I'm not one to write political articles, and I promise you this one isn't meant to be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. However, as photographers, we've been told that a photo is worth a thousand words. What if the words these photos replace tell a very different story?
I woke up this morning seeing a popular photography term trending on Twitter: EXIF. This acronym stands for "exchangeable image file format," and it is used to give standard terminology and reporting on digital files produced by digital cameras. Photographers are familiar with this data because it can tell us what aperture an image was shot at, the camera's shutter speed, the camera and lens model used for a particular photograph, and what time the images were taken. This was a strange term to see trending on a worldwide platform like Twitter, so you know I had to click on it.
What I found was two images released by the White House showing Donald Trump signing papers in the Walter Reed Hospital. The two images were released yesterday, and there was a lot of controversy around whether or not the hospitalized president was actually getting work done or if he and his staff had staged a fake photoshoot. With so much misinformation surrounding whether or not the sitting president is falling sick with COVID-19 or if his case is rather mild, images of him working and looking in good spirits are some of the few bits of information the outside public has on his potentially dire situation.
The bombshell that this new tweet exposes is that the two images were taken only 10 minutes apart. With Trump sitting in two different locations and in two completely different outfits, we have to ask ourselves how probable it would be for the president to appear in such radically different situations in such a short period of time? Below is the screen capture of the viral images showing the two timestamps from the EXIF data.
As you can see in the two red boxes I highlight, the EXIF says one image was taken at 5:25:59 PM, while the other was taken just 10 minutes later at 5:35:40 PM on October 3.
There are a few other interesting things the EXIF data from these images, as the two images below show. The first one is that the images are credited to White House photographer Joyce N. Boghosian. You can also see that the images were taken on a Sony ILCE-9 camera, which is also known as the Sony A9 mirrorless camera. The lens used for both images is the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses (shot wide open at ISO 3,200 for all you photo geeks reading).
The first thing I wanted to do was create my own screen captures of the EXIF data so that I wouldn't have to use someone else's images in a fair use situation but also to double-check the authenticity of the images spewing around the internet. I tried to find the original published image, which is cited as coming from the White House, but I couldn't find it on Twitter. "No worries," I thought. This image is posted everywhere on the internet.
After saving a few different copies of the two images, I noticed that none of them actually had any EXIF data attached to them. Many websites and social media platforms strip EXIF data in an effort to make files smaller, so that was expected. What I didn't expect was for every single image I threw into Photoshop to all have this data missing. Where could I find the original image used to create the viral set of bombshell EXIF images? How could I reproduce these myself? Maybe the Joyce N. Boghosian, the White House photographer who took these images, would have them on her account. No such luck there either. This is a bit strange.
I decided to look a bit more into Joyce N. Boghosian to see if there were other clues. One string of tweets was showed Joyce taking the image of the event and people were complaining about her not wearing a mask while taking these photographs. I noticed that the woman in this photo wasn't using a Sony camera at all but instead had a Canon and Leica. It seemed strange that a press photographer would have more than one or two brands of cameras on them at any one time, and surely, they wouldn't use both Sony and Canon cameras with the same type of 70-200mm lens. And if this was a photo of Joyce as she took the shots of the stage, well, she didn't shoot them on Sony cameras at all. In trying to find out more about Joyce, I discovered that the photo above wasn't of Joyce photographing Trump at all but rather a tighter crop from her time working with President George Bush. So that was a bit of a dead-end too.
I finally found what I think are the original versions of the two images through the Associated Press. When thrown into Photoshop, I still cannot see all the data shown by the images posted on Twitter. I can confirm that the EXIF data in the file does show the same timestamps under the "Orgin" tab. However, there doesn't seem to be any copyright information or metadata tags at all. I'm not sure what to make of this; does my version of Photoshop not show the full EXIF data? Maybe some of the data was stripped from the smaller version of the image I downloaded from the Associated Press's website? Maybe Apple is a better operating system than Windows?
So, where does this all leave us? For me, I like to know the truth. As I've seen in our Coronavirus Journal, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. It seems the media outlets on both sides of the political spectrum like to edit and chop words to fit their own narrative. This is probably nothing new and has been happening ever since the beginning of the printing press. What is new is social media and the ability for every single person to have a voice and spread this so-called "news." Finding the truth in all of this noise has never been harder, and with the current pandemic still at hand, more and more people are getting on edge trying to understand what is actually happening in the world. Unfortunately, many have simply given up.
The other night, I watched a documentary on Netflix that has been recommended to me by many different people. The Social Dilemma is a documentary on how social media has quickly changed from being strictly a social platform to being a powerful system designed to enslave the human mind. The 90-minute documentary explores the creators of some of the largest social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Google. Without spoiling some of the topics they discuss, a few programmers believe that these relatively new platforms are simply too powerful to prevent the spread of misinformation. On one hand, having a limited number of powerful news agencies that are trusted with sharing the truth to the world is problematic; on the other hand, having billions of people replace that paradigm without any real sense of accountability is equally terrifying.
How does this all relate back to the EXIF data tweet I read about this morning? I want to give the whistleblowers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to when these two images were taken. Being the skeptic that I am, I also wanted to research it a little before coming up with my own conclusion. I do find the two images strange, and the White House has been cloaking the president's current COVID situation in a sea of non-transparency. As another image has shown, even the items on the desk seem to point in the direction of the images being staged. Some might ask if someone simply could have made up fake EXIF data and pushed them online to a mob of people foaming at the mouth to discredit the president? That doesn't seem to be the case since the times match from images anyone can download off the AP's website. Regardless of when the EXIF data tells us the images were taken, we are still left not completely knowing the context of what's happening in these photos themselves. I think the truth lies somewhere between a photograph and a thousand words.
I'm hoping Joyce Boghosian will speak up and give some insight into the EXIF data exposed in these tweets. Was her camera's internal clock set correctly? What happened in between those 10 minutes? As a photojournalist who has been documenting the daily activities of several presidents for decades now, I hope we can trust her to give us the truth. Whatever happens, this story could turn out to be one of the last big public relations disasters of the president during his term or it could be the opening saga in another four years of his presidency. Hopefully, the truth will come out from those actually present in the room when these images were taken.