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Age of the image

Art historian James Fox explores how the power of images has transformed the modern world.

About the programme

With technology rapidly advancing and photo manipulation tools becoming easier to use, how do we trust what we see?

Join James Fox on his visual journey as he considers the power of the image as it becomes more powerful and less trustworthy than ever before.

To find out more and for iPlayer links, please visit the BBC website .

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

James Fox in the TV - Age of the Image
Photographer at their laptop

Detecting fake images

Is seeing believing, or have we all become a bit cynical with the rise of fake news? Read on as Patrick Wong shares some tips on how to detect a fake image.

A moment ago, my smartphone buzzed and I received a social media message with a beautiful image from a friend. The image shows a cute little girl happily hugging a large lion, as shown below. It is a touching image but isn’t it too dangerous to hug a wild animal?

Would you let your daughter take part in a photo like this? I normally wouldn’t, but I would this time as I know the girl was not really hugging the lion. It is a fake image. The lion was superimposed onto the photo of the girl.

The idiom seeing is believing is no longer true in this digital era. With the proliferation of powerful camera phones, which often equipped with multiple cameras, they give everyone chances to take, edit and create spectacular images without using a professional camera and image editing software. Furthermore, with a few touches and wipes, the images can be shared with many people in seconds.

A digitally manipulated image of a girl hugging a lion

Girl hugging lion

A moment ago, my smartphone buzzed and I received a social media message with a beautiful image from a friend. The image shows a cute little girl happily hugging a large lion, as shown below. It is a touching image but isn’t it too dangerous to hug a wild animal?

Would you let your daughter take part in a photo like this? I normally wouldn’t, but I would this time as I know the girl was not really hugging the lion. It is a fake image. The lion was superimposed onto the photo of the girl.

The idiom seeing is believing is no longer true in this digital era. With the proliferation of powerful camera phones, which often equipped with multiple cameras, they give everyone chances to take, edit and create spectacular images without using a professional camera and image editing software. Furthermore, with a few touches and wipes, the images can be shared with many people in seconds.


Why do people distribute fake images?

Toy bigfoot in a forest

In the above case, it is just a friend who wanted to share a photo she found interesting. However, fake images have been distributed for various reasons, ranging from benign purposes such as to impress friends to malicious motives such as to influence people’s political view and blackmail.

The impact of fake images on society can be very significant. It can make fake news more convincing. One well-known example is the hoaxed photo of the Loch Ness monster. The photo has misled thousands (if not millions) of tourists, believers and scientists visiting the loch. Another example is the Cambridge Analytica saga, embroiled in reportedly extracting Facebook users’ data for companies seeking to influence national politics. 


Characteristics of fake images

In the foreground, a person's hand holding a phone. In the background is a desk set up with a computer

Photo by Aman Upadhyay on Unsplash

Fake images can be defined differently. For the purpose of this article, I consider fake images as those that have been manipulated such that they can deceive people in believing something untrue.

These images usually feature things, scenes or people’s behaviours that are unbelievable but look real. Because of the outrageousness or spectacular nature of these images, they can be spread rapidly through social media online and attract lots of attention.


Make a fake image yourself

To experience how a fake image is produced, follow the link below to the reflect.tech’s website, which allows you to use artificial intelligence to create fake images of celebrities by swapping their faces, and create one or more fake images.

The website allows you to upload a photo of a person and swap their face with one from a celebrity. However, I would not recommend you to do so as we do not know how your uploaded images will be stored and used by the website. LINK: https://reflect.tech/faceswap/hot [P1] 

Similar technologies have been used to make fake videos of politicians speaking something outrageous and fake pornographies of celebrities (Lee 2018) 

Detecting fake images

Although fake images can look very realistic, there are sometimes tell-tale signs that may help us to discover the deception. However, detecting fake images is a very complex business and many new kinds of research are being undertaken.

To spot a fake image, sometimes you just need common sense

A fake image often looks unbelievably and extraordinarily spectacular. When being presented such an image, we should ask ourselves whether the contents of the image can be real or whether it agrees with the character of the subject. This often needs lots of common sense and judgement.

Continuity of edges

When a part of an image is modified, it is likely the colour, brightness and texture around the edges of the modified part do not match with that of the original image. By carefully inspecting the image, it may be possible to detect the non-continued edges.

Noise analysis

The noise I refer here is not the unwanted audio sound, but the tiny small defects produced by cameras. Different cameras (or more strictly speaking the imaging sensors) produce different noises under different conditions. When images captured by different cameras are superimposed over one another, the noise patterns and levels of each image are likely to be different

By carefully analysing the noise pattern of the superimposed image, it is possible to detect where images are superimposed together.

