The World’s Most Infamous Staged Photos

Photoshop might have made it easy to create faked photographs, but you don’t need fancy editing skills to manipulate the truth. Photographers have been faking images almost as long as they’ve been making them simply by setting up shots that look natural.

Here are some of the world’s most infamous staged photos.

The Cottingley Fairies

Photography: Elsie Wright

In 1917, Elsie Wright, 16, and her cousin Frances Griffith, 10, borrowed a camera belonging to Elsie’s father and took two pictures of what the girls claimed were fairies in Cottingley Beck, England. Initially, the images were authenticated by some of the leading photography experts of the time although Kodak was less convinced, arguing that there were many ways to fake images like these.

Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and a believer in spiritualism, saw the photos, was convinced that they were genuine and wrote about them in The Strand in 1920. The article created a media storm and the girls took three more pictures showing fairies dancing and enjoying a sun bath.

It was only in 1978 that a researcher spotted that the fairies were identical to drawings in Princess Mary’s Gift Book, a children’s book published in 1917. Three years later the girls, then in their late seventies, admitted that they had staged four of the five images using paper cut-outs and hatpins. Frances continued to claim that the fifth image was genuine.

The Loch Ness Monster

Photography: Robert Kenneth Wilson

Few people believe in fairies today, but a surprisingly large number of people believe there’s a monster at the bottom of Scotland’s Loch Ness. Many of them are likely to have been convinced by this photograph shot by a gynecologist named Robert Kenneth Wilson, who said he had photographed “something in the water.”

He had indeed photographed something in the water: a toy submarine with a sculpted head.

Wilson’s father-in-law, Marmaduke Wetherell, a big game hunter who had been persuaded to hunt for the monster and ridiculed in the Daily Mail, organized the creation of the picture for revenge.

Green Helmet Guy at Qana

Photography: Reuters

Fairies and monsters are popular but obvious — and relatively harmless — subjects to stage. A greater concern is the staging of war photography. When an Israeli bomb landed on a building in the Lebanese town of Qana during the 2006 conflict, the deaths of 28 people, including 16 children, should have been shocking enough. They really didn’t need a man dubbed “Green Helmet Guy” in the blogosphere and later identified as Salam Daher to hold up the bodies.

When the same guy was filmed by German television station NDR ordering a camera operator where to stand as a child is removed from an ambulance, accusations that he was a Hezbullah stage manager grew.


Still from NDR.

Interviewed by AP, Daher, a civil defense worker, admitted that at Qana, “I did hold the baby up, but I was saying ‘look at who the Israelis are killing. They are children.” Throughout the storm surrounding the alleged staging of the photos, no one has claimed the child was fake.

Conveniently Placed Toys


Photography: Ben Curtis, AP (top left) and Sharif Karim, Reuters.

If there’s one war image that’s so common it’s become a cliché, it’s a child’s toy conveniently discovered at the bottom of a pile of bomb-blasted rubble — a toy that always seems to have miraculously avoided the dust and debris around it.

These are just four of the images found by SlubLog and shot during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, three by the same photographer.

General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon

Photography: Eddie Adams

We’ve already seen that staging can take many forms. At Qana, the events were real but manipulated by the subjects for greater drama. Elsewhere, the toys were likely to have been placed on the rubble to create a more telling image.

In Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of General (then Colonel) Ngyen Ngoc Loan killing a Viet Cong prisoner, the execution was supposed to have taken place indoors. Loan conducted the shooting outside to enable photographers to obtain a better shot. Again, the picture was staged but the killing was real.

Kiss by the Hotel De Ville

Photography: Robert Doisneau

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s image of a sailor kissing a girl in a white dress in Times Square on VJ day was real. Robert Doisneau’s photograph of a couple kissing by the Hotel de Ville in Paris in 1950 was not.

In 1993, Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne sued Doisneau after claiming that they were the subjects of the image. In his defense, Doisneau admitted he had posed the shot using models Françoise Bornet and her boyfriend Jacques Carteaud.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

Photography: Joe Rosenthal

And finally, a photograph can be stuck with the label “staged” even when it wasn’t. Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima was the second flag-raising to have taken place that day, but neither was staged for the cameras. In fact, Rosenthal was so busy piling up rocks to stand on that he almost missed the moment and took the picture without using the viewfinder:

Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken.

Accusations that the image had been staged came later when Rosenthal was asked if he had staged the photo. Thinking that the questioner was referring to a later group shot of the soldiers, Rosenthal answered “Sure.”

