by Jody Rae
The photos of the Congressional members were discovered first. Then a slew of elected officials and various public figures faced a similar indignity, and from there a national debate sparked which instantly garnered global attention.
The founders, a husband and wife team who met at an Olan Mills studio in the ’90s, opened their first photography studio megaplex in downtown Des Moines, Iowa using an inheritance. The megaplex was a welcome anchor in a newly renovated department store that failed after decades. Promising a self-guided, funhouse-style of photography sets, visitors at the megaplex could pose for selfies with their own phones and cameras, or choose professional family portraits against modern and stylish backdrops designed to look like real places.
Most important to all visitors, however, was the digital camera technology the founders developed, which made everyone appear stunning and properly lit in every photo without the need for touch-ups or enhancements. The patented technology was the single factor that differentiated the couple from all of their competitors. In order to secure the patent and the copyrights of each photo in perpetuity, the founders agreed to upload the original digital images to a database housed in the Library of Congress. Visitors signed a lengthy release form upon entering the premises, disavowing their rights to privacy or sole ownership of the images created by the company’s elaborate camera equipment. At no additional cost, visitors could store and access their portfolio on the megaplex’s digital platform and select public or private settings.
In honor of the great-aunt who left the inheritance, the founders named their enterprise “Rococo Row” after stately seaside mansions dotting the cliffs where one of the founders spent childhood holidays scrambling the grounds of an estate or creeping the halls of an old manor, expecting ghosts around every corner.
The indoor sets offered realistic scenes that included a hipster diner, dance clubs, grand rococo staircases, soap sud rooms, a marvelous baroque banquet hall, a trendy bar, and a concert stage. For professional headshots or websites, Rococo Row offered stark office scenes and a podium. For an extra fee, crowds could be Photoshopped into the audience or background to create more energy.
There were seasonal sets, including living rooms with garish Christmas trees in which families could pose for annual holiday cards. There were private bedroom sets for boudoir sessions. But perhaps what put Rococo Row on the map was their realistic green screen outdoor scenes. The outdoor scenes became popular for marriage proposals and engagement photos. There were thousands of backdrops to choose from, including golf courses, waterfalls and pools, English countryside mansions and castles, Scottish moors, Bangkok markets, African safaris, and oceans in every shade of blue. There were scenes from fourteener summits, so a group of girlfriends could pose with their backs to the camera, inexplicably topless, their arms raised overhead. Each scene could be adjusted for blue hour, golden hour, yellow filter, and white balance.
The couple worried their business wouldn’t survive the pandemic if the Governor issued a shelter-in-place order, so they took necessary precautions for their visitors. With a little ingenuity from their lighting and design department, they installed ultraviolet light scanners and self-cleaning surface mats to mitigate the spread of the virus. They expanded their cleaning crew and reduced their foot traffic by 75 percent. They promoted these precautionary measures on social media and their website, uncertain if the investment would be worthwhile.
They soon learned that their customers were willing to risk it all for a flattering photograph. The line wrapped around the entrance and extended along the sidewalk, where pods of people huddled six feet apart and leaned on rolling suitcases filled with costumes.
As fewer people opted to travel over the next few months, business boomed. Visitors posed in opulent #ShelterInPlace scenes and fake #PandemicPosh quarantine sets, and by mid-May the founders opened franchises in every major city in North America with plans to expand overseas. Their biggest moneymaker by far were weddings. Using their advanced technology to render hyper-realistic settings, they inserted the faces of loved ones from the guest list into wedding photos, creating artificially composited memories for families who were otherwise spread across the country.
What the founders didn’t tell the U.S. patent office, nor the FCC, nor the SEC when they registered their technology and various holdings was that the technology was much more advanced than the founders first understood. While the paperwork processed, the founders discovered a glitch that neither of them could identify or explain.
After an indeterminate length of time—typically between six weeks and nine months—the original proofs, which at first appeared unblemished, began to show defects. The founders thought the images were deteriorating when, over time—just like watching a Polaroid image slowly emerge—their patented technology seemed to continue developing. Upon closer examination, however, the images revealed what appeared to be otherwise invisible physical and psychological maladies.
