The Last Picture Show

The preponderance of photography options these days – security videos, disposables, cell phone cameras – has spawned a strange phenomenon. There has been an astonishing increase in the discovery of photographs taken just before poor shutterbugs and their subjects were wiped out by some horrible disaster.

Surely you’ve seen them – startling images of people in the last moments of their lives, their cameras only discovered and their photographs downloaded by other people scrabbling through the wreckage.

Yeah, right.

Actually, if there’s a strange phenomenon here, it’s the bottomless gullibility of people – some of whom I’m friends with, some of whom I’m embarrassed to say I’m related to – who forward these pictures with the same kind of solemnity and amazement they would ascribe to the discovery of Ansel Adams photographs taken during the San Francisco earthquake.

Hey, folks, take some time to visit snopes.com, okey-dokey? Because that’s where you’ll find out about:

The picture of the guy at the top of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? Photoshopped.

The picture of a mid-air collision over Brazil? A still from Lost. That’s Evangeline Lilly in the corner.

The picture of the oncoming tsunami wave? It’s a sandstorm. In Australia. Nowhere near Japan.

But what I can’t figure out: who starts the ball rolling on these photographs to begin with? These people apparently come across a photograph, match it to a recent disaster, spin a convincing backstory, and then e-mail it to 100 of their closest friends, none of whom apparently have an I.Q. over that same number. Those idiots e-mail it to their closest friends, who are apparently even stupider, after which it falls into the hands of people I know. How is it that they’re smart enough to set up a computer and stupid enough to misinterpret reality?

Even if the first guy sends the photo out as a practical joke, with a Pythonesque wink and a nudge, how in the world does it make the transition from humor to the amazing discovery of an undamaged camera in the rubble? The only thing I can figure out is that these are urban legends turned visual in the Internet age, where the length of time needed to wring the truth out of something and launch it into the cybersphere of stupidity has been shortened from years to minutes. It’s the old game of telephone turned into the new game of telecom.

I don’t get it. Is there a business model I’m missing here? What’s the payoff? Is there some Paypal mechanism where the first guy (or gal) gets a micropayment for each person stupid enough to breathlessly forward the photograph? Maybe it’s just misguided psychic joy, the kind that hackers get knowing their malware is going to ruin someone’s day.

Perhaps if there’s karmic justice in the world, someday these miscreants will actually come across those Ansel Adams photos of the San Francisco earthquake. But because they’ve cried wolf so many times, their friends will think they’re Photoshopped. Vengeance is mine.

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About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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2 Responses to The Last Picture Show

  1. JM says:

    Is the payoff for the person fabricating a rumor the social attention his/her rumor receives (the notoriety)? Do discussions about the rumor generate as much payoff? Is the discussion about a rumor (this blog and my comments) responsible for providing further incentives for people to create more rumors? Hmmm…

    Is the cost of passing on a rumor small compared to the cost of NOT passing on the rumor? In the case of photographs of “just before death” incidents, I am personally curious to observe if there is anything I might learn. Is there something which might help me survive a similar disaster?

    Is it likely that I will learn anything? No, since it is more likely the photo is a fake. But maybe even a fake photo will stimulate my creativity, give me some hope of survival, even if it is very unlikely. Maybe I want to imagine that I might be able to survive, or at least, die with some dignity, because I had been able to picture my death, practice my death, so many times before. I remember watching the videos of the recent tsunami in Japan, imagining what I would do, realizing how hopeless it was to escape death in the face of such a massive force of nature. And I watched them over and over, trying to find a way to survive…

    Some other interesting questions:

    Is it unreasonable that information about death (a relatively important event in most people’s lives) might become a strong source of rumor?

    Is there an evolutionary advantage to humans sharing information which might influence the circumstances of another human’s death?

    Does the likelihood of transmission of a communication increase with the potential benefit of receiving the communication? Are rumors indicators of our compassion for each other? Hmmm… that seems too generous when I think of the negative, often vindictive and victimized context of most of the rumors I hear….

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