Visual Deceptions: National Geographic and the Pyramids of Giza

Gordon Gahan’s original photograph

In February of 1982, National Geographic released a magazine displaying the striking image of the Pyramids of Giza on the cover. The image shows three men on camels in the foreground, shadowed by two pyramids looming in the background. The photograph allowed readers to experience the beauty and wonder of the pyramids from the comfort of their own homes. They can see the men on camels and just barely make out the individual stones on the pyramid by just looking at the cover. Photographer Gordon Gahan managed to capture the image with an even gradient of color from the sky to the ground and certainly deserved the honor of the front cover.

The digitally altered cover: notice the distance between the pyramids.

But after the magazine was released to the public, Gahan was shocked to realize his photograph had been digitally altered without his knowledge. The altered image was displayed to the unwitting reader without mention, leading readers to assume the pyramids were significantly closer to each other than they actually were.

National Geographic defended their action, stating it was necessary to alter the image to fit the magazines vertical orientation. They claimed, “it was not a falsification, but merely the establishment of a new point of view”.

This small alteration damaged the magazines credibility and effectively ushered in the digital era of photography. Since this point, viewers of magazines, advertisements, television, and other sources of media are forced to always be wary of mediated messages. This is a case of electracy — causing the literate to filter through mediated messages and images to construct their own view of nature. This altered image causes viewers to construct the incorrect idea that the pyramids of Giza are relatively close together.

But, for those who believe National Geographic is entirely at fault here for altering an image, we must remind them that photographer Gordon Gahan paid the men on camels to ride back and forth in front of the pyramids until he achieved the perfect shot. It makes us think, what other images have we seen and learned from? Are those fabricated as well?

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