The test subjects, mostly unknown models of all ages, posed as they would for any photographer, but the typically banal results eventually showed what would later be identified as any number of health issues. To the trained medical eye, the technology captured congenital heart defects, genetic disorders, tumors, evidence of plastic surgery, tooth decay, bone density concerns, diabetes, Crohn's Disease, and artery plaque. It was later determined that X-ray technology was not present in the device, although even if it had been, it would not have explained the rest.
Because in addition to the bizarre human body imagery, Rococo Row’s camera captured psychological imagery, revealing not just the typical qualities of human nature and behavior, but individual dispositions. A single snapshot might depict a penchant for illicit affairs, mob dealings, bribery, or even a predatory nature.
Since the paperwork was already processing and they had secured a lease for prime commercial real estate, the founders agreed to move forward as planned while quietly fine-tuning what seemed like an exposure glitch. By the time they opened their doors, they sincerely believed that whatever caused their prototype to overdevelop was no longer an issue, but just to ensure that the quality of their images endured, they tasked their staff with capturing screenshots of each photo before releasing it to clients, hoping to stall or halt any latent development.
The workaround method was successful until a clerk at the Library of Congress pulled a set of images from the Rococo Row catalog for a reading room entrance display of notable figures. While searching for faces of politicians, military officers, and Supreme Court justices, the clerk scrolled through hundreds, then thousands, of what looked like defective images. The clerk printed a series of random photographs and alerted the Librarian, whose keen eye led her to believe the images were not defective at all, but possibly print negatives with partially inverted tones.
The clerk, somewhat of an amateur photographer himself, politely reminded the Librarian that the image technology was digital, so in order to produce a negative image from a digital file, a technician must manually alter the image. This discovery led the clerk and Librarian to deduce that Rococo Row was either uploading defective content and would need to resubmit all files to their catalog or, possibly, they were altering many of their original photos before uploading them to the Library of Congress database which, if intentional, would constitute a breach of compliance at best and fraud at worst.
The Librarian issued a letter to Rococo Row, informing the couple that following the discovery of “extensive discrepancies” in quality and inaccurate portrayals of the subjects, a complete review of the catalog was underway. The review would be in the best interest of Rococo Row’s legacy, she argued, and she invited the founders to discuss the progress of the review with her team.
When a lawyer on the review team was summoned to assess possible outcomes if fraud was detected, the founders knew it was perhaps inevitable that a formal investigation would ensue. The appointed lawyer printed out the images at home, where she quarantined after spending the Fourth of July with 18 members of her extended family at Donner Lake in Truckee, California. She spread the printouts across her polished teak dining room table and surveyed the discrepancies. She stared at each image, one by one, noting their uncanny resemblance to X-rays, but she did not see cause for alarm until her husband, a renowned psychiatrist at Saint Elizabeth's, passed through the dining room, bow-legged and clicking across the scarred wood floor with his clip-in cycling shoes.
One glance at the array of faces on the table and he was able to offer a preliminary psychiatric evaluation of each individual. This one suffers from addiction and that one suffers from a malignant narcissistic personality disorder, he declared. Well, that’s everyone in this town, his wife argued. The psychiatrist took a beer out of the fridge and popped the cap with the refrigerator magnet they’d had since grad school. He sat at the dining table, sipped, and looked closely at each photo.
He built a mental profile for each subject. There were brain abnormalities in 30 percent of the portraits, some with violent behavior patterns. One had extensive damage to the cerebral cortex that indicated a neurodegenerative disease. Another photo quickened his pulse—the image indicated manipulative personality traits, and the subject was a senior member of Congress best known for carefully choosing battles and writing precise legislation no one else bothered to read before taking it to vote. The psychiatrist never would have guessed, even after watching decades of the Congressman's speeches—even shaking his hand once at a fundraiser in the Botanical Garden.