Luminance Gradient

When a light source shines a light on an object, the luminance (brightness) of the object and its surrounding should be similar. If an image of an object is superimposed into another image, their luminance is likely to be different.

By carefully analysing the luminance differences of the superimposed image, it is possible to detect where images are superimposed together.

Spot a fake image yourself

It is very difficult to analyse and detect signs of a fake image without tools. To give you an experience of analysing a manipulated image, follow the link below to the Forensically’s website, which provides a set of useful tools for analysing an example manipulated image.

You can access the help page through the Help menu at the top left corner of the page. The help page briefly explains what each tool does.

Read the Help page before you start using the tools to analyse the image. Try and find any suspected manipulations in the example image - https://29a.ch/photo-forensics/ [P2] 


Seeing is no longer believing

The camera is pointing up from the foot of a spiral staircase. The way the staircase curves make the vision resemble a human eye

Photo by Petri Heiskanen on Unsplash

As the technologies on detecting fake image advances, the same happens to the technologies for generating fake images. It is a race of two big forces.

In recent years, artificial intelligence has been used to automatically generate fake images that look almost flawless. The technologies have also been made available to the general public and made so easy to be used that anyone can generate an image almost effortlessly. The real impact of these technologies on society is to be seen. For sure seeing is no longer believing.

If you are interested in creating and editing digital images, check out the Open University’s Digital Photography module.


A picture of a lens very close up. The shutter is visible, and pinkish light reflects off the glass

A brief history of the lens

Have you ever thought about the history of the lens, how technology has impacted on what the human eye can see, and extended the possibilities of what humans could explore? 

...it has taken hundreds of years to move from seeing through a lens to keeping the results.

Technology and art have always been connected, from the first tools and pigments used to make prehistoric cave art, to the present-day questions that artists ask of our relationship to the world around us. Technology has had a huge impact on what the human eye can see, using the properties of the lens to make scientific instruments that extend our gaze out to the stars and down to atoms. Perhaps we don’t spend much time thinking about how we capture images from light through a lens, but it has taken hundreds of years to move from seeing through a lens to keeping the results. That is the breakthrough of photography: a permanent, and portable record of a moment in time, ‘writing the light’. This is how we're able to share a view through a lens. Since the first photographs, the technology for keeping images seen through a lens has moved from chemical to electrical, but the questions about how we interpret images are, if anything, becoming more complex to answer.


Nimrud Lens - British Museum

The history of looking through a lens has a surprisingly old beginning. The discovery of how to polish a clear stone, known as rock crystal, was made thousands of years ago, probably by artists looking for new ways of making decorative art who enjoyed the effects of light being bent by curved surfaces. Bronze Age objects that have optical qualities have been excavated in Crete, at the Palace of Knossos (c. 1400BCE) and other sites, including the city of Troy (c. 2,200BCE). The Nimrud lens , from the Palace of Nimrud (Kalhu), Assyria (North Iraq) now in the British Museum, dates back to 750BCE, and is a rock crystal ground and polished with one slight convex face. It is slightly magnifying, but there is no other evidence that the Assyrians used lenses, so it is probably a decorative glass inlay. It is more certain that the ancient Romans knew about magnification: glass lenses have been found able to magnify about two and a half times (2.5x). 


Image sourced from Wikipedia under Creative-Commons license

What did they use lenses for? Some suggestions are that magnifying glasses were needed to create the fine detail on distinctive miniature gold-glass portraits e.g. Portrait of Gennadios . However, Ancient Greek and Roman science did not understand refraction (how light is bent through a lens) and did not use lenses to correct short sight (they thought the eye sent out beams, rather than receiving light waves).

The history of optics began in the 1200s CE, with the invention of spectacles to correct vision; this life-changing breakthrough emerged through parallel developments in China and Italy. As lens making became more accurate, artists began to realise the possibilities for using a lens to help with making an image, at the same time as they asked questions about the effects of light on how we interpret what we see. 

This matters if you want to paint a realistic human figure; the Renaissance artist Piero Della Francesca made detailed measurements to understand how to translate three dimensions into flat paint, using a technique of plotting points on a model which is still used in CGI filming techniques. This artistic breakthrough is the invention of perspective, which puts painted objects into a convincing relationship with each other: a room filled with furniture and people that looks similar enough to a ‘real’ space filled with solid objects. Leonardo da Vinci wrote about the phenomena of light on surfaces, understanding that different intensities of light on a human face vary with the angle that the light strikes; these observations were formalised in the 1700s as a natural law, now used in computer rendering of digital images. Artists have continued to experiment with depicting the world as realistically as possible, right up to hyperreal paintings.


