President Donald Trump and an entourage spent the beginning of this week on a two-day working trip to India, where the itinerary included a 125,000-person “Namaste Trump” rally, a high tea where no one liked the broccoli samosas, and a stop at the Taj Mahal, the iconic 17th century mausoleum whose name the president once co-opted for a casino that eventually went bankrupt. There had been concerns that overly aggressive monkeys living near the site could disrupt the tour, but the visit was reportedly peaceful.
As many tourists do, Ivanka Trump posed for photos in front of the Taj Mahal’s reflecting pool, writing on Instagram, “The grandeur and beauty of the Taj Mahal is awe inspiring!” The pictures she posted are largely unremarkable, featuring Ivanka in a dress patterned with red poppies and her husband and fellow Trump aide Jared Kushner wearing yet another slender suit. One of my eagle-eyed colleagues noticed something amiss with the first picture in the set, however. Look closely at the gap between Ivanka’s left arm and torso, and you’ll see that the sliver of rippling water peeking through appears to be much more in focus than the water on either side of her.
Could this possibly be some sloppy photoshopping? The irregularity in definition led some of the Slate staff to suspect that someone had inserted or enlarged the gap in Ivanka’s picture, or otherwise messed around with the photo in some way, a thing many people do on Instagram to make themselves look thinner. But would Ivanka really go through such trouble for a single photo in a series that otherwise doesn’t seem to exhibit any telltale signs of photoshopping?
An Expert Opinion
To get a better sense for how cameras focus on backgrounds, I reached out to Remove.bg, a company that specializes in removing backgrounds from photos. To them, the discrepancy looked like it was likely due to a background-classification error. “We have seen this kind of artifact in images generated by mobile app background classifiers in the past,” co-founder Ben Groessing wrote back in an email.
Camera software has the ability to create an artificial depth of focus by blurring the background, also known as the Bokeh effect. In order to do this, the software has to be able to separate the foreground from the background. Sometimes, however, this separation isn’t perfect, and parts of the background—say, a sliver of water cradled in a bent elbow—may end up staying defined, rather than blurred. This, in theory, would be possible with the iPhone camera’s portrait mode, which blurs the background so that the subject stands out.
I searched for photos taken by other tourists at the same spot to see if anyone else somehow managed to capture the same effect in the reflecting pool. No one I could find had it—perhaps because, even if this was the fault of the iPhone’s portrait mode, few would have the same problem. Why would you ever want to blur the Taj Mahal?
The Official Response
Neither the White House nor Apple responded to my questions about the blurred reflecting-pool water and whether portrait mode had anything to do with it.
Reconstructing the Photo
I decided to see if I could achieve the same effect myself, using portrait mode on an iPhone. While we don’t know for sure whether Ivanka’s photographer was even using an Apple device, the picture looks an awful lot like it was taken in portrait mode.
Because it doesn’t make much sense to fly a reporter from D.C. to India to investigate a single Instagram post, I instead trekked down to the Constitution Gardens Pond near the Washington Monument to get my picture taken in front of a body of water. (The famous Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, my intended substitute, had been drained for maintenance.) Slate intern Chloe Hadavas took a series of pictures of me in portrait mode imitating the arm crook in front of the water with my sweater rolled up to approximately where Ivanka’s dress sleeve cuts off. It was a bit difficult because Ivanka’s inner elbow appears to be completely rotated outward, a rather unnatural pose. Most of the time, the resulting image didn’t show any differences in clarity between the gap and elsewhere, but at a certain precise angle, the irregularity emerged. As you can see:
But Then, Another Expert Weighs In
Right when I thought I’d closed the case, another expert I’d contacted got in touch. @s0cialmediavsreality, a semi-anonymous Instagram account run by a New Yorker named Diana that is well-known for spotting influencer and celebrity fakery online, sent over a side-by-side she’d made comparing Ivanka’s own photo to one that AFP photographer Mandel Ngan had taken at the Taj Mahal at around the same moment. She told me, “The waist has definitely been photoshopped.”
What followed in one of Slate’s Slack channels was an outpouring of debate and amateur forensic analysis not seen since the days of The Dress. Some of my colleagues insisted that the apparently skinnier waist indicated photoshopping. Others contended that slight differences in angles between the two shots could account for the difference. They also pointed out that the flowers on Ivanka’s dress bordering the gap maintain their orientation across the two pictures, suggesting that someone didn’t simply erase a part of Ivanka. And surely, others said, Ivanka is skilled in throwing a skinny arm or otherwise posing in the most flattering way possible. Also, it would be strange for someone altering a picture to also introduce a Bokeh effect error.
Who knows? It’s certainly possible, and would hardly be unusual, for a famous person to photoshop a picture of themselves in front of a landmark. What seems more likely to me, though, is this: After striking the optimal pose, Ivanka really was using an iPhone set to portrait mode in order to blur the Taj Mahal and place her own grandeur in awe-inspiring focus.