UC Berkeley News


Photo fakery ‘at its worst’ riles Ken Light
J-School photographer’s 1971 image of Kerry altered for partisan purposes

| 18 February 2004


Ken Light always comes on strong in class against the digital alteration of photographs. Too strong, some have said after hearing his views on journalistic ethics. But for the Graduate School of Journalism teaching fellow, the dangers of the practice seem all the more potent —and personal — after a photo he took of John Kerry in 1971 (right, top) began circulating on the Internet in doctored form.

The altered photo (right, bottom) — which first surfaced on conservative websites and was referred to in the mainstream media last week — depicts a young Kerry at the podium at an antiwar rally, alongside actress and activist Jane Fonda. The photo appears beneath a headline and above a caption, complete with an AP credit, as if it had originally appeared in a newspaper.

As it turns out, the image, and its apparent newspaper context, were both fabricated — the photograph by merging two different images carried by the Corbis photo agency. It was taken by Light, then 20, at a Register for Peace rally in Long Island at which Kerry spoke as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. According to the website Snopes.com, photographer Owen Franken took the image of Fonda — dubbed “Hanoi Jane” by her critics — at a 1972 political rally in Miami Beach.

“I remember that he was very impassioned,” Light says of the future senator and presidential hopeful he photographed on Long Island that day. Light recently came upon several shots of Kerry while going through contact sheets of his early work, and sent them off to his photo agency in New York. (“It’s important to put your photos away and preserve them,” he says. “That’s what I always tell my students.”

Light was on a ski trip over Presidents Day weekend when he learned about the hoax from a voicemail message left by The New York Times. In a story on Friday titled “Conservatives Shine Spotlight on Kerry’s Anti-War Record,” the Times first mentioned the existence of the Kerry-Fonda photograph; it ran a follow-up story the next day saying the image was manufactured. (Other print and online media meanwhile published a separate, authentic photograph, not taken by Light, depicting Kerry and Fonda sitting at some distance from each other at a 1970 antiwar rally at which both, reportedly, were speakers.)

The Berkeley teacher has been in a media whirlwind since the hoax was unearthed — “blasting back” from the mountains to appear Monday night on MSNBC, and taking numerous calls from U.S. and European media outlets. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” he says. The story got early coverage from the Long Island daily Newsday and several British media outlets — including the Daily Mail (which ran a full-page article) and a BBC Radio segment featuring Light talking about photographic fakery.

The recent incident is, for Light, the “worst kind” of photographic alteration, “because it’s a political dirty trick.” He says he’s “against any alteration of photography” — even the photoillustrations popular in magazine design. “Some people are like, ‘We know it’s an illusion,’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘It’s a slippery slope. Once you do it with illustration, do you move into news?’”