Lack of veracity in an image-driven Internet is affecting the offline world, making people collateral damage – The Economic Times

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SynopsisThose who download images are supposed to check for appropriateness and legality, but rarely bother.

The baggage claim area at Chennai airport is decorated with posters featuring tourism destinations across India. One shows a large cave with sunlight filtering through lush green plants at the entrance. It looks like a gate to another world and you can’t wait to plan a trip to “Jomblang Caving, Goa”, which is what the image is labelled.

Except that no such caves exist in Goa. Jomblang Cave is in the southern part of Java, Indonesia, and ‘Goa’ is the word for cave in their Bahasa language. Anyone who has designed signage for a large project like Chennai Airport can guess what happened. The job was given, probably at the last minute, to a team which did a quick search for stock images of Indian tourist destinations. They found an image labelled ‘Goa’ which they used without bothering to check if it actually existed in the state.

Shubnum Khan’s recently published book ‘How I Accidently Became a Stock Photo’ illuminates this world where images have lived independent from their origins. While at university in Durban she participated in what she thought was a photographer’s private project, unthinkingly signing a permission form to use the images he shot of her as part of his portfolio.

Two years later Khan realised the photographer had sold it for stock and now her face was everywhere: “I was in eye cream, skin lightening, make-up, pigmentation, acne, laser and dentistry adverts. I was in adverts for banking, insurance, advertising, management and teaching.” Identities were created to give her face back-stories. “I was Bonny Seng in Cambodia, Phoebe Lopez and Chandra S in South America.” Most disturbingly, she found her face endorsing services that she had problems with, like foster care and online teaching for children. Her face was making promises that she would not.

The internet is image driven and that is affecting the offline world as well. Those who download images are supposed to check for appropriateness and legality, but rarely bother, convinced that in the vastness of this world and the speed with which it moves, they can get away with it. People become collateral damage in this.

Khan describes vividly how her life seemed to be in meltdown, first as she lost control of her face, and then when she tried to warn others of how this happened, becoming famous only as the person who lost control of her face.

Ian H Watkins, an amiable Welsh singer with the British pop group Steps, suddenly found himself facing the horror of misidentification with Ian Watkins, also a well-known singer from Wales, of almost the same age as him, who was convicted for possession of child pornography. The first Watkins had to pursue legal action as his face started appearing in stories about the second, and while he won some battles against media companies, there is still the possibility of the mix-up happening with online searches.

In India, newspapers are familiar with the case of a defence analyst and a writer on LGBT issues with the same name, whose images have been mixed up in print. Over time, subeditors build up private lists of individuals known for such confusions, but in the wider world there are no such checks.

Text itself can become an image with a life of its own. A friend who recently spent time photographing small town India noted how often labels on products turned out to have gibberish text, including the ‘lorem ipsum’ placeholder Latin text that printers have used to demonstrate layouts since the 1960s. The origins of this were mysterious until Robert McClintock, a Latin scholar, demonstrated that it was from an essay by the Roman orator Cicero which was probably printed in a 1914 edition of the Loeb Classical Library. A galley type of that text maybe have been mixed up to give the gibberish text – which now appears everywhere from partly finished websites to product labels in small town India.

Perhaps the most unfortunate example of this comes with people who have tattoos done in scripts they can’t read but assume they know the meaning. A friend once met an American girl with ‘purush’ in a Nagari script tattoo. There are many stories of people who get a tattoo with Chinese characters meaning ‘strength’ or ‘wisdom’ only to have Chinese speakers point out later that it means ‘Chicken Noodles’ or ‘Stupid Foreigner’!

They must then face the option of painfully and expensively trying to change or erase it – or live with that label. Perhaps that girl wanted to signal she could be a trans man. Someone labelled ‘Stupid Foreigner’ could accept that description in irony or with the acceptance of self-knowledge. And Goa has caves in the Ghats that could be marketed with the Jamblong name, since now the distinctions between image and reality hardly seem to matter.

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