John Ball: Air Photo Expert?

by Jamie McCarthy

Abstract


Among Holocaust-deniers, John Ball is acclaimed for having proven with aerial photographs that the Holocaust could not have occurred. In particular, photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau are purported to show that no gassing or cremation could have taken place.

Ball is frequently cited as an "Air Photo Expert," lending credibility to his claims - but no measure of his expertise has ever been adduced. It is not the field for which he was trained (geology). At most, he took some undergraduate classes which included photo analysis. An expert in such analysis at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has refuted his chief findings, and Ball has not addressed the refutation. After his offer of a reward to anyone able to prove him wrong was accepted, it was quietly retracted. And a judge has pronounced him unfit to render expert opinion.

The purpose here is not directly to address Ball's findings (other essays on this site will do so later). The intent is only to examine Ball's claims of expertise.


Introduction

John Ball's work plays a small but important role in Holocaust-denial. Because deniers must minimize the importance of testimony from the perpetrators and survivors of Nazi crimes, they put forth the notion that only physical evidence can be trusted. Because aerial photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, declassified in the 1970s, show evidence of the extermination process, deniers must discredit these photographs as having been tampered-with. This is John Ball's role.

The banner at the top of his website [1] displays some animated doggerel that sums up his purpose:

See the camps from up high
where they say millions died
weigh the facts then decide
if it's all truth or lies

Ball does analyze photographs other than those taken at Auschwitz, though it is the Auschwitz photos which receive the most emphasis.

Since his work covers such a specific area, he is not cited as often as some other researchers. This is not to say he is never cited. Some examples include:

Ernst Zundel, in his pamphlet "Schindler's List Exposed as Lies and Hate," urges us to "BAN SCHINDLER'S LIST!" (emphasis in original) based on the work of "John Ball, air photo expert." [2]

Zundel also offers a videotaped interview in the catalog on his website: [3]

ERNST ZUNDEL INTERVIEWS JOHN BALL

Startling new proof that the purported Nazi homicidal gas chambers and mass graves did not exist! Fresh evidence from a new angle -- directly above -- proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that claims of mass burials -- 800,000 at Treblinka -- were a physical impossibility. John Ball is a Canadian geologist who specializes in air photo interpretation. He states that the use of stereo microscopes makes it possible to see buildings, trees, people -- even shadows cast by these objects. There is 'absolutely no question' that many aerial photos were doctored -- and in many cases, very poorly -- to make it appear that people were where they could not have been. In one instance, people drawn in on a photo would have been standing on the very steep roof of a building [at Auschwitz] -- again, a physical impossibility. Although he does not speculate as to why it was done, Ball makes the startling accusation that only the CIA, or people given access to these photos by the CIA, could have been responsible for doctoring these photos, which were in their possession until they were turned over to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The CODOH website's "Foundations of Contemporary History" includes Ball's work as part of its "Handbook." [4]

Samuel Crowell's "Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes" cites Ball's claims about the size of graves at Reinhard camps: [5]

The only corroboration for the actions alleged at these camps are some mass graves, which by normal estimation of grave mass, contain perhaps a few tens of thousands of bodies altogether. [183]

183. Ball, John Clive, "Luftbild Beweise", in Grundlagen, German translation of "Air Photo Evidence" which is rehearsed on Ball's website, at http://www.air-photo.com

Germar Rudolf, author of the "Rudolf Report," refers to Ball as "der professionelle Luftbildauswerter John Clive Ball" (the professional aerial photo analyst John Clive Ball). [6] He has relied on Ball's drawings and photographs, writing: [7]

Finally, as shown in illustration 4 drawn by John Ball, the locations of the four spots neither match the locations nor the size or shape of the two holes that can actually be found today in the collapsed roof of morgue 1 of Krema II. [7]

Thus, we have proved that these objects can impossibly be holes.

7. http://www.air-photo.com

All John Ball's conclusions are interpretations of photographs which rely on his expertise. But how reliable is his expert opinion?

Return to Sender

In 1997, John Morris of the Nizkor Project attempted to contact Ball to take up a challenge he had posted on his "Air Photo Evidence" website. [8] That challenge read:

$100,000 Reward

To Have Three Air Photo Experts Agree That:

1. The 3D Maps are not accurate copies of the air photos; or

2. Marks were not drawn on August 25, 1944 Auschwitz air photos, as shown in Evidence of Air Photo Tampering.

NOTE: Each expert has to submit a written report with conclusions. The three experts each need to state that one of the above two statements are true. The air photo expert's qualifications need approval by those seeking the reward, and by the author.

One's natural suspicion is that such offers are merely grabs for publicity. David Irving, [9] the IHR, [10] and CODOH [11] have made similar offers, the sole purpose of which seems to have been attracting the reader's curiosity with the dollar sign followed by a large number.

