PhotographyVisual Art

The Problem in Pictures

The issue of dangerously climbing space debris was in the news again last Friday, and as I thumbed through the various articles, something was amiss. While the dangers of space debris are not to scoffed at, the focus of my puzzlement was on one thing: The artist representations.

I give you an example below, originally part of this ESA slideshow, but used by many sites, including Universe Today:

"Bee Hive" Earth

That’s a lot of crap in orbit. It’s hard to believe we get anything done up there at all what with the small-city-sized satellites hurtling about. Being a science art communicator and a skeptic I was a bit taken aback by such a gross misrepresentation. Thinking this was perfect fodder for an article, I set out to find the source image that all the outlets had grabbed from. When I finally found it, I realized my ire was misguided. This was not an issue of misrepresentation by an artist, this was an issue of bad cropping. Here’s the original, source image:

What’s that there, down at the bottom?

Perhaps I should have titled this post, “The Problem With Pictures.”

That might be good to know. Unfortunately, what was originally fully-disclosed, artistic license became irresponsible*, misleading misrepresentation when somebody decided to crop out the disclaimer. I’m guessing from there, the image was just grabbed and passed from the site to site, until every piece about our crowded orbital space had this “bee hive” image attached to it.

Now, there is a lot of stuff up there, but you have to remember that it’s all fairly tiny compared to the size of the earth. The artist exaggerated the size of the debris because from that vantage point, you probably wouldn’t even be able to see it. It’s mostly paint chips. But even a paint chip moving at those speeds can crack a spacecraft windshield.

The danger of this crop job is one of context and transparency. In this tenuous time where people will throw all trust in science away at the drop of a hat  it’s important that embellishments and artistic license remain disclosed. Especially for the sake of those who don’t know enough to say, “Gee, those satellites look pretty big…”

What happens when somebody see’s that image—represented as the real state of orbital pollution—and then later finds that it is exaggerated? Best case, they write an article like the one here, asking folks to stop cropping important bits out of infographics. Worst case? They come to the conclusion that Scientists are liars—trying to scare us into giving money to NASA with propaganda. Though in all honesty, the people who would never give a dime to the space program are completely happy with being trapped down here under a cloud of detritus, and the people who care already know about the issue. So it’s the people on the fence that this senseless cropping hurts. The very people who, as responsible skeptics, are the ones we are trying to reach. You’ll never change an entrenched mind, so let’s try to be honest and transparent with the ones in the middle.

As a proponent of Hanlon’s Razor (possibly dangerously so) I tend to attribute bad crops to laziness and neglect rather than misinformation and propaganda. But whether intentional or not, the effect is powerful.

What can be done? I know I’m preaching to the choir here on MAL. We tend to be the watchdogs of this sort of stuff. But the problem can be solved by being aware of where your images come from, and being mindful of how you adjust the image to fit the article. This issue is sadly a product of the copy/paste blogosphere, which just churns out reposts in order to get page views. Hopefully, by maintaining good standards one can distance themselves from the messier areas of the internet.

Addendum: Similar cases have been plaguing the news recently. Reuters admitted to cropping images in the past in order to exclude details and change the tone of the images. Whether the crops were “inadvertent” or not is still up in the air. Similarly, CNN cropped stone-throwing rioters out of a photo in what they say was an editorial decision, claiming both the rioters and the burning vehicle couldn’t be included in the image. Though in an issue as delicate and gray as Tibet/China, they had to have known that the omission and subsequent revelation would lead to their predictable conclusions about the media agency and the rampant “spinning” of news stories.

More: Need another example of the power of a selective crop? Check out this image sent by redditor Antonskarp:


*Ironically, the ESA source cropped the text out of the thumbnail, which may be where the original reports got the image from, but they do include this caption in the image information:

70% of all catalogued objects are in low-Earth orbit (LEO), which extends to 2000 km above the Earth’s surface. To observe the Earth, spacecraft must orbit at such a low altitude. The spatial density of objects increases at high latitudes. Note: The debris field shown in the image is an artist’s impression based on actual data. However the image does not show debris items in their actual size or density. Note: The debris objects shown in the images are an artist’s impression based on actual density data. However, the debris objects are shown at an eggagerated size to make them visible at the scale shown.

They said it twice, just in case the reader didn’t get it. But unfortunately, the information was lost.

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Maki Naro is an artist, incurable geek, and lover of cooking, public radio, small animals, and Blade Runner.
He comprises one half of the Sci-ence Webcomic's dynamic duo.

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