How to Move the Taj Mahal/The Lesser Sin of Greater Evils | Media | Chicago Reader

How to Move the Taj Mahal/The Lesser Sin of Greater Evils 

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How to Move the Taj Mahal

What's wrong with this picture? Lots of things, though nothing that contradicts what it tells us: which is that during a dramatic state visit to India, the president of Pakistan and his wife paused at the lovers' bench of the Taj Mahal.

In Kashmir, where India and Pakistan are virtually at war, 20 people died July 15 in clashes between the Indian army and Muslim rebels. That same day in Agra, India, President Pervaiz Musharraf gazed at the Muslim-built Taj Mahal and declared, "Love at first sight." News accounts and other photos confirm the presence of Musharraf and his wife Begum Sehba at the lovers' bench, and the Associated Press stands by its photo. But some old hands in the manipulation of digital images are certain it's been doctored.

Look first at the lower right-hand corner, where a strange vertical line slicing through the paving stones suggests two separate photos were pressed together. In fact, the stones that clearly do not belong there match perfectly the stones in the lower left-hand corner. The AP acknowledges this "artifact" but dismisses it as a quirk of digital transmission.

In the lower left of the photo we see a low fence at the edge of a lawn that reaches back toward the Taj Mahal. The fence is defined by two vertical posts, and two wires run through them. These wires continue toward us past the near post, then seem to hang in the air. Where is the corner post? It's visible in another photo, taken at the same time, that I found on the Web site of an Indian magazine. But it's not visible here.

Look at the sari as it falls from the left shoulder of the president's wife and the smear by her left elbow. To the right of that smear, four objects that look something like bowling pins rise from a reflecting pool. Those pins run in a straight line the length of the pool. But in the AP picture the uppermost pin looks out of alignment, and the far rim of the pool mysteriously changes at that point from a single to a double line.

Another smear borders the president's upper right arm. Follow the diagonal line made by the upper edge of the terrace and you'll see that this smear obscures that line just before it reaches the president's shirt.

Behind the lovers' bench, the edge of the terrace where it meets the lawn defines a horizontal line. Unaccountably, this line dips as it passes between the president's legs.

And why does the president seem to be superimposed on the lovers' bench rather than actually sitting on it? And why would he have posed for a picture with his left foot suspended an awkward half inch off the ground?

Allan Sluis spotted the AP picture in the July 16 Sun-Times and alerted Hot Type. Sluis, describing himself as "a person who uses image-editing programs on a regular basis," pronounced the picture a "clumsily altered...retouched composite." He showed the picture to two professional colleagues, David Libman and Jim Larkin, and they E-mailed me agreeing. Sluis, Libman, and Larkin together claim some 24 years in the field of photo manipulation and long experience with Photoshop, a computer program that allows photographers to rejigger their pictures.

When I contacted the AP, I reached a photo boss in New York, who guessed I'd heard from a Muslim or Hindu with political reasons for discrediting the photo. This turned out to be a reasonable assumption. I ran across this exchange on a subcontinent forum as I searched for accounts of Musharraf's visit in the Indian press:

"This is what you infidels are all about. You are tyrants you have demolished another Masjid [mosque] after the Babri. On the one hand you cowards call our Chief executive Pervaiz Musharraf for talks (I take it as begging for mercy) and on the other you demolish our Masjids. You infidels will see the wrath of Allah soon."

"Stop living in a dream world. This must have been pointed out ample times on this site, that there is no comparison between military mights of India and Pakistan. The inferiority of Pakistan, be it economically, artistically, socially, is manifesting itself in the border areas. As far as infidelity is concerned, to me you are an infidel. So the feeling is mutual."

When I told the AP that my questions were nonpolitical and technical in nature, I was passed along to Jack Stokes of corporate communications. "We've given you a photo that's not doctored," he insisted. "This is of more concern to us than anything you'll be doing. This is the kind of stuff we don't allow and we don't do. And yet we know there are photos out there that people who know something about photos can say, 'Hey!' People can tell you how something can be doctored. They can't tell you how something's part of a natural photo."

I understood Stokes to be saying that if the picture in the Sun-Times was odd it was odd for natural reasons that defy explanation. Not that he took my point that the picture was odd; he wouldn't even concede the missing fence post. But if a post were missing, apparently this could be chalked up to the vagaries of digital photography and digital transmission--which, come to think of it, isn't much of a testimonial to the present state of news photography.

Sluis, Libman, and Larkin don't buy it. The original photograph was taken in color, and when the AP generously sent us a color print Sluis and Libman came down to the Reader to examine it with a loupe. They left behind a list of the clues--many too subtle to get into here--that had persuaded them that, in Sluis's words, "it is safe to say with 99.99 percent certainty that this image has been significantly modified."

Reader art director Sheila Sachs says the picture looks funny to her too.

But what was the motive? Sluis offers one. You might not guess it, but the lovers' bench does not sit squarely in front of the Taj Mahal. Dead center is defined by that line of bowling pins in the reflecting pool off to the right. Sluis wonders if the photographer decided to enhance his shot by centering the Taj Mahal perfectly behind his subjects. You can do this with Photoshop. But unless you're very good, eagle-eyed viewers will know something's been done.

The Lesser Sin of Greater Evils

Iw told my friend A.E. Eyre it was time to shop for new shoes. Something with rubber soles--to help navigate all those slippery slopes I'd been reading about in the papers.

"What pundits forget about slippery slopes," said Eyre, "is that sometimes we're at the top of them and sometimes we're at the bottom."

