Visual Documentation of UFOs: A New Question of Authenticity

written in October, 2012 by Rosalynn Rothstein

drawing of a UFO encounter from Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore

Documentation of UFO encounters demonstrate conflict between acceptable channels for observing natural phenomena created by science and the observational powers of any one individual. Margaret Wertheim, a science writer with a focus on physics, states: "ever since Copernicus and his contemporaries in the sixteenth century replaced the earth-centered, God-focused vision of the cosmos with a sun-centered view, the officially sanctioned picture of our universe has increasingly been dictated by astronomy and physics... theoretical physics grew to encompass within it's equations the entire space of being -- the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars and the whole arena of space and time." [1] In Physics on the Fringe, from which the above excerpt is quoted, Wertheim examines how "outsider scientists", a term she chooses and likens to classifications of "outsider artists," should be considered when they present alternative theories of how the world is ordered. They can ascribe meaning to and create visual documentation of their theories based on a visible world.

Check out the UFO images linked from Photocat, these especially are worth looking at.

In a move similar to how "outsider artists" received increasing legitimacy throughout the twentieth century, Wertheim asks how outsider theories of physics can shed light on the role scientific thought has in ordering individual perceptions of how the world, and indeed the universe, function. As our understanding of how the universe is structured increasingly incorporates scientific understanding, can we look at the visual documentation of individuals who encounter UFOs in the same way as an "outsider artist's" art or an "outsider scientist's" body of work? If observation of natural phenomena informed by scientific processes of observation is influencing how individuals are ordering the world, how can we understand the phenomena of UFO documentation? By examining visual documentation, scholarship and descriptions of first hand encounters with UFOs we can understand the role visual documentation has in the UFO phenomena by conducting a folkloristically based analysis of vernacular approaches to observation rooted in personal experience and presented in a scientific framework.

pencil drawing of a UFO


Authenticity and UFO Phenomena

There is a confrontation between the authenticity of the physical world, and a certain type of observation of that physical world, and the numinous or traumatic experience of extraterrestrial contact. Daniel Fry, an alien contactee who describes his abduction experience in The White Sands Incident published in 1954, writes, "No study of U. F. O. phenomena will have any value or significance unless the student leaves his ego and emotions in the cloakroom... no firm conclusion can possibly be valid in an area where the possibilities are as infinite as the Universe itself."[2] An infinite universe challenges the idea that human observation can be conclusive.

The Lori Butterfield collection, housed in the Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore at the University of Oregon, contains an interview with Dick McGrew who was a Coast Guard engineer at the time of the interview. The interview with McGrew, collected in 1981, discusses one instance of abduction McGrew heard about. McGrew states "One that comes to mind is the policeman whose antennae was bent 90 degrees and his car was all messed up and he said that he was transported...I would find no reason to disbelieve it -- especially if the guy had gone through hypnosis."[3] However, the interviewee also describes another instance where he is incredulous of a practice preparing for a UFO encounter. "And then there's the woman down in the San Diego -- Long Beach, uh, San Diego -- Los Angeles -- somewhere along in there, who had a landing pad set up for UFOs -- who dresses up in her sparkly-space suit -- goes out there and welcomes UFOs every night. (laughter) I can't get into that. (Laughter) That's something that doesn't make much sense."[4] For this interviewee, the realms of possibility for alien encounter are bounded by what can be proven. Often, proof involves activating a scientific framework of observation and analysis.

Jung prefaces his analysis of UFOs with the following statement: "I must take this risk, even if it means putting my hard-won reputation for truthfulness, trustworthiness, and scientific judgment in jeopardy."[5] He proceeds to question whether UFOs are "photogenic." He states, "considering the notorious camera-mindedness of Americans, it is surprising how few 'authentic' photos of UFOs seem to exist, especially as many of them are said to have been observed for several hours at relatively close quarters."[6] Consequently, we might consider that interpretations, memorates and visual documentation of UFOs are all rigorously tested under a rubric of authenticity.

However, if we move beyond the veracity of the images, whether they are drawings made after an encounter, a YouTube video or more rigorous interpretation of numerous images by a UFO researcher, can we understand these images in a context more similar to how Wertheim interpreted "outsider physicists." Ultimately, how does the visual documentation of UFO sightings and events manage credibility whether the memorates or documentation are interpreting historical events or documenting contemporary events?

