At a time when everyone is encouraged to tell their stories, those whose job has been to tell other people stories have been battered. Doubly assaulted by shrinking budgets and rising incredulity, its community has found no better response than repeatedly going after each other throats in the corridors of Twitter. From accusations of sexual abuse to discoveries of manipulation of information, the last few years have seen an almost endless brutal social takedown of some of the highest figures in the trade.
Not that it mattered much, as the world of common mortals ever heard anything about it.
The result is a professional world that is divided into tribes that are suspicious and wary of each other. A community that continuously searches for operational faults and constantly question their own grounds. As if they are looking into their own ranks for the causes of their profession’s demise. If they burn enough of the witches, the curse might go away, and prosperity return.
The latest and probably most potent existential rain dance is Magnum’s own Jonas Bendiksen Veles experiment. Using a mixture of AI, computer-generated content, real photos, and GPT 3, he put together what he hoped would be a self-destroying fake photo essay.
Bendiksen wanted to shed light on the industry’s own incapacity in properly policing its own content. Reveal that in every step of the process, there are no safeguards. The intent, the process, and the result are all spotless. However, the overall conclusion is not.
It doesn’t matter how or what tools Bendiksen used to deceive. Because in the end, what he did was break a rule of trust that has been at the foundation of how this industry has been operating. The trusted handshake.
Let me explain.
Manipulating photos has been possible ever since photography was invented. Manipulating information as well. It is nothing new. Numerous photographers have been and are caught red-handed trying to sell a manipulated image as real. Caught once, and their careers are over.
What the photojournalism community has created is a chain of trust based on reputation. You believe in the work of a photographer because he has never deceived in the past. His photos, like his word, are trustworthy. They are professionals. Whole companies and Institutions, like photo agencies, have been built to second that trust. Their members are accepted because they are trustworthy. No need to check. Magnum, and its co-op members, are no exception.
What Jonas Bendiksen did was use this hard-earned professional trust to deceive. Of course, no one checked the veracity of his work and images. That’s because he benefited from a reputation of trustworthiness seconded by Magnum’s formidable stature in the field of photojournalism. He took advantage of a system that has worked well at filtering out unscrupulous behavior. By suddenly and unexpectedly going rogue, he has broken and betrayed one of the strongest societal bonds that links humans to each other. No need for sophisticated AI to do that.
Bendiksen wanted to be caught in his deception to show the dangers of not having barriers against fake news. Instead, what he did, is create doubt in an already fragile profession on who can be trusted and when. No photo editor, curator, or co-worker will look at photojournalists with the same eye, regardless of their reputation. Each essay, each photo will be doubly scrutinized against a possible deception. Any shadow of a doubt and they will be rejected, along with their author. The result is precisely what the creator of fake news wants: Make every piece of news suspicious so that fake news seems as plausible as real news.
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