An illustration of a Camera Obscura

Copyright free Image sourced from Wikipedia 

Today we associate cameras with photography, but the first cameras were boxes with lenses, designed to throw an image onto a flat surface in the form of a paper screen. These devices are called camera obscuras, and they are a stage on from pinhole cameras in using lenses. They have been used since the mid-1500s, by scientists, artists and architects to create small images from life, by tracing outlines of the captured image onto the paper screen. One of the best known Dutch artists of the 1600s, Vermeer, used one he called an ‘optical chamber’ to set up the props seen in his paintings as a projection that he could transfer to canvas.


A photo of Hooke's flea

Robert Hooke's flea from Micrographia

In 1608 a true telescope was created by Hans Lippershey, using two lenses; from this moment, telescopes evolved through the refinement of their lenses to the deep space telescopes used by astronomers now. Looking beyond our world on the earth has been transformed by looking through a lens.

Understanding how to represent light and space in scientifically accurate relationships changed how objects were drawn, particularly for something that couldn’t be brought into an artist’s studio. The early telescopes, or spyglasses, used one lens to magnify distant objects; in 1609 this gave Galileo a view of the moon with mountains and valleys, a solid landscape. Until then, the moon was said to be translucent because Christian theology linked the properties of light from the moon to beliefs about the beauty of Mary, mother of Jesus; direct observation through a lens challenged this interpretation. 

Explorations of the smallest details of life on earth became possible with the invention of the microscope, but as with looking down a telescope, the challenge was to interpret what was revealed. Drawing the observation was an act of interpretation, as well as a means of sharing new knowledge, a painstaking process of repeated looking undertaken by Robert Hooke and published as Micrographia (1665). For the first time, readers could see a flea presented as a complex insect, a ‘minibeast’ of the micro world. 

All of these new ways of seeing, miniature worlds, making images of everyday worlds convincing, and finding new landscapes beyond the earth were contributing to knowledge before the birth of photography, but the crucial difference was the arrival of a chemical means of fixing the fleeting image that appeared through a lens. The arrival of photography did not solve the challenges of understanding what we could now see, but it extended the possibilities of what we could explore.


A selfie stick protrudes from the bottom of this photo, with a smartphone attached to the end

Seeing life through a lens: the age of image-makers

From critiques of the ubiquitous selfie to proclamations about the end of privacy, the impact of the camera phone continues to be the subject of fierce debate.

The camera lens doesn’t just change what we see - whether we see things close-up or from a distance, it changes our relationship to the world because it changes how we see.

Camera phones entered the marketplace in 1999(1)combining two technologies and industrial sectors– imaging and communications. At that time few imagined how people would seize their potential as image-makers and the difference this would make. Since then camera phones have brought significant changes to art and culture, businesses, markets, politics and society – arguably, democratising photography and putting an end to an era of celebrity photographers(2).

Anyone with a smartphone can now take a high-quality photo and share it on Instagram or other social media sites to great acclaim.  Some images go viral, trigger debate about world events, even shift public awareness. Whether images can change the world though is open to question. From critiques of the ubiquitous selfie to proclamations about the end of privacy, the impact of the camera phone continues to provoke fierce debate. Certainly, the images produced and shared on social networks are shaping how we present our public and private selves, how we engage with friends and family, and how we see the world.

A phone camera in the hands of roughly 3 billion people - or 40% of the human population -means exposure to aspects of life that were previously hidden from public view. The compact portability of the camera phone allows for people, secretly, to record images that bear witness to crimes and misdemeanours, as well as wars and conflicts. There is no place to hide for authoritarian despots or protesters.


Two women taking a selfie

We carry an archive of photos around with us and most of us have only ever used a phone camera. This is changing the nature of photography. The time we spend taking, sharing, manipulating and gazing at images provoke many questions – are we seeing life through a lens?(3) Are social media platforms like Instagram turning us into voyeurs or narcissists or simply better photographers? Who controls what we see and what we don’t see? Can the digital traces that we leave behind ever be fully or finally erased? What can we do to protect our privacy and prevent the harmful effects of surveillance?

The instantaneous production and circulation of some images on a global scale have certainly brought changes not only to the ways world events are captured on camera. The camera lens doesn’t just change what we see - whether we see things close-up or from a distance, it changes our relationship to the world because it changes how we see. Susan Sontag has written eloquently about how news images of war encourage us to see human suffering from a distance with detachment(4).

