“Some of history’s most iconic images of warfare were fabricated, staged or manipulated. Here are some of the more famous examples.”
IN JANUARY 2014, the Associated Press announced that it had cut ties with award-winning combat photographer Narciso Contreras after the journalist used Photoshop to doctor an image he’d taken of combat in Syria.
The offending frame, which was snapped in September 2013, shows an anti-government insurgent armed with a Kalashnikov rifle taking cover behind a rock during fighting in Idlib province. A video camera is clearly visible in the bottom left corner of the original photo. It was a supposedly distracting element that the Mexican-based, Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent edited out before filing. The U.S.-based wire service blasted Contreras for what it deemed an unforgivable distortion.
“AP’s reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code,” said the company in a statement. “Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable.”
The veteran combat journalist was quick to own up to the error.
“I took the wrong decision when I removed the camera,” he said “I feel ashamed about that.”
Interestingly enough, such photo flaps are hardly new. In fact, some of history’s most iconic images of warfare were fabricated, staged or manipulated. Here are some of the more famous examples:
That Takes Balls
One of the first battlefield photographs ever taken is now widely believed to be a sham. Crimean War correspondent Roger Fenton’s acclaimed shot entitled “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” was snapped in 1855 after heavy fighting around Sevastopol. The image, which depicts an unpaved road strewn with spent cannonballs, was heralded at the time as testimony to the withering fire endured by British troops. Yet in 2007, the American documentary filmmaker Errol Morris unearthed another Fenton picture taken on the very same spot in which the rounds appear only in the ditches — not on the road itself. Morris asserts that the photographer scattered nearly two-dozen of the projectiles into the roadway himself for dramatic effect.
U.S. Civil War photographers like Matthew Brady famously snapped hundreds of haunting images of the aftermath of the conflict’s many battles. Yet in a number of cases, such scenes were manipulated, with cameramen often physically arranging objects, debris and even dead bodies within the frame to add to the scenes of devastation.
Such is believed to be the case with Alexander Gardner’s post-Gettysburg image: “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep”. The famous shot features a corpse strangely similar to one that appears in another image taken on the same day entitled: “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter”. Experts maintain that Gardner used the same fallen soldier for both pictures, reportedly dragging the body more than 40 yards between the two locations.
Over the Top?
One of the most stirring images of British soldiers in action during the First World War wasn’t captured in No Man’s Land at all, but far behind the lines where it was safe. The legendary still, which depicts Tommies advancing through a field of barbed wire into the smoke of battle, was clipped from newsreel footage shot for the 1916 British documentary The Battle of the Somme (you can watch the full sequence here). While much of what appears in rest of the 77-minute film was indeed recorded at the front, the segment in question, which shows a number of the soldiers being mowed down as their comrades press the attack, was actually staged 65 km from the action two weeks after the battle was already underway.
Death in the Air
It took more than 50 years before a series of spectacular pictures of First World War dogfights were revealed to be make-believe. Gladys Cockburn-Lange, the supposed widow of a deceased British photographer and flier, made the eye-popping images of the air war public in 1933. In one of the shots supposedly taken over the Western Front, a German plane can be seen breaking apart in mid-air, while another photo shows an enemy pilot leaping to certain death from his flaming fighter. It wasn’t until the 1980s that an investigator with the Smithsonian Institute concluded that the pictures were faked using models, likely manufactured and photographed by early Hollywood special effects artist Wesley David Archer. 
“Falling Soldier” Just a Soldier Falling?
On Sept. 6, 1936, the Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa snapped one of the most moving images of the 20th Century. It shows the exact moment that life ended for a 24-year-old Spanish Republican soldier named Federico Borrell García. The powerful scene was believed to have been captured at Cerro Muriano during the Spanish Civil War. Yet years after the conflict, historians discovered a series of problems with the famous picture known as “Falling Soldier”. First of all, Borrell García’s own comrades reported that he was killed while hiding behind a tree, not out in the open as the photo depicts. Also, the ill-fated rifleman supposedly looked much different than the man in the frame. Some have since questioned if the image was even taken at Cerro Muriano. Locals say it looks more like the fields outside a town called Espejo, nearly 60 km away. And since that particular region of Spain was relatively quiet in the late summer of ‘36, some have concluded that the entire incident was probably staged. As recently as 2013, Japanese documentary filmmakers asserted that Capa might not have even take the photograph at all. Instead, it could have been the handiwork of female war correspondent Gerda Taro. The investigators also speculate that the soldier may have just slipped the moment the shutter opened.  Capa’s best known images would be snapped eight years later as he captured the action at Normandy during the D-Day landings.
Take Two. Action!
Whether the celebrated Jo Rosenthal photograph showing the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi during the 1945 fight for Iwo Jima was “staged” is steeped in controversy. But it’s a matter of historical record that the immortalized hoisting of the Stars and Stripes was preceded by a similar incident earlier in the day.
A Marine named Louis Lowery snapped the lesser-known photo hours before Rosenthal had even reached the summit. But it was the second (and more dramatic) image that featured prominently in a successful $26 Billion war bond drive in 1945. The shot also appeared on stamps, magazine covers, recruiting posters and was the basis of the U.S. Marine memorial in Washington D.C.
Russian War Fiction
A similar photograph of a Red Army soldier waving the Soviet banner from atop the bombed out ruins of Berlin’s Reichstag was indeed staged. Military photographer Yevgeny Khaldei wanted to engineer a historic moment reminiscent of the American Iwo Jima picture, which was taken only weeks earlier. The 28-year-old correspondent hastily stitched together an ad hoc Hammer and Sickle using an old tablecloth and scaled the top of the Nazi legislature with some volunteers to set up the shot. Within two weeks, his image was the toast of Russia, but not before being retouched on the orders of the Kremlin. Moscow demanded the flag be enhanced in the darkroom to make it appear a little less improvised. More smoke was added to the horizon of the shot too. Finally, a second wristwatch on the soldier’s forearm (presumably looted) was rubbed off the negative, lest it sully the purity of the scene. 
More Recent Fakes
Such fakery didn’t end with World War Two. Consider these examples from our own era (click each photo to enlarge it):
While campaigning as a “wartime president” in 2004, George W. Bush appeared in a photo surrounded by legions of U.S. troops. Days after the image was made public, bloggers noted that some of the faces of the soldiers behind the Commander-in-Chief appeared to have been duplicated using a copy and paste Photoshop tool known as “clone stamp.” The White House yanked the image and apologized.
Freelance Lebanese photographer Adnan Hajj used the same software feature to enhance images of Israeli air strikes on Beirut in 2006. The Reuters stringer blatantly darkened and duplicated plumes of smoke on the city skyline in a ham-fisted attempt to make the image appear more exciting. It was just one of many examples of photo tampering to come out of the brief but intense war. The incident became known as “Reutersgate”.
MilitaryHistorynow.com reported this case of a photo showing a North Korean military exercise in 2013 that was enhanced by Pyongyang propagandists. According to the MHN story, the image features a fleet of landing craft disembarking troops onto a beachhead. After being published worldwide, experts noted that several of the vessels appeared to be reflecting light identically, suggesting that there were simply copied and pasted into the frame. Also, the wakes being thrown up by the hovercraft also looked to have been enhanced digitally. The international media promptly pulled the photo from circulation.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on June 25, 2014)
DISCLOSURE: MHN uses Photoshop to enhance, colourize, stretch and occasionally flip both historic public domain and original photography in our logo banners and thumbnails. When it comes to editorial content, we respect the integrity of images that appear within our articles.