Just in case he might be mistaken, the psychiatrist phoned a few colleagues and asked for a second opinion on the images whenever they had a chance. Their assessments all aligned with his. Inexplicably, the Rococo Row camera somehow captured the best version of a subject’s outward appearance, then slowly revealed their inner nature and motivations. The information was socialized through the proper channels, and the formal investigation began.
Enough subjects spanned the upper and lower echelons of society and snagged the media’s attention. The joint Congressional Ethics Committee held an emergency meeting, which was questionable in and of itself because several members’ photos were embroiled in the scandal. The burdensome task of legislating responsible use of the device fell upon their shoulders, and the committee was torn about how to proceed. Already, there were charlatan evaluation services cropping up around the world, offering to determine individuals' capabilities or medical risks based on just one Rococo Row image. Social media influencers lobbied hard for regulation, given that their livelihoods were rendered near obsolete after average-looking people were able to photograph well with very little effort.
The psychiatric community favored leveraging the technology to supplement patient evaluations, and the medical community was adamant that the breakthrough could be an affordable and simple health screening for lower-income populations. The pharmaceutical industry tried to lasso the shooting star, claiming more diagnoses would yield higher sales. The criminal justice community was fascinated by the possibilities yet cautious against false accusations. After all, they argued, a predisposition to harmful behavior did not signify a crime had been committed. How could the courts litigate with this brand new technology, which asked as many questions as it answered?
The controversy raged as special interest groups argued the merits of leveraging the technology while others worried about Constitutional rights and privacy. The public, by and large, demanded the technology be widely available and accessible. They were not willing to consider reverting back to filtering and staging their own lives.
Only a small portion of the public thought their portrait might eventually yield something sinister, although nearly everyone was mortified when their photos developed telltale signs of emotional or physical secrets. The copyrights still belonged to Rococo Row, but this didn’t stop the inter-net from registering domains and proliferating the frenzy around rapid-response personal scans after uploading a single image.
As more civilians received personal evaluations, the murder rate increased and crime escalated in every major city. Presented with the truth of who they really were, rather than trying to overcome their darker natures, people leaned fully into them. They fought for beautiful photos of themselves, but the flaws that emerged defined them, no matter what positive contributions they otherwise made in society. The late-developing characteristics on camera gave people all the excuse they needed to perform at their lowest level.
The founders were dismayed by the global crises ignited by their invention. Hounded by media outlets and stalked by up-and-coming podcasters, the couple absconded to an undisclosed location. They posted their selfies against fake backdrops using a VPN and managed to misdirect the most dogged reporters to remote Scandinavian towns and elite resorts along the French Riviera. One intrepid journalist went so far as to drag teams to both Basecamps at Mount Everest, hoping to intercept the founders upon their descent.
In truth, the couple’s friend let them borrow a fishing cabin near the tip of Idaho’s panhandle, where they played cards next to a wood stove and read all of the novels jammed into some dusty bookshelves. They avoided watching the news and donned disguises before leaving the cabin to run errands.
Meanwhile, dictators and despotic governments forbid the use of the technology in their countries. It became as valuable as nuclear technology, and just as delicate.
Des Moines swiftly became the epicenter for the nascent cottage industry, a mecca for various stakeholders entrenched in the controversy. Real estate prices surged.
Public discourse volleyed banter around a shifting social environment that predestined human behavior and personal opportunity. And yet, over time, as the media moved on to other controversies, as members of Congress were replaced with new members based on their Rococo Row public profiles, and as civilians slotted themselves into the social strata, their profiles determined irrefutable, the world grew accustomed to viewing itself through a lens that would eventually tell the truth—and resigned itself to the outcome.
Jody has had creative nonfiction essays appear in The Avalon Literary Review, The Good Life Review, Red Fez and From Whispers to Roars. Her short story, “Beautiful Mother,” was a finalist in the Phoebe Journal 2021 Spring Fiction Contest. She was the first prize winner of the 2019 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for her poem, "Failure to Triangulate.” Twitter @JodyRae_ | Instagram @criminy_sakes_alive | www.criminysakesalive.com