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How Can You Trust a News Photo is Real?

Ron Haviv on authenticating his archive using Starling Lab’s cryptographic framework
ron haviv

The proliferation of fake news sites, misinformation on social media and the popularity of AI-powered image generators have made it more important than ever to be able to authenticate news photography. Photojournalist Ron Haviv has spent his career breaking news across the globe—covering conflicts in Yugoslavia, Jurez, Afghanistan and most recently in the Ukraine, and knows just how crucial it is. 

“Authentification, now probably more than ever, is essential, just look at Ukraine,” Haviv says. “People said it’s fake, people said I’ve set it up, people have said people aren’t dying, captions have been changed.” 

Haviv recently partnered with the Starling Lab to create an archive of his old slides using a cryptographic framework that also serves as an authentication tool. 

Capturing a Viral Image 

 In April 1992 Haviv documented an alleged war crime in the Bosnia city of Bijeljina. The image, which depicts an Arkan Tiger soldier bringing his foot back to kick one of his victims squarely in the head, became one of the defining images from that conflict. 

“I remember being relatively scared taking the photograph, making sure my hands didn’t tremble too much so the photo wouldn’t be out of focus,” Haviv recalls. 

Because he was shooting on film, he wasn’t sure exactly what he had captured, but it quickly went viral. Unfortunately the image was also immediately used as propaganda to recruit people to come and fight. This experience isn’t an uncommon one for photojournalists who specialize in documenting conflict. 

Modern Day Image Misuse

In the years since the image’s authenticity has been questioned by politicians, bloggers and warlords. But in 2016 Haviv’s image was posted by a Russian blogger who claimed that the image depicted a Ukrainian soldier kicking a Russian victim in Crimea. The photo from 1992 quickly went viral again. 

“I don’t know all the different ways the photograph has been misused,” Haviv says. “This is without question where we are in the world. The danger of miss-captioning the danger of photographs that are not authenticated.” 

Photojournalism and The Decentralized Web

Haviv hopes that by archiving his images using the Starling Lab system that it will protect his images from misuse on the decentralized web. The Starling Lab system turns each image into a container of image pixels, capture data and links. The additional data is embedded directly within the photo making it much easier to verify where images come from. It also means that the data travels with the image regardless of where it is published. This means it’s more difficult for news photographs to be used as propaganda. It’s also one of the first major developments for photojournalists on the decentralized web. 

One of the key components of the Starling Lab system is that it stores multiple copies of the image on thousands of servers for safekeeping—making it much more difficult to misconstrue the contents of the image. Ultimately, the hope is that tools like those being developed by Starling Lab will help photojournalists and historians continue to combat propaganda and set the record straight. 

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