[tags] staged photos [/tags]

28 comments for this post.

  1. Ken Said:

    With regards to Adam's photos, I think you need to be careful when you say something is staged.

    It's one thing if the photographer staged the event, it's another if the entity itself staged it.

    Adams did not stage this photo, there is no mention of whether he asked them to take this outside.

    The killing did happen, Adams said this himself during a talk he gave at the George Eastman house many years ago.

    To say this is a staged photo says that the event did not happen.

    This did happen, a man was killed, execution style.

  2. Marcin Gos Said:

    And regarding Saigon execution - it's cropped version, that doesn't show off-duty US soldier running on the right...

  3. Mark G Said:

    Completely agree with Ken on the Eddie Adams photo. Please change the article so you don't misrepresent a great photographer.

    The guy in the green helmet as well as the toys placed in the scene are both hearsay.

    Ben Curtis is a highly respected journalist without a bad mark on his record. Any photojournalist will tell you, there's no reason to fake the photo since it's a crappy shot anyways.

    Another prize winning PJ present during the green helmet guy told me what happened. He found the babies body, and paraded the corpse around before loading it into the ambulance. Overzealous rescue workers do not make a staged photo.

    Staged means the photographer set the scene up.

  4. Carlo Hagemann Said:

    Staged photos are not confined to 'staged by the photographer'. Since every politician or political actor knows the power of an impressive picture, they "set scenes up" on purpose.

    Overzealous rescue workers do not parade a corpse around, unless there are cameras nearby, and they have a clue that parading the corpse will support their (political) goals.

    By the way: it is always funny to see discussions on staged, cropped and retouched photographs from photojournalists, whereas stories from writing journalists are by definition cropped and retouched.

  5. Leatherneck Said:

    Regarding the Iwo Jima photo, here's Rosenthal writing in Collier's magazine in 1955:

    "I thought of trying to get a shot of the two flags, one coming down and the other going up, but although this turned out to be a picture Bob Campbell got, I couldn't line it up. Then I decided to get just the one flag going up, and I backed off about 35 feet.

    "Here the ground sloped down toward the center of the volcanic crater, and I found that the ground line was in my way. I put my Speed Graphic down and quickly piled up some stones and a Jap sandbag to raise me about two feet (I am only 5 feet 5 inches tall) and I picked up the camera and climbed up on the pile. I decided on a lens setting between f-8 and f-11, and set the speed at 1-400th of a second.

    "At this point, 1st Lt. Harold G. Shrier ... stepped between me and the men getting ready to raise the flag. When he moved away, Genaust came across in front of me with his movie camera and then took a position about three feet to my right. 'I'm not in your way, Joe?' he called.

    "'No,' I shouted, 'and there it goes.'

    "Out of the corner of my eye, as I had turned toward Genaust, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera, and shot the scene."

  6. cirby Said:

    "Overzealous rescue workers do not make a staged photo."

    But underquestioning reporters and photogs who let the subject decide the content of the photos do. Which has happened MULTIPLE times with "Green Helmet Guy."

    Let this one go - it's been caught and proven in multiple places, and there's videotape from a German TV program showing him giving directions on how to display a body for photographs.

  7. vanderleun Said:

    Mark g. is wrong. The green helmet guy and the toys have been convincingly shown to be staged on pages from both the right and the left.

  8. vanderleun Said:

    Marcin Gos says, "It's cropped version, that doesn't show off-duty US soldier running on the right..."

    Look again Marcin, there's nothing US about that soldier.

  9. TJ Palmer Said:

    That is a genuine civil defence volunteer holding a real child who will never get a chance to read this fake, staged article.

    If you had any sense of decency then you would delete this item.

  10. vanderleun Said:

    PALMER that's a fake humanitarian hauling a corpse around for political gain.

    If you had any decency, you'd know that.

    Wake up.

  11. The-Avenged-One Said:

    The photo of the prisoner being executed is incorrect. The man was not Viet Cong, he was in fact an officer (a Major, actually.) of the North Vietnamese Army. He was captured behind the lines while in civilian clothing, and thus subject to summary execution under the Geneva Convention.

  12. Phil Schwartzberg Said:

    You forgot Robert Capa's Spanish Civil War sniper picture where on the film there are several shots of the same sniper. Ask his brother. Robert was one of the great journalistic photoghraphers of all time.

  13. B! Said:

    You didn't list some of the earliest known staged photographs.

    When Brady's employees went out to the Civil War battlefields and took their infamous photos, they moved dead bodies around, added rifles, removed shoes or boots, etc.