Such a suspicion grows stronger upon examination of Ball's terms. The last sentence, indicating that each expert must meet the approval of the "author" - Ball himself - is the giveaway. If three written reports proving him wrong were to appear on his doorstep, he would simply need to reject one or more of the experts, for any reason or no reason at all. Certainly he would have no incentive to make himself $100,000 poorer by approving whoever disagreed with him.

But when John Morris wrote Ball, as the first step toward trying to meet the challenge, it did not even get as far as his doorstep. A total of three letters were sent as registered mail to Ball's listed address (a P.O. box) and to his home address. All three were sent back, marked "Return To Sender." Email concerning the letters received no reply.

The first letter to the P.O. box which Ball listed on his website was returned as "unclaimed." The final letter to that same P.O. box - the same address advertised on his website - came back as "Moved, Address Unknown."

Without actually retracting it, Ball quietly removed all mention of his $100,000 offer - but his homepage now proclaims:

Ball's photo-interpretation and map-accuracy have never been disproved by another air photo expert.

Another Air Photo Expert

Michael Shermer spoke with John Ball for a lengthy 1995 article he published in his magazine Skeptic[12] In his 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things, he discusses Ball's claims about the photographs of Auschwitz: [13]

According to Ball, the photographs were tampered with, marked, altered, faked. By whom? By the CIA itself, in order to match the story as depicted in the television mini-series Holocaust.

Thanks to Dr. Nevin Bryant, supervisor of cartographic applications and image processing applications at Caltech/NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, I was able to get the CIA photographs properly analyzed by people who know what they are looking at from the air. Nevin and I analyzed the photographs using digital enhancement techniques not available to the CIA in 1979. We were able to prove that the photographs had not been tampered with, and we indeed found evidence of extermination activity.

Though he is aware of this work, Ball has nowhere addressed it.

Innocent or Guilty

In late 1998, Ball offered a survey on his website. His readers were invited to provide feedback, ostensibly on how convincing his site had been:

Vote on German Guilt or Innocence: [...]

Select a verdict, or compose your own:

[ ] Air photos show it was physically impossible that mass-murders occurred as described in the 1946 War Crimes trials, and so the Germans are innocent.

[ ] Air photos show nothing new to contradict 1946 evidence that mass-murders occurred as described by eye-witnesses, so the Germans are guilty.

The "vote" which I sent in read as follows:

"The Germans" are innocent? "The Germans" are guilty?

This gross misuse of language, this confirmation of collective guilt (or innocence) stands contrary to any fair approach to history. "The Germans" were not found guilty in any war crime trial, in 1946 or at any other time. The people found guilty in those trials were those who were at the camps in question, who committed the crimes in question. In fact the trials were established partly to demonstrate to the German people that they were not the ones on trial; the criminals, and only the criminals, were punished for their crimes. [14]

As for your claims, they are false. If you believe they are true, why did you back out of your $100,000 offer? Afraid you'd lose money, I expect. http://www.nizkor.org/features/ball-challenge/

You see things on photographs that aren't there and draw them in for the rest of us, which doesn't impress me very much. You have a poor background in the camps you purport to detail, and you have no credentials as an "air photo expert." Your analysis has been exposed in, among other places, Michael Shermer's book Why People Believe Weird Things, by a real photographic expert from the JPL - and your silence in response tells me all I need to know.

But, all that aside: you need to decide what it is that your website demonstrates. If your purpose is to decide "German Guilt or Innocence," then you have already fallen prey to the trap of collectivist guilt. No thinking person can accept your premises. Only when you decide what the proper questions are can we begin a proper critique of your answers.

I received no direct answer to this. It was published, in edited form, on Ball's website. [15] My reference to the $100,000 offer webpage was stripped out without an ellipsis (as were my pointed references to the doctrine of collective guilt). Here is what Ball published, in full:

"The Germans" were not found guilty in any war crime trial, in 1946 or at any other time. The people found guilty in those trials were those who were at the camps in question, who committed the crimes in question. In fact the trials were established partly to demonstrate to the German people that they were not the ones on trial; the criminals, and only the criminals, were punished for their crimes. You see things on photographs that aren't there and draw them in for the rest of us, which doesn't impress me very much. You have a poor background in the camps you purport to detail, and you have no credentials as an "air photo expert."

(Ball's answer: I studied air photo interpretation at University.)

Your analysis has been exposed in, among other places, Michael Shermer's book "Why People Believe Weird Things", by a real photographic expert from the JPL (Jet Propulsion Library) [sic] and your silence in response tells me all I need to know.

(Ball's answer: I asked Shermer for a copy of the photo expert's supposed report and have yet to receive a reply.)

