Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Photoshopping Primary Source Documents

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 27, 2015


There’s been a good bit attention recently to the revelation that Ben Affleck, participating in the historical/genealogy show Finding Your Roots, asked the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates, to conceal the fact that one of Affleck’s ancestors was a slaveholder. That segment was subsequently edited out, although Gates has said that decision was made on factors other than Affleck’s request. The credibility of Gates took another hit with his assertion that Ben Affleck’s mother, Chris, had been a Freedom Rider. Chris Affleck has explicitly denied that, saying she had done civil rights work in Mississippi in 1965, but not during the freedom Summer of 1964 when three civil rights workers were murdered (as Gates also claimed), nor during the Freedom Rides of 1961. It’s all extremely shoddy, and does not reflect well at all on Gates, who ‘s made a very successful career as a public historian by telling uncomfortable truths about how issues of race are inextricably interleaved in American history. Kevin Levin has a more apt description for what Gates, who is billed as the show’s Executive Producer, Writer and Presenter, is up to : “we are doing history on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.

Many of you will recall Anderson Cooper’s response on another episode of the same show, when confronted with the news that one of his slaveholding ancestors, Burel Boykin, had been killed by one of his bondsmen: “I don’t feel sorry for him.” Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, Cooper at least gets props for dealing with that revelation directly, rather than trying to keep it from becoming public knowledge.

Cooper’s response got some attention at the time, but there was something else about that segment that was mostly overlooked, something that (to me) further undermines Gates’ scholarship. In the video segment of Cooper’s interview (above, in a video clip uploaded by PBS itself), Gates shows Cooper the 1860 U.S. Census form that records his ancestor’s death. Beginning at about the 20-second mark, the video shows a closeup of the document, starting with the ancestor’s name, and panning to the right to the dramatic notation, “Killed By Negro.” It makes for great teevee, but it’s faked. Here is the original document, and you can see that “Killed By Negro” appears not adjacent to Boykin’s name, but over on the opposite edge of the page. The producers of Finding Your Roots apparently used Photoshop or something similar to move the notation of Boykin’s death across the page, next to his name, as can be seen in these screen caps:





This makes for great viewing, but it’s a dishonest depiction of the actual (and critical) document, and that’s a problem. Although in this case Gates is not misrepresenting the information, he’s absolutely misrepresenting the original document. Doing that calls into question anything he and his producers do with primary source materials, and reflects very poorly on his commitment to accuracy.

Makes you wonder what else he’s shown on that series that’s not entirely real.



14 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on April 27, 2015 at 7:19 am

    What is the point in photoshopping this? Is it any more dramatic to have “Killed By Negro” next to the ancestor’s name than having the camera pan across the page for an extra couple of moments to get to the same detail? The fact is dramatic enough without having to doctor documents, one would think.

    • Reed (the original, accept no substitutes) said, on April 27, 2015 at 2:20 pm

      Agreed. One would think so.

      But I’ve noticed that, in general, TV producers (and media folk in general) have an almost allergic reaction to “details” that they feel might dull the “impact” or the “arc” of the story. Even if those details add further texture and specificity to the narrative, the general opinion is that “too many facts” will cloud the heads of the average viewer/reader and send them away in droves.

      Those of us that stand up for further accuracy and clarity are accused of being pedants or—gasp!—clueless academics who lack any understanding of “what works” in contemporary media. Perhaps they are right, but to my mind the result is often generic and predictable, and really serves no one.

      I’m not sure what the long-term solution is.

  2. Leo said, on April 29, 2015 at 9:27 am

    As someone who loves History, This is a very disturbing and disappointing development for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the PBS documentary, “The African-Americans, Many Rivers to Cross” featuring Mr. Gates. I am now left to wonder if there were any shenanigans involved with this documentary or any other scholarship involving Mr. Gates. .

    • Andy Hall said, on April 29, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      It bothers me, too. As I said, the alteration doesn’t change the informational content, but altering a copy of an original document in that way opens the door to other, more substantive changes. Slippery slope and all that.

      • David N. said, on June 4, 2015 at 7:28 pm

        Superb article. You showed a great attention to details by pointing out to this alteration. Although he certainly did not, unlike others, falsified the main content of the document we shouldn’t expect much honesty from Gates especially since his police incident back in 2009.

  3. Jarret Ruminski said, on May 3, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    It seems Gates is becoming one of those go-to media historians, and that process is rife with baggage. On the one hand, it’s great that he can get history to a wider audience (although it seems that the general public often equates geneological history with “history” in general), but being a media historian tends to breed shoddy work. Look at other media historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Niall Ferguson, Michael Beschloss — they’re either plagerists, disengenous hacks for existing power structures, or lightweight fluffers. Of course, Gates isn’t in the same league as the latter bunch, but something about being a media historian seems to dilute scholarship quality as well as ethics.

  4. Rob Baker said, on May 8, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    I photo shop sources from time to time to draw emphasis to the object, but that is usually a “crop” function. I always make a point to include the original source in its entirety either through reference or image. I can see what you are saying about this particular piece Andy. Especially when it is taken in context with the Ben Affleck slave owner denial.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 8, 2015 at 3:54 pm

      Sure, and I routinely adjust contrast or light/dark values to make a faded image more clear, or to show detail more clearly. But that’s different than rearranging the content.

      • Name said, on May 20, 2015 at 11:24 am

        because eyes adjust as they traverse a view, an “accurate” photo cannot represent what an eye sees.
        thus IMO, contrast etc are ethically valid processing to clarify the image/depiction of an original document/evidence.

  5. chancery said, on May 13, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    off topic:

    Andy, did you take down a recent post titled “Defenders of Southron Honour”?

    Not important, just wondering if something was acting up on my end.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 13, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      I did take it down, not because of anything anyone did or posted in response, but because I was increasingly uncomfortable with displaying the picture that the Mid-South Flaggers had posted, ridiculing the man on the beach. He had actually posted that picture himself, to his own Facebook account, but I decided that repeating the Mid-South Flaggers’ use of it was, in some ways, repeating their bad behavior.

      • Chancery said, on May 13, 2015 at 7:32 pm

        Makes sense.

      • Leo said, on May 15, 2015 at 1:18 pm

        I can appreciate why you took it down, but it was a good post even without the picture.

        This MidSouth Flagger bunch seems especially harsh and disconnected from the world.

        • Andy Hall said, on May 15, 2015 at 1:22 pm

          IIRC these were the folks demonstrating a while back with placards reading, “Je Suis Stonewall” and “Confederate Lives Matter.” If they think that sort of tactic wins them wider public understanding and popular support, who am I to suggest otherwise?

Leave a Reply to Reed (the original, accept no substitutes) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: