Turkish official teasing starved Armenian children by showing bread during the Armenian Genocide, 1915

Turkish official teasing starved Armenian children by showing bread during the Armenian Genocide, 1915

In 2005 Oxford University Press published Donald Bloxham’s The Great Game of Genocide. Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. The book included nine photographs printed on glossy paper. Eight of the photographs were credited. One is not. It shows a man in an unbuttoned jacket and tie standing in front of a circle of ragged children and one apparent adult with something in his hand. The caption reads: “A Turkish official taunting starving Armenians with bread“.

A cursory glance is enough to show there is something wrong with this photo. One side of the man’s jacket is darker than the other. A ragged line clearly runs between the two halves. The wall in the background abruptly disappears into a blank white space behind the standing man. A child lying on the ground is raising an emaciated arm. If stretched out to its full length it would fall below his knees. His scarcely visible other hand and wrist seem quite plump by comparison. The little boy sitting to the right of the standing man seems to be clutching something in his hand but it is impossible to tell what it might be.

Suspicions aroused, the photograph was taken to a photographic analyst. It took ten minutes to conclude that this is not a ‘photograph’ at all but a photographic soup, composed of bits and pieces taken from other photographs.

The analyst concluded that the man’s right arm does not belong to the body. It has come from somewhere else. His right leg seems to have disappeared altogether. The boy sitting on the ground on the man’s right is not clutching anything at all. The forger simply did not took enough care when cutting the paper around the fingers in the photograph from which his figure was taken.

The man in the caption obviously cannot be a ‘Turkish official’ as there was no Turkey at the time the photo was apparently taken (i.e. during or shortly after the First World War). The photographic analyst pointed out the obvious, that no Ottoman memur or civil servant would be dressed in an unbuttoned jacket over a shirt with a collar and tie. He would be wearing a collarless shirt buttoned up to the neck. Almost certainly (definitely for a photograph) he would have a fez on his head, and it was hardly likely that an Ottoman memur would pose for such a photograph anyway.

Oxford University Press was informed that the ‘photograph’ was a forgery. Existing stock of the book was destroyed but the photograph was retained in a new printing with the following caption: ‘This photograph purports to be an Ottoman official taunting starving Armenians with bread. It is a fake, combining elements of two (or more) separate photographs: a demonstration were one needed of the propaganda stakes on both sides of the genocide issue with evidence of all sorts manipulated for latterday political purposes. The photograph was also included when the book was first published but then was believed to be genuine. It had previously been used in Gérard Chaliand and Yves Ternon’s Le Genocide des Arméniens (1980), which shows that prior use is no substitute for rigorous investigation of a picture’s provenance – and in the absence of clear provenance, for a minutely detailed examination of the picture itself. It is a cautionary tale for historians, many of whom are better trained in testing and using written sources than in evaluating photographic evidence. The publishers and author are grateful to have had the forgery drawn to their attention”.