Public debates rage unresolved about whether exposure to images of violence and death inure us to the pain of others or heighten our consciousness of suffering and empathy. There are no easy answers to such vexed questions, but we must consider carefully the impact of different contexts of the production, circulation and reception of images, and not presume effects on audiences. However we respond to these questions, there is no doubt that the modulation of our proximity and distance to the world, to what we see and how we see, has been transformed by the ubiquity and portability of the camera phone.


The Open University’s research and teaching and co-productions such as Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, investigated how smartphones are changing experiences of migration

The war in Syria has been the most documented in history, much of it captured and shared on smartphones. Indeed, while phone cameras have become important tools for many of us, for Syrian refugees they have become an essential tool. The Open University’s research(5) and teaching(6) and co-productions such as Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, investigated how smartphones are changing experiences of migration(7). We have documented how the smartphone is both a resource and a threat. It has become as important as food or water for Syrian refugees on their journey to safety(8). At the same time, when images of war crimes, torture or abuse on refugees’ phones get into the wrong hands, incarceration, torture and even death can follow. The smartphone enables surveillance by hostile forces on an unprecedented scale.

But smartphones have creative uses too. A new wave of refugee cinema is emerging forged by refugees who use images shot on their mobile devices to produce powerful documentary films. Outstanding examples from Syrian refugees include Silvered Waters . This harrowing film recombines footage from thousands of Syrians’ mobile phones to create a powerful story of life under siege and pose some searching questions. Its multi-authored, multi-layered narrative conveys a sense of the Syrian people themselves telling their stories. 


Poster: For Sama (film) (2019)directors Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts. Produced by PBS Frontline, Channel 4 News, ITN. under Creative-Commons license

For Sama  is a tale of love and war, family and friendship, courage and fear - of what it is like to live and work in a hospital in Aleppo under siege. It is a poignant filmic letter from a mother to her baby daughter Sama – full of courage, determination and hope.

These films combine an acute emotional and political intensity. They afford to close up insights into the horrors of war. They offer intimacy, authenticity and a new style of social realism, based on direct and immediate experiences. These films challenge mainstream representations of the Syrian war.

The camera phone also allows for new film forms to emerge. Midnight Travellers  captures the epic journey to security of an Afghan family with compelling factual accuracy and with a depth of emotion and humanity that is extraordinary. It bears witness to the suffering endured with humour and love.

These films made with mobile devices are reaching new audiences and are widely available on Netflix, Channel 4 and/or YouTube. They are winning prizes and acclaim in international film circuits because they allow for new vantage points, they shift the frame, they move the gaze. They combine facts with feelings. They generate new knowledge and insights, creating empathy, compassion and solidarity. These films attest to the agency of image-makers in an interconnected world and make us aware of what we see, what we don’t see and above all, how we see.


Meet the OU experts

A photograph of Professor Marie Gillespie
Professor Marie GillespieProfessor of Sociology - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies SociologyVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photograph of Professor Marie Gillespie
Professor Marie GillespieProfessor of Sociology - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies Sociology

Marie Gillespie's teaching and research interests, revolve around migration and transnationalism, media and visual cultures, especially in relation to the South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas. Her recent work has focussed on Syrian refugees and smartphone use, the evaluation of digital resources for refugees, and more generally uses of digital technologies in development projects – including participatory research and photography projects in refugee camps in Greece and Jordan.

Dr Susie West
Dr Susie WestSenior Lecturer in Art History and Heritage - School of Arts & HumanitiesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Susie West
Dr Susie WestSenior Lecturer in Art History and Heritage - School of Arts & Humanities

Susie West joined the Open University in 2007 after working in the heritage sector, caring for historic buildings. She has written on a wide range of visual topics, and thinks her first degree in archaeology has given her a keen interest in ‘how things work’ as well as ‘how things look’. As a result, The Age of The Image is an opportunity to think about science and art together.

A photograph of Dr Patrick Wong
Dr Patrick WongLecturer in Intelligent Computer Systems - School of Computing & CommunicationsVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photograph of Dr Patrick Wong
Dr Patrick WongLecturer in Intelligent Computer Systems - School of Computing & Communications

Dr Patrick Wong's research is in artificial intelligence, especially in computer vision applications, biometrics recognition, image processing and fault prediction and detection. He is a supervisor and examiner of PhD students on projects related to image processing, computer vision and cognitive radio technologies, and is developing an automatic table tennis umpiring system using image/video processing and artificial intelligence techniques.

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