Irish artist Matt Loughrey digitally colourized and added smiles to photos of tortured prisoners from Security Prison 21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which was used by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79. His photos were published in Vice and prompted outrage on Twitter.
Interventions like these are not unique among the history of photographic manipulation — the Cottingley Fairies photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in 1917 are a prime example. But alongside sophisticated internet tools like deepfakes (where a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else), the use of algorithms to alter photographs has provoked renewed anxiety about the authenticity of photography in the digital era.
As a researcher of film and visual culture, I am interested in exploring the convictions behind controversies like these by looking at them through the history of image manipulation. The use of colourization to create revisionist histories of atrocity and synthetic skin tones is concerning, but it does not mark the first time colourization has caused controversy.
When the black and white photo was selected for Benetton’s ad campaign, executives made the decision to colourize it. This was done using a technique that was developed during the early years of photographic production called hand-colouring that required setting pigment down on the image and removing it with cotton around a toothpick.
The two issues that galvanize this strange campaign are its realism and its dignity.
[Editor’s note: An article in Time magazine stated that when creative director at Benetton, Oliviero Toscani saw the above image in Life magazine, he said, “‘That’s the picture’. [David] looks like Jesus Christ but he’s dying of AIDS. It’s like a painting. The only problem was, it was in black and white and I wanted them to be realistic – color is realistic.” Tibor Kalman, editor-and-chief of Benetton’s COLORS magazine, commissioned Ann Rhoney, to add colours to the picture.]
Problems with colourization
Opposition to colourization often points to the artifice of the practice, but for the Benetton executives the problem with the Kirby photograph was not that it looked too real, but that its realism seemed incomplete.
The colourist, Ann Rhoney, described it as creating an “oil painting,” and the act of making a photograph more real by turning it into a painting appears to reverse longstanding assumptions about the art practices that are closest to reality.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert famously called the practice “Hollywood’s New Vandalism.” Philosopher Yuriko Saito suggested that disagreements over the value of colourization often turn on an implicit belief in whether a work of art belongs to the artist or to the public.
[Editor’s note: In India, we witnessed criticism and disapproval of colourisation of director K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960). The film, now deemed a classic, also had an original sequence in Technicolour. “Alongside its stupendous run at the box office, perhaps the greatest in the history of re-releases in world cinema, Mughal-e-Azam (Color) generated fierce journalistic and academic debates on the subject of colorization,” Ramna Walia in her paper titled, Techno-Nostalgia: Colorization of K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam.]
In the context of historical images, the question becomes: to whom does history belong?
Photographs contribute to our development as moral and ethical subjects. They allow us to see the world from a point of view that does not belong to us, and alterations that make photography and film more familiar and relatable complicate a primary role we have given it as “a vehicle for overcoming our egocentricity.”
What is fascinating about new techniques of colourization is that they can be understood as photography seeing its own image through AI algorithms. DeOldify is photography taking a photograph of itself. The algorithm creates its own automatic representation of the photograph, which was our first attempt to see the world transparently.
With the increasing accessibility of tools for colourizing photographs and making other alterations, we are re-negotiating the very difficulties first brought about with photography. Our desire for and disagreements about authenticity, mechanization, knowledge and dignity are reflected in these debates.
The algorithm has become a new way of capturing reality automatically, and it demands a heightened ethical engagement with photos. Controversies around colourization reflect our desire to destroy, repair and dignify. We don’t yet know what a photograph can do, but we will continue to find out.