke (using the cloning tool, I agree) does suggest the "over and over and over again" nature of the aggression. If this photographer really did this on his own (which I wouldn't believe in a million years) he must have PTSD, or at least be a little shell-shocked.

The problem with the Rovian conspiracy theory is that it doesn't change the basic fact that Reuters was willing to publish an obviously manipulated photograph. Whether the photographer was a incompetent zealot or a Mossad plant, that fact remains.

AOG: That Reuters published the photograph means *what* exactly?

In my previous job I was a state-certified Visible Emissions Evaluator. The task was to be able to look at smoke emitting from a stack and rate its opacity in order to determine compliance with air quality regulations. We were taught that it is counter-productive to photograph the smoke because smoke always looks less dense in a picture. It's much more effective to capture it on video.

Of course, altering an image was completely out of the question in my line of work; but for a news photographer, it wouldn't be hard to understand a desire to alter a photograph for the purpose of making it more accurately represent what the scene actually looked like.


That Reuters published the photograph means *what* exactly?

As I noted,

that Reuters was willing to publish an obviously manipulated photograph
One may reasonably infer that if Reuters would do that in this case, Reuters would do it in other cases as well, making all of its reporting of at best dubious accuracy.

AOG: One could also infer that senior staff at Reuters are on holiday, like most of Europe in August, and the place is being run by assistants who can't tell a real smoke cloud from a fake one, making Reuters incompetent at worst.

I'm not sure where the fact (of Reuters's publishing this image) gets us either way, actually, since we're already skeptical of the MSM, and they were found out rather quickly. Which might be why The BAG focused on the photographer's motives.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

My Other Accounts

Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 07/2003