Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Altered photos as modern art

I was looking today at the FATESCAPES / Osudové krajiny project by Czech photographer Pavel Maria Smejkal when I discovered another shockingly powerful feature of Google's Search by Image facility.

Pavel's images are created by taking famous historical photographs of war and removing all human elements from the images. While some of the image sources were immediately obvious to me, such as Robert Capa's 'The Falling Soldier':

Yevgeny Khaldei's 'Soviet Flag over the Reichstag':

and Stuart Franklin's 'Tiananmen Square':

...there were others which felt familiar but which I couldn't quite place:

So I wondered if Google's Search by Image could match photos when the most important feature was missing. In this case I was impressed that it could, showing that the source image was Joe Rosenthal's 'Iwo Jima':

However, in other cases it failed, as with John Filo's image of an anti-Vietnam war protester gunned down outside Kent State University:

In this case, for a human viewer who knows the history of the original, the source is clear as the image has become as (in)famous for the poles as it is for the human content:

.. but as extraordinary as Search by Image is at matching images, in cases like this the altered image is just missing too much of the original content.

As someone with a reasonable knowledge of the history of photography, I certainly find Pavel Maria Smejkal's work interesting and intriguing. It demonstrates that with modern art, as with many things, the simplest ideas are often the best. Artist Craig Damrauer has expressed this perfectly, and on more than one level:

... but for viewers without that knowledge of the original historical images, I suspect that Smejkal's images will be pretty meaningless. Using Search by Image provides a useful way for the viewer to find the source material, and information about the history of the original images. If modern art can be used in this way to help people gain an interest in and learn about important historical events, I feel that can only be a good thing.

I have seen a lot of discussion recently about the differences between 'derivative' and 'transformative' work in art, and the copyright implications. Personally I think that Smejkal's work, for all its simplicity, has a far better case for originality than a lot of controversial works by some other very famous and successful modern artists.

Also, the ability of Google's Search by Image function to spot heavily altered or cropped images will certainly be useful for photographers trying to track down unauthorised uses of their own images, and I am sure that over time Search by Image's matching ability will only improve.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Google's "Search by Image" for investigative journalists....

I got an email recently:


My name is Zara and I'm a regular reader of

I'd like to thank you for the excellent information I've found on; it's always a great pleasure to read your articles
and I have subsequently become a loyal reader.

I live in Scotland where I try to increase the awareness about
renewable energy and solar panels amongst my family and friends.

It occurred to me that you might be interested in including a
guest article on about a new research that shows how
a solar table can charge mobile devices wirelessly.

For example, I could provide an article in the form of a little guide
to help your readers learn more about this research – hopefully, this
would spark a discussion about the topic at hand.

Please, take a minute to consider this proposal. Any support
would be much appreciated.

With your help, we can educate the public about the dangers of fossil
fuels, this hopefully can help increase the awareness about solar panels.

Either way, thanks for reading and keep posting your excellent
information on

I hope you have a good week.

Kind Regards,
Dr. Zara Dobson
Renewable Energy Researcher
Edinburgh, Scotland


It's certainly a nice email - very complementary and supportive. The only problem is that a computer wrote it. If you analyse it, it is just a spam 'fluffer' email with a bit of personalisation, trying to flatter the reader into publishing an article on their website.

Taking a couple of key phrases from the email and searching on Google:

"I'm a regular reader of" "thank you for the excellent information"

...quickly shows thousands of matches of the same email but with a different website name put in each time.

So why is 'Dr. Zara Dobson' doing this?

Trying the domain name in the email address ( just redirects to the Twitter account:

Now, the photo on the Twitter account is immediately suspicious. It just looks too 'stocky'. In this case Google Search by Image doesn't prove that useful as it just shows the same image being used by 'Dr Zara Dobson' on another blog directory. No smoking gun here.

However, when you look at the source url of the image file on Twitter you get:

If this is Doctor Zara Dobson, why is the image file called erin_mckenzie.jpg? Who is Erin Mckenzie?

I am now beginning to wonder if Doctor Zara Dobson really exists. She has over 60 followers on Twitter, so I would be interested to hear from any who have actually met her! I suspect they have been hoodwinked into following a non-existent person.

Searching on Google for "Zara Dobson" comes up with quite a list, and it seems even respectable online newspapers have been fooled into publishing these 'articles':

One of the most useful techniques in investigative journalism is 'follow the money'. In terms of websites and online articles like this, the key is to 'follow the links', because that is where the money comes in.

The links in the 'article' lead to a couple of personal blogs about solar panels:

but what is immediately suspicious is that even though the blogs are by different people, the design is very similar:

and then when you read the 'about' sections you see that, even though one blog is written by 'Rosalind' and one by 'Hettie', they both say "Prior to getting married, I spent over 3 years as a teacher’s assistant."

With a bit of research, you then find more...

and more...

and more!

...very similar 'personal' blogs, and you really have to wonder what is going on.

When you compare the 'About' text you get:

I write to help you get all the information to raise the awareness on energy efficiency and solar energy.

I write to help You get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependent to successful energy efficiency.

I write to help you get all information you need to design an eco friendly garden and protect birds.

I write to help you get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependency to successful energy efficiency.

I write to help you get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependency to successful energy efficiency.


Prior to getting married, I spent over 2 years as a teacher, corporate trainer and workshop leader.

Prior to raising my family, I spent over 3 years as a teacher and workshop leader.

Prior to raising my family, I spent over ten years as a teacher, corporate trainer and workshop leader.

It is clear that all these blogs have been written by the same person, not the people in the pictures. So who are those people in the pictures? This is where Google's Search by Image proves REALLY useful. By checking the profile headshots you quickly find that they are of people with completely different names. Are these people writing under pseudonyms or have the images just been stolen off Facebook profiles and other sites?

real person and profile

real person and profile

real person and profile

So... I have tried contacting these people to check. So far I have had one response confirming that the image was stolen, so I think it is reasonable to assume that all these images were stolen.

In summary, the 5 'solar' blogs shown above are all fake, and built on criminal activity (theft, copyright infringement, misrepresentation...) and whoever is behind them has fooled respectable people and businesses into unwittingly becoming part of this illegal behaviour:

this is not Shannon Combs:

this is not Barbara Young:

So, why has someone gone to all this effort? It may be a marketer trying to built 'authority' websites with lots of links, to make money from the Google Adverts on the pages (I would have thought misrepresentation like this must be against Google's terms and conditions?). On the other hand, do the companies whose products are mentioned/promoted on these blogs know anything about it? Whether they do or not, I can't imagine it is in their interests to be associated with these websites.

And who is behind it all? I will leave that to the real investigative journalists out there!

UPDATE 20 August 2011: checking Google Search by Image again, I now find that it has found more matches for the Dr Zara Dobson portrait image, including an example which proves it is a stock image!

proof that the image of Dr Zara Dobson is a stock image

Also, the stolen portrait photos in the 'About' sections on all these fake blogs have disappeared and the text has been changed to "Hi, I’m Enrico and I write...". It appears whoever is behind all these fake blogs has become aware that their illegal activity has been exposed and they are now trying to cover their tracks.