Clever but empty, I said. The danger must be real because everyone's so worried about it. And I have no intention of skidding into an abyss.

"The moral thicket that surrounds us better resembles the natural topography of Chicago--swampy but flat," Eyre mused. "Sometimes a step in the wrong direction is simply a step in the wrong direction."

But he saw me fretting, so he asked where danger lurked.

Consider this New York priest, I responded, the one to whom a teenager 12 years ago admitted to committing a murder. A murder for which two innocent young men have been rotting in prison ever since. A mere four years after the actual killer died the priest spoke up and set them free.

"Which you must admit was the Christian thing to do," said Eyre.

Don't confuse the issue, I snapped. He broke his vow of silence. He owed those lads his prayers and nothing more. At the bottom of this slippery slope we'll see the confessional turned into some sort of reality-television venue, with prizes for the week's top sin and penance determined by the viewers.

"What other slopes endanger us?" Eyre yawned.

Stem-cell research for one. The mother of all slippery slopes.

"I've read plenty of bracing verbiage on that one," Eyre allowed. "Essayists who know exactly what they think because their heads are the obedient servants of their morals."

He had a point there. A lot of the recent commentary did make me think of the film Memento. It's begun with its conclusion and then backed into a chain of reasoning that gets it there.

"Not that there's anything wrong with that," said Eyre. "Not since the Supreme Court made it intellectually respectable with Bush v. Gore."

So what's your view? I wondered.

"My view?" He pondered. "My view is the pope did absolutely the right thing when he bushwhacked the president with his plea for the unborn. That's his job--to defend all forms of human life and call a sin a sin."

So you oppose the research?

"And it's a sin to stand in the way of human knowledge that promises to reduce the quantity of human misery on this earth."

I told Eyre there was no way to categorically favor stem-cell research and categorically oppose it at the same time.

"Of course there is," he said. "It's up to us to embrace absolutes for what they are--the unalterable yardsticks by which we measure the actual choices that lie before us."

In order to establish the greater good?

"I suppose so," said Eyre, "though I'm always more comfortable calling something the lesser evil."

I struggled to understand. So the right path might be a sinful path, I said.

"Isn't it always?" said Eyre. "Ask anyone who's ever fought a war."

But to me this was just another slippery slope. Once we stop pretending that whatever we do is righteous, there's no telling what evils we'll freely explain away.

"Better buy those shoes," said Eyre.

News Bites

Last week Hot Type asked anyone who remembered seeing sports agent Steve Zucker at Tim Weigel's memorial service June 20 in Evanston to come forward. Only one person did--a caller who said he was sure he saw Zucker alongside Judge Crater.

Zucker denies going anywhere near the service for Weigel, a former client with whom he'd had a public falling-out. He insists that an item in "Inc." that had him "trying to get past three different checkpoints" and being turned away is flatly untrue. The lack of witnesses to contradict him suggests that the evidence supporting "Inc." exists primarily in the fantasies of the Tribune's legal department.

The source of the item seems to have been Lissa Dross, Weigel's producer at Channel Two. Dross took over crowd-control duties at the service, where mourners overflowed the nave of the First Congregational Church into a basement and a park across the street. She probably made a simple mistake that "Inc." repeated. It happens. Zucker called Ellen Warren, who'd written the item, and complained, and the puzzling thing is why "Inc." didn't promptly renounce its mistake.

There's a way these things are routinely handled in the gossip biz.

Day One: Juicy but blundering Steve Zucker item.

Day Two: "Well whuddya know! Steve Zucker says that wasn't him at the Tim Weigel service. Coulda fooled us! Zucker sez he was wining 'n' dining at Gene and Georgetti, where maestro Tony Durpetti oughta know the famed sports agent's got a look-alike out there."

Nothing to it. Instead, the Tribune buttoned up and turned Zucker's beef over to its lawyers.

From last Sunday's Sun-Times: "Many people expected George, a traditional, conservative theologian and Vatican insider, to rule Chicago with an iron fist, starting with renegade priests such as the Rev. Michael Pfleger, St. Sabina's outspoken activist-priest, and other rabble-rousers."

Rabble? A lot of them are your readers.

Last Sunday's Sun-Times weighed in against a proposed ordinance that would require all gas stations in Chicago to provide toilets for men and women. "If customers demand restrooms, they will patronize those [stations] that have them," said the editorial page, which must believe that people who need to pee comparison shop.

8Without visible assistance from either hemp or lava lamps, the Tribune has been showing its gift for the stoned art of free association. John Kass is a master; he can begin a column anywhere you name and free-associate his way to the mob and the mayor. And now the Sunday Perspective section is offering a curious exercise called "Piecing It Together." Last Sunday's effort began with the recent discovery that a 5,300-year-old corpse found encased in ice in the Alps a decade ago had died of an arrow in the shoulder. "Earlier speculation about the cause of death had centered on weather, which is something Steve and Andi Rosenstein can identify with," said the Tribune, explaining that the only reason the Rosensteins are moving their clothing company to Arizona is that it's warmer there. "Chicago is a great business town. It's very conducive to working hard," said Steve, prompting the Tribune to reflect that Chicago "not only works hard, it works together" and to tell a heartwarming story about Tribune readers who've reached into their pockets to tide poor families over the summer when hot school lunches aren't available.

It used to be that only a politician on the stump knew how to find the beeline from a Bronze Age iceman to the local hunger crisis.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP photo/Sherwin Crasto.

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