Paul Hill, "UFO Shapes"


Authoritative Evidence versus Experience

Observations of UFOs are influenced by a variety of complex features, including but not limited to popular culture, religious belief and larger culture fears such as nuclear disaster. Daniel Wojcik, a folklorist, considers that beliefs about UFOs and aliens "often reflect apocalyptic anxieties and millennial yearnings, asserting that extraterrestrial entities will play a role in the destruction, transformation, salvation, or destiny of the world."[7] Experiences reflect larger concerns and interpretations of visual documentation and memorates are subject to similar influences. Thomas Bullard, a folklorist who studies UFOs, claims the most audible voices heard about UFOs are the UFOlogists, who study the phenomena to one extent or another and to different degrees of authority, and not the witnesses of the phenomena.[8]

If the voices of scientists, critics, and UFOlogists are heard more than the witnesses and witnesses narratives are generally expounded upon or interpreted, what does this say for visual documentation produced by these witnesses and contactees? Images and videos can be used as evidence and then critiqued by the "experts" (however this might be defined). The photo documentation and the visual images are often the way the witnesses are "speaking" to these experts. UFOlogists and UFO researchers, even if they are criticized by the "legitimate scientists" or the mass media, are experts in relationship to the witnesses. In this respect there are levels of vernacular and institutional authority influencing interpretation of the authenticity of UFO encounters and sightings.

Another interview in the Lori Butterfield collection with Donald Atkins, a restaurant employee, contains this description of an encounter with a spacecraft. "And I knew it wasn't any star or aircraft or anything -- cause it wasn't making any sound. Wasn't making any noise and the thing was real quiet and I looked at it for about ten minutes and then all of a sudden it just -- s-shup -- and off it disappeared. And it didn't come back after that." Before this description the interviewee states "It didn't make no noise -- no sound -- and at first, I thought I was a seein' things and I couldn't believe it so I shut my eyes for about one whole minute and then opened them up again and it was still there in plain sight."[9] The physical realm is breached by the UFO experience, but belief in the veracity of the experience is always influenced by the experience of the witness or contactee who must see it in "plain sight" but might not want to believe it.

photo from McMinnville UFO sighting


Depth in Documentation

The UFO fotocat blog, contains lengthy analysis of visual documentation of UFO sightings. The site is self described as follows, "Since year 2000, FOTOCAT is an in-progress project owned and managed by Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, with the purpose to create a catalog of world-wide UFO photo events."[10] Fotocat Report #4 focuses specifically on Norway, specifically the Hessdalen region which has frequent anomalistic luminous events. An introduction to the catalog contains the following statement. "Photograph, in the popular philosophy, is the best evidence to prove the existence of something, e.g. "a picture is worth a thousand words." In observational sciences, astronomy for instance, photographic records are basic."[11] The analysis in the document contains a brief synopsis of the case, if necessary a discussion of the quality of the image and if possible the image itself. The photographs also can include the conclusions of the authors of the document, such as "Clouds and atmospheric haze can cause stars and planets to "appear and disappear" and false motions are due to scintillation, auto kinesis and atmospheric refraction."[12] A document like this considers where, when, and under what circumstances the photograph was produced and subjects it to a scientific analysis of the possible circumstances that could have created the image.

Images drawn by witnesses, contactees and abductees often cross boundaries between empirical research and personal impressions of the UFO sighting or encounter. Partridge discusses the intersection between UFO religions and empirical research. "Crypto-theology and pseudoscience are very common in the UFO community. Empirical, hard-edged UFO research consistently intersects with elements of paranormal belief. Indeed, it is often difficult to separate the two... the point is that interest in empirical research into aerial phenomena often (not always) connects seamlessly with ideas that are very popular within occulture and common within UFO religions."[13] There is a similar intersection in certain accounts by witnesses of UFO phenomena even if it is not directly spiritual. The empirical nature of the observation intersects with concerns about the universe is structured.

This image is a drawing of a spacecraft seen by an interviewee in the Regan Lee collection in the Randall V. Mills archives. In the interview, "Carmen" points to the top of the drawings and says, "this part of the thing was this weird metallic light blue, this part of the ship. And then this was windows, you could see through this area, like the majority of the vessel you could see through."[14] She continues, later in the interview, with this assessment of the experience of witnessing the craft. "But I want to know. Maybe there's a chance I can protect myself. If I don't know, I do I [sic] know what to protect myself from? And I feel that more tests can be done to me that [sic] to him. Pregnancy..."[15] Ultimately the drawing of the spacecraft the interviewee witnessed does not depict the fears the interviewee has about medical experiments and pregnancy that she experienced after this encounter with a spacecraft. However, the input from the transcribed interview shows the importance of eliciting witness and contactee impressions when interpreting photographs or drawings of alien encounters.