His laconic answers leave much to be desired. The sole credential he offers as an air photo expert is that he took a class, or classes, in the subject. His short online autobiography goes into a little more detail, but not much: [16]

1981 - Graduated from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada with a B.Sc. in Geology. Studied air photo interpretation.

On December 28th, 1998, I sent email asking questions about his course of study, including: what classes did he take? Did he take them for credit? And if so, what grades did he earn? No answer.

His claim to have contacted Michael Shermer regarding Nevin Bryant's report is not borne up by the facts. Shermer confirmed for me in email the next day:

I have never heard from John Ball since my last meeting with him years ago at the L.A.X. airport restaurant.

That meeting was before the book in question was published. Shermer went on to clarify:

But there is no "report" by the JPL scientist. The report is by me and it is in my book, based on his assistance in my research. We sat there together in his lab going over the computer enhanced aerial photographs. A more detailed report from me will be published in my book on the Holocaust deniers, to be published next year by the University of California Press, called DENYING HISTORY.

Ball in Court

Perhaps the most significant demonstration of John Ball's credentials has been in a courtroom in Toronto, in 1988.

In that year, Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel was being retried by the Canadian government, after his 1985 conviction under the so-called "false news" law was overturned by an Ontario court. (He would end up being convicted again in 1988, a conviction later overturned when the law was declared unconstitutional - and rightfully so - by the Supreme Court of Canada.)

The trial summary available at Ernst Zundel's Zundelsite has a table of contents whose witness list goes directly from the ninth witness, Tijudar Rudolph, to the tenth, Ernst Nielsen. But between Rudolph's and Nielsen's testimony came John Clive Ball's voir dire - the examination to test the competence of a witness. No mention of this is made on Zundel's website, but a description of the proceedings can be found in the book The Holocaust on Trial, written by a Zundel supporter. [17] It is worth quoting at length:

Christie [Zundel's defense attorney] asked permission to call as an expert witness John C. Ball, a consulting geologist from British Columbia who, since the early 1970s [sic], has analyzed aerial photographs for clients to help them determine the mineral potential of land.

Recall that, according to Ball's website, he did not receive his degree in geology until 1981.

In November 1987, at Ernst Zundel's request, Ball obtained wartime aerial photographs of Birkenau from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and examined them at his office in Vancouver. He focused especially on the roofs of the crematory buildings, including the alleged gas chambers, seeking physical indicators relating to the standard Holocaust narrative.

Ball was finally rejected as a witness by Judge Thomas after he testified on the voir dire. Thomas agreed that the aerial photos were proper evidence for the defense to introduce, but concluded, after some reflection, that Ball was not sufficiently qualified as an expert to do the job.

Ball had the remarkably bad luck to be cross-examined not only by Pearson [the prosecuting attorney] but (informally) by a judge who admitted that he once tried a case where, for two months, the finer points of aerial photography were debated. Before admitting this, however, Thomas had a little fun with Ball (and the rest of the court) by suddenly peppering him with questions like, "Have you ever presented or formulated a horizontal model? In the horizontal plane?" and "Have you developed a computer-assisted vertical plane with the benefit of photogrammetry?" So sophisticated and assured was this technical questioning that it looked like Toronto had an unsung Leonardo da Vinci in robes until Thomas's explanation was forthcoming.

As Christie tried to save his witness, he jettisoned one line of potential questioning after another until there was little left for poor Ball to have said. [...]

Ball was finally stripped almost bare, but it was not enough to save him. Judge Thomas, flaunting his knowledge, was especially concerned that Ball had indicated several times that "as far as he is concerned [a micro-stereoscope and a stereoscope] are the same thing. They aren't the same."

After Christie described what he hoped Ball could testify about, the Judge gave his decision:

That line of argument was fine, said Judge Thomas, but a proper expert was still needed to present the photos to the jury. So ruling against Ball, he adjourned the court for lunch. [18]

Predictably, these events are described in no "revisionist" literature - to my knowledge - except this one book.

Conclusion

A future essay on this website will address the specific issues John Ball raises. For now, we have seen nothing which indicates his expertise to speak on those issues. He can offer no academic credentials of significance. He refuses to address a contradictory expert opinion presented by someone with superior credentials, and has covered up this refusal with a fabrication. The one time he offered to stand behind his results, he quietly disappeared the moment real interest was displayed.

And the one time his expertise was put to any kind of real test - in a court of law - he was "stripped almost bare": ruled so unqualified that he could not be asked to render an opinion on anything related to aerial photographs of Auschwitz.

Detailed analysis of aerial photography is largely a matter of interpretation, and where the results are important we should not trust the interpretation to amateurs. When we are asked to take this man's drawings, explanations and theories as so authoritative that they can nullify the testimony of eyewitnesses to and perpetrators of the crimes, we are at the very least entitled to some evidence that he is well-qualified.

