13 June 2014

The Mysterious Case of the 'Ghost of Gallipoli'

In 2014 an article by Fairfax National Affairs editor Tony Wright titled 'Gallipoli 'ghost' captured at soldiers' cemetery' suggested that one of Tony's colleagues had photographed a ghost. As happens a lot, paranormalists got rather overexcited.

Wright was in Gallipoli with two other men, including photographer Joe Armao, who was taking shots in the fading light of evening at Beach Cemetery, Hell Spit. He took a few photos with the third man (Celal) standing away from them, a solitary silhouette against the background. The first image looked like this:

A textbook example of how paranormal believers jump to conclusions and spread false 'evidence' for ghosts, only this time it came from a political journalist.
(Joe Armao)

Then, checking the frames a few seconds later, Armao noticed an 'unexplained apparition' standing next to Celal:

Case of false ghost photo from Gallipoli.
(Joe Armao)

See it? Wright then wrote of Armao's reaction:
'He could offer no explanation, but he said the hair stood up on the back of his neck. When he showed Celal and me, we packed up and left the empty cemetery... Hours of close and sceptical inspection of the frame, including extreme digital enlargement, comparison with other frames and lively discussion of a number of theories about shadows from the flower, tricks of the light and movement of the camera during the 2.5-second exposure offered no conclusive explanation.'
Wright offered the image to his readers 'for judgment'. The comments section lit up, with the vast majority of people pointing out that the 'ghost' was clearly no more than some kind of 'shadowing' on a flower in the foreground. Issues of 'respect for the dead' were raised, and many pointed out that they had not subscribed to Fairfax to read this sort of stuff. Save it for the readers of Take Five.

Of course the paranormalists jumped on it and splashed it far and wide on the Web. A ghost! Others pontificated on how nice it was that the benevolent spirits of the dead were watching over their mates. This is typical paranormalist 'character attribute invention'. The ghost was an Aussie and a top bloke. No doubt if this had been the site of a murderer's hanging, the imaginary spirit would have had evil intent.

The next day Wright offered a mea culpa, with not so much of the mea. He went over the whole event again but neglected to once mention the previous day's article or provide a link to it. There was also no mention of the previous judgement of his readers. This time the photographer had reexamined the image and solved the mystery:
'A minute study of the pixels finally revealed the mystery. Because the little flower in the extreme foreground was so close to the lens, the tiniest movement had created a large space of nothingness - the largest on the frame - which had imprinted itself on the image as "something" - in this case, a shape resembling a soldier rising from amid the graves.'
So, a victory for rationality then. Too late to stop the image circulating online for years to come as a 'ghost photo', but a welcome lesson for those paranormalists who forgot to look for normal explanations first.

There was no comments section for this second article, sparing Wright some inevitable and embarrassing flak-copping. He is a reasonable national affairs writer and Armao is an award-winning photographer, but this was a very public misstep. It does show, however, the psychological effect of nocturnal visits to allegedly 'spooky' places such as cemeteries and historic battlefields (in this case, the two rolled into one). Rational judgement can be impaired as the mind is culturally conditioned to attribute paranormal explanations for otherwise explainable phenomena.

Despite all that, it was reassuring to see so much skeptic reasoning in the comments section of the original article, which says good things about the Fairfax demographic. Maybe if the story had appeared in Take Five the response would have been quite different, a new ghost story would have taken hold, and the author would not have been compelled to 'update' his work. Hopefully the whole 'Ghost of Gallipoli' incident will serve as one of those reminders not to jump to outlandish conclusions.