When A Picture Speaks A Thousand FALSE Words

JB Shreve
June 23, 2018 6 mins to read
Reading Time: 5 minutes



Last week this image of a little girl crying as she was separated from her mother at the US border was attached to headlines around the world to capture the crisis and depravity of American immigration policy.


famous photos that are not true


A little girl, through no fault of her own, was being torn from her mother and separated to an unknown fate. Time Magazine used the image for its July issue cover. The image captures a thousand words of what is horribly wrong with American immigration policy and the ruthlessness of President Trump’s zero tolerance stance.


famous photos that aren't true


The only problem – as we discovered Friday evening – the picture is wrong. This child is not being separated from her mother. The child was crying when she was momentarily separated from her mothers’ arms while the mother was being frisked. She immediately stopped crying when the mother picked her back up after the photo was taken. This image has nothing to do with the many stories of family separation that it was attached to in the last week.


The dramatic image was incorrectly attached to an unrelated narrative and successfully used to drive outrage and shame that eventually changed an American policy.

A picture is worth a thousand words but is it legitimate when those thousand words are not accurately related to the picture?

This is not the first time this has happened. In fact, the misappropriation of dramatic images to political narratives is more common than many of us have been led to believe. In many instances the political power of an image combined to a narrative has become so overwhelming that we forget the original facts and our historical memory is stamped with a false narrative-image combination.

famous photos that are not true


This photograph for example became a powerful force in the anti-war movement of the 1960s. It was printed on magazine covers and front page stories around the world.

A military General, allied to American forces, was executing in cold blood a civilian resistance fighter in Vietnam. The resistance fighter looked more like one of our own children than the guerrilla fighter Americans were taught to believe we were fighting in southeast Asia. His hands were tied behind his back. He was defenseless, unthreatening. The General, the man allied to the US was the aggressor, the wrong-doer. This was not war. This was an atrocity!


This Pulitzer Prize winning photo circled the globe and to this day when people see it they are reminded of the brutality and injustice of America’s war in Vietnam.


The true story of the picture is quite different from the myth. The General with the gun was actually a heroic fighter among anti-communist forces in Vietnam. He was a patriot and highly admired among his men. The man being shot, Captain Bay Lop, was leader of a “death squad” whose job was to kill police officers. If police officers could not be found his squad was to kill their families. We would call him a terrorist in today’s language. On the morning of this photo Bay Lop’s unit had killed 34 people including many police offers and their family members. Among the dead family members was an 80 year old woman. Some of these victims were related to soldiers attached to the General in this photo. Bay Lop’s victims that morning had their throats cut and were thrown into a mass grave. A seriously injured 10 year old boy was the only survivor to the massacre.


Upon being captured Captain Bay Lop stood defiantly before the General and his men who had discovered the mass grave including some of their own family members. He explained how he was proud of what he had done. The events of this photo are what followed.


Brutal? Yes. But the true story contradicts the narrative and anti-war sentiment that were empowered as this photo circulated the globe to demonstrate the atrocities of America and its allies in Vietnam.


famous photos that are not true


This photo captures the exhilaration felt by many Americans as victory in World War 2 was announced. The facts perhaps tell a different story. The sailor, George Mendonsa, was watching a movie with his girlfriend. At the conclusion of the movie they learned of the end of the war. He grabbed the first nurse he saw and threw this famous kiss on her in celebration. His movie date girlfriend and future wife is standing a few feet away. The picture has become synonymous with American victory in World War 2. The facts behind it might make it a bit closer to the #metoo movement.


famous photos that are not true

This image of Abraham Lincoln, spread far and wide, captured the quickly mythologized power of his presidency and character shortly after his assassination. The only problem is that it was not Lincoln. It was Lincoln’s head superimposed upon the body of a leader of the south, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was one of the fathers of the secessionist movement and would likely have been a great opponent of President Lincoln had he not died in 1850. The edited photo better captured the developing myth of the recently deceased president however.


famous photos that are not true


This image became synonymous with the Great Depression in American during the 1930s.


famous photos that are not true

The migrant mother struggling with her children became an iconic emblem of the quiet suffering of American women during the Great Depression. It would eventually become a famous US postal stamp.


In the 1990s the children in the photo were finally located. It turns out the mother came to resent the photographer for the photo. When it was taken the photographer promised it would not be published and the mother felt exploited afterward. The image has always signified the noble struggle of ordinary, quiet Americans but the facts place it closer to demonstrating the exploitation of ordinary, quiet Americans.


Words like fake news are thrown around easily and frequently today but these stories and tactics have been around for a long time. In a mass media age images are only the most recent method used for herding a democratic society toward political causes and ends. A picture might be worth a thousand words but it would serve us well to investigate before we believe all those words.


See Also: 50 Iconic Photos and the Stories Behind Them



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