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Bloggers scrutinize photos of Castro

By Joseph Tartakoff

McClatchy Newspapers

(MCT)

MIAMI – Fidel Castro is still alive – chatting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in a video shown this week. But that hasn’t stopped bloggers from speculating that earlier photos, the first released since Castro’s illness, were doctored.

While the debate might seem moot – since few are questioning the authenticity of the Chavez and Castro video – the frenzy over the Castro photos points to the ease with which digital photos can be manipulated and then widely disseminated over the Internet.

Kenny Irby, the visual journalism editor at the Poynter Institute, said pictures have always been tweaked but the advent of digital photography has made the doctoring a lot easier.

“These practices were far more laborious and cumbersome,” he said. “Now, it’s seamlessly done by a click of the mouse.”

Throughout the week bloggers have questioned many of the elements in the original Castro shots, which were released Sunday, and some have even tried their own hand at transforming one of the images.

Community website MiamiBeach411.com opened a contest Monday allowing users to manipulate a photo showing a rosy-toned Castro holding up a copy of Cuba’s Communist newspaper, Granma. The creator of the best image wins a ticket to Disney World. One entrant placed a copy of Maxim magazine in Castro’s hands; others came up with more devilish versions of the photo.

With the surge in blogging, thousands of online commentators jump on many photos in the mainstream media that seem slightly amiss.

Earlier this month, for example, the Little Green Football blog revealed that a Reuters stringer had doctored a photo of Beirut by using software to make the smoke over the city appear more intense.

Bloggers also seized on a photo montage, published June 25 in El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister paper of The Miami Herald, that combined two shots, making it seem that Cuban police were ignoring prostitution.

“Blogs have really put the mainstream media under a microscope,” said Jim Romenesko, who runs the media blog Romenesko. “Every step is being watched and being criticized.”

Irby of the Poynter Institute said one red flag on both the Lebanon and Castro photos is that neither was taken by an accredited photographer.

Indeed, when the Associated Press distributed the first shots of Castro recuperating from his surgery it attached a disclaimer that the AP “cannot verify the authenticity or the date when these photographs were shot.” Santiago Lyon, the AP’s director of photography, said in an interview that his agency was simply being cautious.

But bloggers seized on the tagline as possible evidence that the AP thought the photos might have been tampered with.

Even White House Press Secretary Tony Snow described one picture as “the cheesy Photoshop picture” to reporters.

No pixel on the first Castro photos was overlooked. Bloggers noted that there was an odd line between Castro’s hand and the paper, that Castro’s facial lesions were missing, and that Castro appeared to be wearing the same Adidas jacket – of the Cuban Sports Federation – he wore in 2002 when Jimmy Carter visited the island.

“The Adidas jacket appears to have weathered the more than four years since then remarkably well,” a blogger at www.cigarenvy.com wrote Monday. “Perhaps he doesn’t wear it very often. Or perhaps he takes exceptionally good care of it.”

Experts in Adobe Photoshop, the dominant imaging software, had their takes too.

Ken Milburn, the author of Digital Photography: Expert Techniques, said there were definite signs of tweaking in the Castro photo, but nothing that would question its authenticity.

For example, he said it seemed that the whites of Castro’s eyes had been whitened.

“People’s eyes don’t look like that when they’re 80 years-old. Most people’s eyes don’t look like that way when they’re 22. That’s one of the basic retouching techniques,” Milburn said.

Richard Quindry, a Photoshop artist in Lansdale, Penn., said it was normal for photographers to try to make their clients look as good as possible. For example, he said Castro’s beard looks darker in a photo of Castro with his hand on his chin than in the other shots. By pushing on the beard, though, it would seem denser and thus darker.

“People might be doing things to make him look a little better but it doesn’t mean that the photo is an outright fake,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that the White House press corps wouldn’t do the same thing for Bush.”

David Friend, a former photography director at Life magazine and author of the forthcoming book, Watching the World Change, noted that many governments doctor photos of leaders.

“The Soviets were especially good at it,” he said. “There was a cosmonaut who fell out of favor and he was extracted from the background of pictures of the Soviet leadership.”

But he cautioned that the accusations – especially when they’re made on the Web – sometimes turn out to be false.

“There are a lot of arm-chair conspiracy theorists with time on their hands,” said Friend.