Picture imperfectBMJ 2008; 337 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a1659 (Published 17 September 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1659
All rapid responses
What were they thinking?
Dorothea Lange's photograph shows the sharecropper facing the camera
with two of her seven children with their grimy heads buried in the
mother's neck. The care worn mother stares out and wonders where
tomorrow's food is going to come from.
What did the photographer think ? The wiki entry for Lange  has
this: Lange's best-known picture is titled "Migrant Mother". The woman in
the photo is Florence Owens Thompson, but Lange apparently never knew her
name. The original photo had Florence's thumb and index finger on the tent
pole, and was retouched in an attempt to hide Florence's thumb. Her index
finger was left untouched (lower right in photo).
In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph:
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a
magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her,
but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures,
working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name
or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said
that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding
fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires
from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her
children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might
help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.
According to Thompson's son, Lange got some details of this story wrong,
but the impact of the picture was based on the image showing the strength
and need of migrant workers. Florence Thompson's son, in the wiki entry on
Florence has this to say: Her son Troy Owens thought:
"There's no way we sold our tires, because we didn't have any to sell. The
only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don't
believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up
with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn't have."
Florence from her entry  in Wiki, commented in 1970: It was only
in the late 1970s that Thompson's identity was made known. In 1978, acting
on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her
mobile home in Space 24 of the Modesto Mobile Village and visually
recognized her from the photograph. A letter Thompson wrote was published
in The Modesto Bee and the Associated Press sent a story around entitled
"Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo." Florence was quoted as
saying "I wish she [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny
out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the
pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."
Finally from p4 of today's, 5 Dec 2008 Daily Telegraph, Tom Leonard
strings an article that originally appeared in cnn the day before and
incredibly made it into Wiki within 24 hrs, (3). This is an amazing
contrast to the BMJ who spike all their interesting stories or ignore them
all together. Another sister, Katherine gives warning today, 2008 of what
happened yesterday 1929. "I wanted to make sure I never lived like that
again," says McIntosh, who turns 77 on Saturday. "We all worked hard and
we all had good jobs and we all stayed with it. When we got a home, we
stayed with it." Katherine McIntosh is the girl to the left of her mother
when you look at the photograph.
A famous photograph with everyone chipping in their two penny worth
over the next sixty years depending on their current view point.
Oliver Dearlove FRCA
DOI These views are personal and make wide use of materials available
on the Internet. These are not the views of my employer nor of my
regulator who I thnk would be incapable of forming a charitable thought.
Clearly I am saying they are the views at some time of the people quoted.
Competing interests: No competing interests
I congratulate Dr Manoj Padman on being the right doctor and the right time. Idling a week-end away at a Children’s hospital less busy than my own, Dr Padman noticed in that fountain of truth, The Sunday Times, a photograph of a child in Zimbabwe whose legs would not have been broken as we were told in the caption, by Mugabe’s thugs, but seemed instead to be in the middle of treatment for pes equino- varus. No-one suggests that Mugabe, his thugs or the child did not exist because the plasters were wrong.
I hesitate to ask if this has been done before and whether the last event was attended by a full page BMJ fol-de-rol because I know the answer is yes, and not a million miles away from Tavistock Square, either. In 2001, a photograph of Dr Van Velsen, pathologist at Alder Hey Hospital appeared, in the BMJ. Dr David Thomas emailed in from Oz to ask ; “The photograph accompanying the news article regarding the Alder Hey report on organ retention and falsified records, is a falsification itself - it consists of at least two superimposed images. Why falsify photographs to make a good image, or was the irony intentional? “ (1)
The BMJ's pictures editor, Jan Croot responded, with no fanfare at all: “It was not an irony, and it wasn't intended to fool people into thinking it was real. It was a way of making two images relevant to each other and that would be uncompromised by splicing, would take up less space, and appear more interesting than they would have done separately.” Ms Croot has not joined the US Treasury.
One gets a full page spread and the earlier gets buried in the
electronic version of the BMJ. So why, may we ask, is there a difference
in treatment ? Surely, surely not we all ask ourselves again, because Dr
Van Velsen was subject to GMC proceedings and is clearly a bad man. He was
struck off after an undefended petition, and is clearly worse than Mr
Mugabe – last liberation leader in the African continent . As a BBC
announcer portentously refers to him hushed tones, even when it comes to
11m% inflation, perhaps he is in some way blameless. An alternative is
that after the Raj Persaud case, Dr Padman thinks that falsification in
print merits some dire punishment – a view shared by the GMC but no-one
else. Dr Persaud was referred, let us recollect, by the Church of
Scientology – laughably this apparently shows the GMC is not susceptible
to outside pressure.
