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When Images "Lie": Historians At Work

When Images "Lie": Historians At Work

Written by Elyse Eidman-Aadahl
March 27, 2011

No, this is not a photo of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard proving that African-Americans freely chose to fight for the Confederacy.

But even viewers who are sophisticated about reading images in popular media or political ads may not have their guard up in antique stores and historical archives. Working historians, however, must be careful to establish the authenticity of documents and artifacts they work with—particularly when working with materials linked to clear political and ideological fault lines. The image above, shown in a screen capture from an online store selling supposed artifacts of the Confederacy, purports to show the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, but to historians it appeared to be an obvious manipulation.

The short essay Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, Jr. provides students with both a good illustration of how historians would approach investigation of an image and with a cautionary critical read of an image used to support the contemporary ideology of the Neo-Confederates. The essay takes the image apart piece by piece to debunk it while, simultaneously, demonstrating why you can’t believe everything you see on the internet.

(But folks don’t think that, do they?)

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