The evidence indicates the opposite.

Notes

  1. Ball's homepage, the "Air Photo Evidence" site: http://www.air-photo.com/. Java banner text is as of March 1999.

  2. The pamphlet can be found at http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/ people/z/zundel-ernst/censorship/ban-schindler.html. The pamphlet's claims are debunked at http://www.nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/people/b/ball.john/goeth-shooting-01.

  3. At http://www.webcom.com/ezundel/ english/catalog/audio_catalog.html#47.

  4. At http://www.codoh.com/found/found.html.

  5. At http://codoh.com/incon/inconshr4567.html.

  6. "Zur Kritik an 'Wahrheit und Auschwitzlüge,'" http://www.ostara.org/autor/germar3.htm.

  7. At http://www.vho.org/GB/Contributions/Green.html.

  8. See http://www.nizkor.org/features/ball-challenge/.

  9. Irving has a long-standing offer of $1,000. What exactly must be proved to collect the money varies. At http://www.fpp.co.uk/History/HistoryIndex.html, http://www.fpp.co.uk/new.html, http://www.fpp.co.uk/Auschwitz/Auschw.html, and http://www.fpp.co.uk/online.html he requires "proof [that] Hitler knew of the Holocaust." At http://www.fpp.co.uk/BoD/IntelliReport.html it is "evidence that Hitler knew about the Holocaust." In a May 1981 letter to Newsday, as cited at http://www.fpp.co.uk/docs/ADL/FingerSmear060783.html, it was "evidence that Hitler knew of Auschwitz."

    Only at http://www.fpp.co.uk/Auschwitz/ documents/controversies/Reward.html are the terms clarified. To avoid the reward being collected, he must reject the abundant "evidence" and "proof" which falls outside some narrow specifications:

    ...a wartime document showing explicitly that Hitler knew about the mass liquidation of Europe's Jews. [...]

    The document must be of German origin (Allied code-breaking intercepts will be accepted); it must be submitted to Focal Point Publications (click F at bottom of page for the address); it must be submitted as a clear photocopy of the original, with proof ot its provenance (archives, etc). "Wartime" refers to the years September 1, 1939-May 8, 1945. The reference must be explicit, and not depend upon clever translations, or fancy interpretations, or reading-between-the-lines.

    Of course Irving does not restrict himself thusly in his books and speeches; only in this "challenge." And like John Ball's challenge, the one with the money seems to be the one who decides when the terms have been met - so it is safe to say the terms will never be met.

    See also the pamphlet "Who is David Irving?".

  10. The IHR's $50,000 offer was accepted by Mel Mermelstein, an Auschwitz survivor. After a four-year court battle, both sides claimed victory, but the end result was that the IHR paid him the money - actually $90,000 - and issued an official Letter of Apology. See http://www.nizkor.org/features/qar/qar05.html and http://www.nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/ people/m/mermelstein.mel/mermelstein.text.

  11. The CODOH offer amounts to a bid of $250,000 for ninety minutes of prime-time TV, in which they will "debate" the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith. Bradley Smith, the director of CODOH, has promoted his organization chiefly by purchasing blocks of time on AM radio, and advertisements in student newspapers. This purchase, however, is not likely to go through: $250,000 will buy not much more than 90 seconds of prime-time TV.

  12. Skeptic magazine, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 32-57.

  13. Shermer, Michael, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, 1997, pp. 233ff.

  14. See Robert Jackson's opening speech to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, Vol. 2, pp. 98ff, in particular p. 102:

    We would also make clear that we have no purpose to incriminate the whole German people. We know that the Nazi Party was not put in power by a majority of the German vote. We know it came to power by an evil alliance between the most extreme of the Nazi revolutionists, the most unrestrained of the German reactionaries, and the most aggressive of the German militarists. If the German populace had willingly accepted the Nazi program, no Storm-troopers would have been needed in the early days of the Party...

  15. At http://www.air-photo.com/english/comments.html.

  16. At http://www.air-photo.com/english/about.html.

  17. Lenski, Robert, The Holocaust on Trial: The Case of Ernst Zundel, Reporter Press, Decatur, Alabama, 1990, pp. 229-31. This book is out of print and difficult to find.

  18. A footnote in Lenski's book here points out that a different witness, one Kenneth Wilson, later gave testimony about the Auschwitz photographs. It seems little time was spent on the Leichenkeller roofs, and that little controversial was said. Notably, Wilson's testimony did not even hint at Ball's most important point: that the photographs show evidence of tampering, alteration, or retouching. Wilson today plays no role in Holocaust-denial.