But anyway as we ponder all that, I can point out that it has been a
good week for forged photos and varying treatment. The Sunday Times
carried a full page on a retrospective on Robert Capa. His most famous
photo is the soldier of the Spanish Civil War being shot on camera. Later
the original roll of film was shown to have later shots of the man eating
his lunch. The retrospective will rehabilitate Capa by stating that the
original roll, wasn’t, but instead was a edited copy, out of chronological
Dorothea Lange’s photograph of the Oklahoma Sharecropper by great
contrast, does seem to have been of a mother of seven without employment.
Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a bomb victim Eileen Dunn 1940, a
doleful gamine with huge goo-goo eyes, unleashed floods treacly prose.
Here is a spoonful: “His photos of children can be terribly moving. His
wartime image of bomb victim Eileen Dunne (1940) shows her ‘enthroned’ in
a hospital bed, holding her doll, meeting the eye of the camera with her
own huge, wondering, beautiful eyes.” (2). Here is another: “He took
pictures of bomb damage and its victims, pilots in training, children
evacuees and his unforgettable portrait of the 3 year old blitz victim
Eileen Dunne (1940) in a hospital bed in the North of England was
particularly poignant at that time. (3) A few years ago, a medic pointed
out that Eileen has a classical mastoid dressing, implying of course that
Eileen might have been around when there was bombing but wasn’t a victim.
Anyone now re-reading the prose quoted above, would be unable to laugh
because he was gagging.
As the century moves on, restaged film becomes common place.
Reporters don’t like having their heads shot off, so a lot of the trench
warfare shots of the First World War were staged. Incredibly when they
were played in cinemas, men on leave would shout – “yes yes it is just
like that!” even when people in different brigades’ uniform were going
over the top, showing a certain licence which escaped attention at the
Years before the BBC liberated Kabul on radio, Allenby replayed his
march into Jerusalem, showing a diminutive Lawrence in the background, and
Gen Allenby walking amongst the liberated peoples. The 1918 film had a
message and had to be done right. Allenby wished to walk amongst the
liberated people in contrast to the Kaiser who had previously visited and
rode (in a car).
Flag ceremonies get replayed as well. The marines at Iwo Jima
hoisting Old Glory weren’t shot by Japanese snipers because there were any
by the time it was re-shot. Also the Red Army occupying the Reichstag in
1945 was a re-take and is therefore visually perfect.
But let us consider seriously if this was a modern phenomenon,
typical only to disgraceful dishonest medics which the GMC is nobly
trying to stamp out and rid this disgraceful cancer from our midst. And we
find all sorts of examples where a picture is worth a thousand lies.
In 1618, the Thirty Years War broke out after the Imperial
ambassadors had been thrown out of the windows of the Hradcany Castle in
Prague. The cartoons show them being thrown out of the long drop, whereas
in fact they were thrown out of the short drop probably (Protestant) or
possibly (Roman Catholic) onto a dung heap. (4)
Earlier still, The woodcut 1563 of the burning for heresy of Hugh
Latimer (5) in the ditch outside Oxford wall 1556 which is now a part in
Broad St., seems to be historical. There is an X which marks the spot in
Broad St and the view of the tower in which he spent his last days is now
obscured by buildings but is still there. Bonner birching a Protestant
(6) in the same book, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs has caused more comment, as
Bonner looks as though he is enjoying it and the Protestant has no
breeches. This may contrast the pious celibacy of the imprisoned and
tortured Protestants with the profligate unmarried Marian priesthood. At
the time 1569, Bonner commented of the woodcut, “a vengeance on the foole,
how could be get my picture drawn so right?’ Wiki comments of Foxe,
“Although the work is more accurate when dealing with events during Foxe's
time, it is generally not a correct or impartial account of the period,
and includes occasional "wilful falsification of evidence."
Clearly there has been an industry of falsification, but in previous
times, far less finger pointing. Book burning was reserved for heresy and
not falsification. Is the intention to deceive ? Certainly the altered
image elicits different emotions than the original and is intended to do
so. I suggest that it is commonplace in history and not particularly
heinous and has had not long term effect. I further suggest that the
reason it got a page spread in the BMJ was because of previous GMC
interest in Dr Persaud’s case which history will quickly show to a
monumental waste of the GMC’s time and our money.
Oliver Dearlove FRCA
Conflicts of interest: I provided some of the Wiki comment on Latimer
and The Defenestration of Prague 1618 which was then later modified. These
are not the views of anyone else, my employer, College of which I am
Treasurer and certainly not the regulator
Competing interests: No competing interests
Great detective work and a fascinating article, Manoj! The Sunday
Times is easily duped with stories (remember Hugh Trevor-Roper's "Hitler
Diaries") but of course it should apologize here, to you and its readers.
One small point, in para 4 you give a date 29 July when 29 June is clearly
intended, and the BMJ hasn't picked this up in the paper and on-line
editions. Keep up the journalism - Tony Chapman
Competing interests: No competing interests