Ten Commandments of Photojournalism: Debating Excessive — and Sometimes Blatant — Post-Processing

Before I dive into today’s topic, in the course of the past weeks I’ve received several alerts from readers that THEME was down in their area. Once it was in Germany, then in the U.K… The question was always: have you given up on the site Dan? Maybe was a server hiccup. Boy I’m not a quitter, it’s just that current priorities demand my full attention. Working not too hard on the site also shows that THEME as a loyal audience tuning in each day to get the latest on rumor and photography news. Rest assured, THEME is here to stay and as things stand now this is maybe just the beginning. This brings me to today’s topic: “Debating the Rules and Ethics of Digital Photojournalism,” as published by the New York Times. It’s a topic that concerns every photographer. Or you never asked yourself whether excessive — and sometimes blatant — post-processing is too freely applied in today’s digital photography?

It still looks like, but is it still a photograph reflecting “reality”? Writes the NY Times:

Significant questions have arisen after a large number of images were disqualified from this year’s World Press Photo competition because of excessive — and sometimes blatant — post-processing. After independent experts examined the images being considered for prizes in the final rounds, and presented their findings to the jury, 20% of the photos were disqualified by the judges. This was often because of significant addition or subtraction to the image content.

We learn that almost three times more images than in last year’s competition got qualified, meaning that quite some professional photographers who make a living from photography think the rest of the world is either a) stupid enough to no longer care about the difference between an untouched and an altered “reality”; and b) that manipulation is considered to be firm part of digital photography.

World Press Photo of the Year 2014 -- Contemporary Issues, 1st prize singles, Mads Nissen: Jon, 21, and Alex, 25 are a couple. Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is becoming more and more difficult in Russia.
World Press Photo of the Year 2014 — Contemporary Issues, 1st prize singles, Mads Nissen: Jon and Alex — Jon, 21, and Alex, 25, are a couple. Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is becoming more and more difficult in Russia.

In fact, even applying a simple filter is post-processing, meaning that analog photography was/is kind of the epitome of post-processing because each roll of film looked different depending on the brand, sensitivity, and so forth. So… if we’re honest there is no analog and no digital photography without post-processing. Photography is always an interpretation, and never the perfect, unaltered representation of a fraction of a second.

So… why shouldn’t post-processing not be allowed in a photography competition? The answer is simple: if the competition is about photojournalism, then it’s clear fraud to suggest a reality that’s clearly different from what happened.

This raises some important questions. A slightly adjusted photograph may look more powerful and convincing, yet a really good photograph needs no alteration. Some of this year’s World Press Photo competition were obviously altered in a way that when compared with the originals one could not recognize them as being the same picture. The jury — which was flexible about toning, given industry standards — could not accept processing that blatantly added or removed elements of the picture.

And professional photographers dared to submit such images.

This not only discredits the whole profession and industry, it shows the bigger picture that news is no longer about what’s really happening, but about how something is perceived. How something fits into the scheme of perception and expectation.

World Press Photo 2014 -- Daily Life, 1st prize	singles, Cai Sheng Xiang
World Press Photo 2014 — Daily Life, 1st prize singles, Cai Sheng Xiang: The Bull Market — Yi people gather to trade cattle and horses at a market.

Says jury chairwoman Michele McNally:

Many of the images we had to disqualify were pictures we all believed in and which we all might have published. But to blatantly add, move around or remove elements of a picture concerns us all, leaving many in the jury to feel we were being cheated, that they were being lied to.

Melissa Lyttle, independent photographer:

Learning that World Press Photo had to disqualify 20 percent of the images in the penultimate round because the judges found the image content had been altered is incredibly disheartening. The fact that some photojournalists think any degree of lying and manipulation is O.K., makes me question the message they’re sending to others — as well as the ego they’re stroking and the impossible level of perfection they’re striving for in their own work.