Can we believe visual documentation whether it be photographs, drawings or otherwise? There is a lengthy history of scientific or mathematical debunking of images of UFO and other phenomena. Questions of authenticity extend into online forums where evidence of the existence of extra-terrestrial life is presented. For example, on one YouTube video, entitled "Grey Alien Filmed by KGB"[16] one user comments "So... my question is, if this is 'real', then how is there a timestamp on film from the 40's? Yes, I'm sure there were giant primitive computers, but how the hell did it get on celluloid film? Computers were not used for this sort of thing at the time, it was not even close to possible to edit video in this era, so the camera used to film then would never have been able to print a moving / ticking digital stamp onto film. If it was added at a later date, why do the numbers fade with the film?"[17] Authenticity in this context is interpreted by a user whose level of expertise is not necessarily known by a user reading the comments. Ultimately, YouTube comments become a space for debate about the authenticity of visual documentation of UFO sightings. It is a space where questions about scientific evaluations of images and, especially in the context of videos posted by individuals who claim to have personally documented UFOs, questions about the validity of personal experience and documentation are asked by users whose level of expertise might not be fully disclosed or known at all.

When discussing the protocol established by experts at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Pierre Lagrange, a sociologist of science, states: "the people at SETI spend so much of their time emphasizing the differences between themselves and the ufologists that reported sightings are not taken seriously at all. And, in fact, their stance seems reasonable, given what some UFO fanatics have to say about the secrets being kept from us, and given how dogmatic they must be to launch blanket-damnations of scientists as having closed minds. Thus, although the protocol presents itself as democratic, it is written with a particular idea of science and society in mind, one that excludes non-scientists (and extraterrestrials, a few would say)."[18] We lack the words to describe the experience, so the visual representations and documentation of the UFO sightings are expected to convey the depth and reality of belief. They both embody the controversy and share the reality of the experience. However, the interpretation of these images is often left to institutional bodies, whether that is an organization like SETI or more fringe ufologists SETI tries to distance themselves from.

Voices in Images

Western Societies, and more specifically the United States in the context of UFOs, have a desire for authenticity. Baudrillard relates this to nostalgia for societies without histories. In reference to cave paintings, he states, "this explains why we cannot even pose the question of their authenticity since, even if true, they seem invented to satisfy the needs of the anthropological cause, to meet the superstitious demand for an 'objective' proof of our rigid duly certified by carbon 14. In fact, their being discovered wrenches them instantly from their truth and secrecy to freeze them in the universe of museums, where they are no longer either true or false, but verified by a scientific fetishism which is an accessory to our fetisistic will to believe in them."[19]

Ultimately the visual documentation of UFOs becomes a question of whose voice is speaking through the image. Baudrillard sees cave paintings as a search for an objective truth and the search to validate and scientifically authenticate the paintings freezes and stagnates the image in a rigid set of meanings constructed around its existence. We can see the same processes occurring around the visual documentation of UFOs and alien encounters, whether that is a drawing from a witness, an analysis of a photograph taken by another person or comments on a YouTube video. When examining visual documentation, scholarship and descriptions of first hand encounters with UFOs we might gain a better understand the role these images have in understanding UFO phenomena if we incorporate an understanding of the individual perspectives impacting not only the interpretation, but the creation of these images.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Bullard, Thomas. The Myth and Mystery of UFOs. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
Fry, Daniel W. The White Sands Incident. Louisville, KY: Best Books Inc., 1966.
Jung, Carl. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.
Lagrange, Pierre. Diplomats without Portfolios: The Question of Contact with
Extraterrestrial Civilizations. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of
Demoncracy. Ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, Ma.: The MIT
Press, 2005.
Olmos, Vincente-Juan Ballester, Complier. Accessed June 5,
Partridge, Christopher. The Re-Enchantment of the West. London: T & T Clark
International, 2004.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Dick McGrew; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Donald Atkins; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Tom McCartney; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Regan Lee collection. 1996_011.
Transcript of interview of "Carmen"; Regan Lee, interviewer, 1981.
Wertheim, Margaret. Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative
Theories of Everything. New York: Walker & Company, 2011.
Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World as we Know it: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in
America. New York: New York University Press, 1997.


(# returns to text)
  1. Wertheim, Physics on the Fringe, 8. #
  2. Fry, The White Sands Incident, 113. #
  3. Lori Butterfield 1981_013 #
  4. Ibid #
  5. Jung, Flying Saucers, xii. #
  6. Jung, Ibid, 13. #
  7. Wojcik, The End of the World as We Know It, 175. #
  8. Bullard, The Myth and Mystery of UFOs, 14. #
  9. Lori Butterfield 1981_013 #
  10. #
  11. #
  12. #
  13. Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, 167. #
  14. Lee, Regan 1996_011 #
  15. Lee, Regan 1996_011 #
  16. #
  17. by user believexit2 #
  18. Lagrange, Diplomats without Portfolios, 90. #
  19. Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, 73. #
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