    Brady got the credit for the photographs, but please note he did not go out to take photos very often during the 1860's. By the end of the Civil War, this amazing photographer was nearly blind.

  14. Mhansen Said:

    The biggest problem with the Adams photo is not whether it was staged or not. It was the fallout after the photo that was published. It was falsely used to show the atrocities of America and S. Vietnam soldiers when in fact the "victim" was a member of a N. Vietnam 'search and destroy' death squad that had just returned from killing children and women in villages that were sympathetic to the non-communist cause. He was caught and executed. The staging was how the press used it.

  15. jay Said:



  16. Marls Said:

    It's a horrible thing to accuse Eddie Adams of staging that event. He was a prominent war photographer that went out of his way to get the real story of the war that America was "glamorizing" at the time. His images changed a country. He was there, the event happened and he was prepared to take that shot because he was always ready. A little more research on these types of accusations should be done. I suggest to anyone that is interested to view the new film biography on Eddie Adams. It's amazing.

  17. Karl Said:

    Marls you obviously didn't read the article...the author never accuses Adams of "staging" the photo, just that the execution was moved outside for better lighting.
    The guy was a the piece of garbage leader of a VC death squad anyway, with a single shot to the head, he got off easy.

  18. Scott Said:

    General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon...

    I have seen the motion picture film of this incident in the History Channel many years ago in a documentary. Let me tell you, it isn't staged. The photographer snaps the photo at almost the instance the bullet exits the Viet Cong prisoner's scull and his brains are blown out.

    I was surprised to have seen the whole dirty mess on t.v. as it was pretty violent.

  19. Dave Said:

    BBC used to throw coins into bins in Soweto to film kids rummaging in rubbish bins. Reporters then said it they were looking for food. As if anyone starved in apartheid SA!

  20. max Said:

    What about Hippolyte Bayard's fake suicide? It was possibly the first "staged" photo.

  21. Adam Said:

    @Scott - the documentary is probably "Frontline" by Neil Davis. From the footage the execution appeared spontaneous, not planned to be inside then moved outside

  22. David Hutchison Said:

    An interesting set. The last one Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima was certainly staged (despite the quote, "Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken" by Joe Rosenthal.

    In the UK there used to be a magazine called Photography (late 80s, now defunct and I think Tom Ang was Editor). They published the _series_ that Joe Rosenthal shot (this "iconic" one is only one from that series!).

    Of course it's staged (much press work is) but it's still iconic. Rosenthal did a great job!

  23. Denver Photographer Said:

    I thought there was another shot much like the "Kiss by the Hotel De Ville" of a man coming home from WWII where he was kising a girl in a parade setting. I read somewhere that that shot was also a fake. I can't seem to remember now though where I read that.

  24. David Wegwart Said:

    I remember sitting in a local library here in Denver a few years ago, reading about Joe Rosenthal's victory flag image. I was not totally surprised to learn it was staged, but in this case, a little disappointed.

    However, I cannot claim to have every shot a natural. It's a part of life that we "help" subjects at times. True journalism is getting more a more distant. Especially with the advent of Digital media and the wedding photography industry.

  25. hugh Said:

    You can probably add Shikhei Goh's National Geographic 2011 prize winning photo to this list. There is growing evidence that the shot was staged.

  26. John McNulty Said:

    As someone mentioned above...Robert Capa's Spanish Civil War death of a soldier is probably the most heinously staged photo in my opinion. That's not to say that he wasn't a brave and brilliant war photographer, but the photo that made him famous is absolutely fake despite the owners of the copyright desperately trying to defend one of the most famous 'war' photos ever taken. But then, there's a lot of money to be made in photographs.
    The argument now goes that he was staging the shot (over and over again)when a real bullet killed the man! I mean, c'mon, be sensible! We KNOW that there are rolls and rolls of film of other soldiers in exactly the same pose 'getting shot' over and over again and the famous photo is simply the best of the bunch. In the 1930's there wasn't the rigorous examination of authenticity since many people in the business understood that there was staging going on. There is the possibility that Capa didn't know it was going to be published and that the caption was unclear...but when it was published rather than retract they went ahead and defended it.

  27. Bloice Davison Said:

    The photo of Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing the North Vietnamese photo is not staged. I have seen the actual film footage of the execution; it happened just as it is depicted in the above photo.

  28. Bloice Davison Said:

    Sorry, I meant to say Viet Cong, not North Vietnamese in the previous comment.

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