Misleading Captions
(aka 'Real Picture, Fake Caption')

It's often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps that's true, but it's also the case that just a few words can completely change the meaning of a picture.

A photograph and its caption should be regarded as a single unit because photographs are not self-explanatory (despite somewhat widely held perceptions to the contrary). They require captions to provide us with contextual information so that we can make sense of the photo — information such as where and when the photo was taken, or who the people are in it, or what's going on. Therefore, adding a false caption to a photo is a form of photo fakery, just as much as altering an image itself is.

False captions can provide otherwise unremarkable images with dramatic narratives, turning them into images that quickly go viral.

In a sense, every fake photo has a misleading caption. But the images in this gallery are ones in which the picture, in its original context, was 'real' — or, at least, not misleading — but became untruthful due to the addition of a false caption.
Snow-Covered Sphinx
In early December 2013, it snowed in Egypt for the first time in 112 years. Soon this photo of the Sphinx covered in snow began to circulate online. Problem was, the photo doesn't show the Egyptian Sphinx. It shows a miniature Sphinx located in the Tobu World Square theme park in Japan. This theme park features miniature models of many famous attractions from around the world.
Continue reading…
Fireworks Over Europe
This photo is often said to show a satellite's view of the fireworks over Europe at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. It first circulated in Jan 2013 and returned in 2014. Of course, Europe isn't all in the same time zone, so the New Year's Eve fireworks don't all go off at the same moment. Nor do they create such intense illumination. This is actually a color-coded NOAA image showing changes in illumination in Europe from 1993-2003.
Continue reading…
Lottery winner finds love of his life after big win
The photo shows Swedish glamour model Natacha Peyre posing with a fan. But the Internet has recaptioned this image to give it a more amusing story. Of course, this story is false. It's not known who the man in the photo is, but he's definitely not the winner of a $181 million lottery. The photo first surfaced with the false caption in 2009 and has been resurfacing periodically ever since.
Continue reading…
Viagra Corporate Headquarters
This image has circulated widely online with a caption claiming the building shown is the "Head Office of Viagra" in Toronto, Canada. The building is real, as is the suggestively shaped topiary. But it's not the head office of Viagra (which is a drug, not a corporation). It's actually the corporate offices of Swagelok Northwest, which manufactures valves and fittings. The building is located in Portland, Oregon.
Continue reading…
Apr 2008
Charlton Heston’s Home Gun Collection
After Charlton Heston died in April 2008, a series of images began to circulate online, supposedly showing the actor's home gun collection. Heston was a well-known gun enthusiast. But the guns in the photos didn't belong to him. They were actually owned by attorney Bruce Stern, who died in 2007, after which most of his collection was auctioned off. It was one of the largest firearms collections ever to go up for auction.
Continue reading…
Found online, Spring 2004
Camel Spiders in Iraq
It's true that camel spiders are very large, but much of the information about these creatures that accompanied this picture as it went around the internet was false.
Continue reading…
Thanksgiving 2003
Trophy Turkey
This photo appears to show President Bush serving dinner to troops during a surprise visit to Iraq on Thanksgiving Day, 2003. The image was widely published and credited with helping the President's popularity rise in polls. But the image was later criticized for being misleadingly captioned, because newspapers failed to mention that Bush was holding a decorative centerpiece not intended for consumption. The troops were actually fed turkey from steam trays.
Continue reading…
Shuttle Columbia Explosion Photos
When the space shuttle Columbia exploded upon re-entry on February 1, 2003, no cameras recorded the event. But online, a dramatic series of images of a space shuttle exploding began to circulate. They were said to have been taken "from an Israeli satellite in space." The pictures were actually screenshots from the opening scene of the movie Armageddon (1998), in which the space shuttle Atlantis is struck by meteorite fragments.
Continue reading…
The Tip of the Iceberg
Photographer Ralph Clevenger created this image in 1999 by compositing together several different photos. He intended it as an art photo and never presented it otherwise. But around 2001, it began to circulate online with a false caption claiming it was a shot taken by a "Rig Manager for Global Marine Drilling in St. Johns, Newfoundland" and that "They actually have to divert the path of these things away from the rig by towing them with ships!"
Continue reading…
Circulating online since late 2000
Chicken McNoggin
This news photo shows a fried chicken head that really was found in a box of McDonald's Mighty Wings.
Continue reading…
ca. 1950
Miss Perfect Profile
The head of a modeling agency added creative captions, such as "Miss Perfect Profile," to the photos of his models in order to get newspapers to print them.
Continue reading…
August 1942
The Nazi Air Marker Hoax
The U.S. Army press office released pictures supposedly showing "secret markers" placed by fifth-columnists in rural areas of the east coast to guide Nazi bombers toward military targets. But it turned out the "markers" had been investigated by the Army, and had been judged to be entirely innocent patterns on the ground. The release of the photos and the claim of their sinister meaning was attributed to "over-zealous army press-agentry."
Continue reading…
April 1920
Stotham, Massachusetts: The Town That Didn’t Exist
Weyerhauser Mills issued a series of architectural brochures, which included an issue about the classic, early-American architecture of Stotham, Massachusetts. The church shown above was said to be the meeting house of the Stotham Congregational Society. However, Stotham didn't exist. It was a fictional town created as a way to provide a coherent theme to some photos the editor had felt were "too good to be wasted."
Continue reading…
December 1913
Ocean Execution
The New York American ran this photo, claiming that the parents of the children had been killed by Mexican soldiers. It said, "The children were driven into the water, forced to hold their hands above their heads, and shot in the back." This was a case of false captioning. The picture was actually an innocent snapshot taken by a holidaygoer in British Honduras. The children had been playing in the waves and raised their arms in order to make a better picture.
Continue reading…
ca. 1889
The Silent City
Alaskan prospector Dick Willoughby claimed this was a photo of a "silent city" mirage visible from Muir Glacier in southeastern Alaska. The "silent city" was supposedly the reflection of a real city thousands of miles away in Russia. Willoughby sold thousands of copies of this photo and even took people on guided tours to see the mirage. But the photo was actually a blurry shot of Bristol, England that he had creatively recaptioned. The "silent city" mirage didn't exist.
Continue reading…