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Are people flouting social distancing rules? How photos can distort perspective

On the left, a tweet about a photo of apparent crowds of people in Bournemouth, UK. On the right, a photo by Philip Davali for Ritzau Scanpix.
On the left, a tweet about a photo of apparent crowds of people in Bournemouth, UK. On the right, a photo by Philip Davali for Ritzau Scanpix.

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As lockdowns start to be relaxed across the world, many people are looking forward to getting out and about again. For the moment, social distancing measures are still in place, but some photos shared online and in media outlets seem to show people standing much too close together in public, which has provoked outrage. But be careful: the camera doesn’t always tell the truth. 

This photo of the seafront promenade in Bournemouth in the United Kingdom, posted in a Daily Mail article on 26 April, infuriated some locals as it appeared to show large numbers of people flouting social distancing rules and thronging the boardwalk. Comments lambasted people out walking as “selfish” and said that they would be to blame if the infection rate started to rise. 

But Luke Williams, a local resident, spotted some clues in the photo that suggested it wasn’t all as it seemed. He wrote a thread on Twitter showing how the locations in the photo are much further apart than they appear, and it went viral. 

In the photo, people, objects and buildings look like they’ve been compressed together. This effect can come from different photographic techniques, such as using a telephoto lens, cropping a shot taken with a wide angle lens, or simply changing the camera’s position or employing inventive framing. 

 

In Copenhagen, the same scene – from two different angles

The Danish media TV2 sent two photographers on to the streets of Copenhagen on 24 April to highlight this phenomenon. Each photographer took a photo of the same scene, but from a different angle, and using different effects. The results were remarkably different. 

There have been other examples of photographers using effects that compress images. Local journalists in Jacksonville, Florida, came under fire for showing images of a packed beach when people claimed that in fact the majority of people were following social distancing rules.

In the UK, the member of parliament for the coastal region of Hove criticised journalists for unfairly representing the local community. 

So before you jump to criticise others for not respecting preventive measures, watch our report on this phenomenon below:

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