1989 Beijing

Pavel Smejkal’s Fatescapes show us iconic photographs without the people.

1855 Crimea

Sometimes the scenes are haunted by the figures that were once there--in other cases they just look like piles of dirt.

1863 Gettysburg

But Smejkal isn’t interested in the actual events so much as the photographs which have come to represent them.

1936 Spain

These aren’t only "important historical images," he says, but also ones that are "important for the history of photography." They’re seminal works of photojournalism--images that grabbed our attention and brought us closer to the reality of things half a world away.

1945 Iwo Jima

Or did they?

1968 Saigon

The main point of the obvious, digital alterations, Smejkal says, is to make us question the authenticity of the analog originals.

1970 USA

If a photograph isn’t staged or manipulated or fabricated, does that automatically make it truthful?

1972 Vietnam

Or can these iconic images have an outsize effect on our understanding of the situations and events surrounding them?

1994 Sudan

In other words, can these documents end up being distortions?

1994 Sudan

Smejkal ends the series with a much more recent photograph--one of the infamous digicam shots of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This last image symbolizes "a new era in photography," he says, one where the Internet, social networks, and digital media have diluted the deceptive power any single image can possess. Now, he says, is a time to "look back to the history of photography" and ask "what we see when we see a photographic image of past time."

Co.Design

Iconic War Photography, With All The People Erased

Pavel Smejkal gives us a new way to look at some of history’s most indelible images.

If I say "Tiananmen Square," what pops into your head? Probably the iconic image of a protester standing in front of a column of tanks. Even if you don’t know anything about the circumstances surrounding it, you know the photograph. You’d recognize it anywhere. But what if it didn’t have the protester? Or the tanks? Would you recognize it then? And would it still mean anything to you?

Pavel Smejkal explores all those questions in a series called Fatescapes. Using Photoshop, the Czechoslovakian artist carefully erased the human subjects from some of history’s most enduring images. Stripped of its tanks, the Tiananmen Square photo becomes a study of the traffic markings on the street beneath them. The famous Vietnam War image of the South Vietnamese General executing a suspected Viet Cong officer turns into an unremarkable snapshot of downtown Saigon. In some cases, you’ll feel the vague, haunting presence of the figures you know were there originally. In others, scenes of bloody battles just look like piles of dirt.

But Smejkal isn’t interested in the actual events so much as the photographs which have come to represent them. These aren’t only "important historical images," he says, but also ones that are "important for the history of photography." They’re seminal works of photojournalism—images that grabbed our attention and brought us closer to the reality of things half a world away.

Or did they? The main point of the obvious, digital alterations, Smejkal says, is to make us question the authenticity of the analog originals. The retouched images steer us toward a sticky epistemological question: If a photograph isn’t staged or manipulated or fabricated, does that automatically make it truthful? Or is it possible that these iconic images can have an outsized effect on our understanding of what was going on around them? In other words, can a document be a distortion?

Smejkal ends the series with a much more recent photograph—one of the infamous digicam shots of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This last image symbolizes "a new era in photography," he says, one where the Internet, social networks, and digital media have diluted the deceptive power any single image can possess. Now, he says, is a time to "look back to the history of photography" and ask "what we see when we see a photographic image of past time." And to acknowledge that images don’t have to be manipulated to be manipulative.

See more of Smejkal’s work here.

[Hat tip: It’s Nice That]

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7 Comments

  • monirom

    We fail to realize the obvious. All photography is manipulative. The photographer decides what to include or exclude within the limits of the view finder. And much like watching a short clip of video or listening to a sound bite without hearing the entire conversation - the photographer consciously or unconsciously frames a moment in time that can always be misconstrued when there is no context.

    Which explains why almost all news photography, when published, appear with captions.

  • Pete Iorns

    And has anyone else noticed that there seems to be 2 versions of the manipulated Saigon image out there? One has 2 people still in it, next to the truck.

  • Alex Zhang

    I've never liked doing content editing on photos. Art comes from life. If you're editing the contents of a photo it's lying. 

  • nicholas johnson

    Am I the only one who finds this a little offensive? These were real human tragedies, not an art project on the nature of truth.

  • Pete Iorns


    Offensiveness is partly the point. Some art should create an apparent offence within the viewer as a part of the interaction. It creates a standpoint from which to formulate an opinion. Some art is simply designed to shock as the main point, and then we have no interaction - nothing on which to from an opinion - Weak art. This goes deeper than that.

    When, as the artist Smejkal himself says, the main point of his digital manipulation is to question the authenticity of the originals. To call into question whether these original images were aimed to manipulate the viewer or to record a massively significant event. Yes, this is slightly offensive. Offensive to the subjects; to the photographers; to the original viewers/audience of the period and to us, as historical curators. But it makes us think about the event. And most importantly to think about our response to it.

  • Ricardo Morgado

    As if art isn't worthy of dealing with reality and "real human tragedies". How is questioning the medium and the historical record offensive to the people who were photographed (or to you)?