1. Manipulation of Documentary Photos in China
Fanning Flames of Hate in the USA

It is common knowledge that words can deceive, but most people believe that photographs speak the truth. Propagandists have, time and again, taken advantage of this innocent belief by altering photographs to accomplish their political purposes ever since advancements in photographic technology have made it possible to do so. In such cases, photographs can be more deceitful than words, and we dare not rely on them for the truth.

Manipulation of Documentary Photos in China: Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution

This photo was taken in October 1944. Chinese Communist Party leaders Mao Zedong (on right) and Zhu De (on left) are reviewing their troops at an airfield in Yan'an, where the party's headquarters were located.

More than 20 years later, during the Cultural Revolution, when public adoration of Mao was at its peak, the same photo was published, but significantly altered.

First, Zhu De, who had been at Mao's left, was removed. Instead, the man to the right of Mao was moved to his left.Mao's image was enlarged several times to make him look more imposing. The buttons on his uniform, which did not show in the original, were added. His face was also retouched. The motivation behind the doctoring of this photograph is patently obvious. In photo 1, Zhu De walks side-by-side with Mao, as an equal. In photo 2, he has been removed. The message is clearly conveyed: Mao Zedong is a preeminent, heroic leader, even in the early days in Yan'an.*1

See [Jobert], Alan (Murakami Mitsuhiko, tr.). [Doctored Documentary Photographs: Political Power and the Manipulation of Information]. (Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1989), p. 108.

Fanning Flames of Hate in the USA: Staging of a Photo

The use of doctored or retouched photographs for propagandist purposes is not a monopoly held by totalitarian states under communist control. Nations that claim to be democratic employ them, and extensively so, especially when war is involved.

Take, for example, the photograph that fanned the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States. Though it became quite famous, few people are aware of the trickery used to create it.

The photograph in question appeared in the October 4, 1937 issue of Life magazine. It shows a solitary Chinese baby, wailing at the top of its lungs. The photograph was taken by H.S. Wong, a Chinese-American who was then chief of the Hearst newspaper chain's Shanghai Bureau. Wong was so well-known throughout the world that he was referred to as the "newsreel king." William Randolph Hearst was a pre-war newspaper magnate, famous for his use of lurid, sensationalized reportage, which came to be known as "yellow journalism." (It must be remembered that Hearst is the man credited with telling his employees, "You provide the photographs, I'll provide the war.")

At that time, Shanghai South Station was a distribution center for Chinese Army war material. On the afternoon of August 28, 1937, 90 days after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (triggered by the Marco Polo Bridge Incident), and in the midst of the Second Shanghai Incident, Japanese naval aircraft bombed the station. According to the accompanying text in Life, Wong was "the first to witness that horrific scene."

The pitiable sight of a lone baby on the tracks of a bombed station would be shocking in any era, and it had a profound impact on Americans. The impression that helpless China was being tormented by evil Japan soon became entrenched in the United States, generating anti-Japanese public opinion.

According to the article in Life, soon after this photograph was taken, it was printed in 25 million copies of Hearst chain newspapers and in a further 1.75 million copies of other newspapers. The photograph was seen by 136 million Americans, in the 800 American newspapers that carried it, and in newsreels.

A single photograph was enormously instrumental in psychologically preparing the Americans for a war with Japan. It was, however, unquestionably staged, as we shall demonstrate.

When we attempt to imagine the circumstances under which this photograph was taken, we soon realize that they are extremely unnatural. Did the baby's parents, or whoever had been entrusted with its care, abandon the infant? Or were they killed by the bombing? What was the baby doing alone on the tracks inside the station building? Besides being the first person to discover the baby, and having taken still photographs of it, Wong also filmed the scene. It is difficult to believe that the subject would have sat still for that long.

There is another version of this photograph.

In it is an adult next to the baby, who seems to be placing the infant on the railroad track. Also shown is a child who appears to be about five years old.*2

*2 Campbell, J., ed. [History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 15: The Second World War, Part 1]. (Heibonsha, 1990).

In this photograph (from the December 21, 1937 issue of Look magazine), a Chinese man, probably Wong's assistant, is carrying the infant. This photograph alone is sufficient proof of that the scene was orchestrated, but there is more.

As we mentioned earlier, the team headed by Wong shot motion pictures as well as still photographs. Part of the resulting footage appears in the American propaganda film Battle of China. That film shows the man carrying the baby in the train station, but he is moving toward the platform, not away from it. It is obvious that he was not rescuing a baby he had discovered, but was on his way to the track to set the stage for the photography session.

The film also reveals a large cloud of smoke rising behind the baby. The baby is surrounded by rubble, none of which appears to be flammable, and the smoke is coming from a twisted steel plate directly in front of the baby, so the photographer must have detonated a smoke shell to sharpen the baby's silhouette.

At first one might think that the baby's silhouette was so clearly defined because it had been whitened after the fact, but this was actually the result of more trickery on Wong's part, i.e., burning a smoke shell filled with white phosphorus directly behind the baby to produce that effect.

Wong must have been very pleased with this photograph, but the consequences of its publication were dire for Japan. Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) also made use of anti-Japanese propaganda. The Japanese military were forced retaliate by devising their own propaganda. Koyanagi Tsugikazu was one of those assigned to produce propagandist photography. His recollections follow:

"When I was covering a peace conference during the Korean War, I ran into the Chinese-American photographer who took that picture of the baby in Shanghai. I told him, "Thanks to that photograph you took, my career took a bizarre turn. You staged it, didn't you?" He just laughed.*3

*3 Koyanagi, Tsugikazu, Jugun kameraman no senso [ War as Witnessed by an Army Photographer ] (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1993).

After the fall of Nanking, American magazines ran a spate of anti-Japanese articles, but I do think the photograph of the baby was one tremendously powerful piece of anti-Japanese propaganda."

Since before World War II, the United States has been heavily involved in the relationship between Japan and China. Wong the photographer then and Chang the writer now arerepresentative Chinese-Americans who have appealed to American public opinion in their anti-Japanese causes and have successfully fomented anti-Japanese sentiment. The photographs in Chang's book have been extremely effective in portraying the Japanese as cold-blooded brutes, and were possibly more successful than the words she wrote in creating a grossly inaccurate image of the Japanese in the eyes of the American people. In the context of the history of strategic anti-Japanese propaganda, Chang is Wong's successor.