It’s a dangerous and slippery slope to travel down when altered work is lauded, and other photojournalists see that as the ideal. It sets a bar that is unreal, unhealthy and unattainable. And what does it say that we as viewers, editors and judges value these images in the first place? Are we preprogrammed to be drawn to things that really are too good to be true?

Lying is easy, telling the truth is the hard part. Or in other words: producing a post-processed image is a piece of cake. Shooting the real thing, that’s the challenge.

World Press Photo 2014 -- Portraits	, 2nd prize	singles, Liu Song: Accused -- A woman suspected of engaging in illegal sex trade is held for questioning at a police station.
World Press Photo 2014 — Portraits , 2nd prize singles, Liu Song: Accused — A woman suspected of engaging in illegal sex trade is held for questioning at a police station.

The NY Times article concludes with the recommendation that photojournalists all over the world should download and carefully read The Integrity of the Image by David Campbell. This document, it’s suggested, should be the basis of a Ten Commandments for photojournalism:

  1. What forms of manipulation are relevant to the integrity of the image? In addition to post-processing of negatives, RAW files or unprocessed JPEGs, it could also includes the framing, cropping, selection, captioning and contextualization of images, among other issues. Should these dimensions also be considered and, if so, how?
  2. Is manipulation generally a growing problem? If so, how and why?
  3. Is post-processing itself a problem, or is post-processing a problem only when certain levels of changes are made? If so, how are the legitimate levels known or identified?
  4. What ethical guidelines and protocols relevant to the integrity of the image are followed by media organisations in different countries?
  5. What ethical guidelines relevant to the integrity of the image are promoted by professional media associations in different countries?
  6. Are there national, regional and cultural differences in the ethical guidelines, accepted standards, and current practices relevant to the integrity of the image? Are there any points of consensus on manipulation regardless of geographical or cultural differences?
  7. Are there different norms with regard to manipulation in different image genres? Are the norms for news and documentary the same as those for nature, sports, and portraits (staged and observed), or are their differences?
  8. What are the most effective means for the detection of manipulation?
  9. What sanctions exist with the media industry after manipulation is detected?
  10. What rules exist within major international photo contests relating to the integrity of the image?

Yours to choose which path to follow.

+++ You can find all the winning photos in this year’s World Press Photo contest in this gallery.

(via New York Times)

  • KilroyWasHere

    The push for the perfect image that all media outlets are
    looking for is causing the photojournalist to push the boundaries of
    acceptability in an effort to sell the image or get the image incorporated into
    the media spotlight.

    Everyone wants to
    see the aging model or celebrity with wrinkle free perfect skin that image manipulation
    is not even questioned anymore. The same
    thing is now happening in photojournalism, make everything perfect to get the
    image recognized and published in the desired media outlet. Compromising the integrity of the situation
    by manipulating the image or content is not viewed as altering reality but as a
    byproduct of getting the image sold, what the content providers want.

    What the market will
    bear is leading us down a dangerous slope if we do not hold the media outlets
    to account for the story / information they provide.

  • Checking daily your site from Italy, I encountered the above described issues several times. Hope it is fixed! Keep up the good work Dan!

  • Appreciate Marco. Should the downtimes happen again, please alert (easy to remember) [email protected]

  • Well said Kilroy. Seems like these days the story/information is rather produced than just presented. I’ve been in the news business for two decades. It’s more and more about infotainment with the editors in faraway offices already knowing what and how they want to publish something before it happens to, well, sell what’s wanted.

  • I had the same problem several times.
    Last week I made test and noticed, when the proble occured with the firefox I opened the MX Internet Exporer (I hat it) and I got the.me without problems. I have the same problem with the Firefox on my Samsung tablet.
    The Firefox mentioned a problem with a proxi server.

    the.me is different since a few days. Since a very long time the page did not stop loading after opening it. Since a few days this is not the case any more, the page is loading and the loading symbol stops like on any normal page.

    Like Marco I use the.me many times a day. It is the best source of information about rumors and live news!! – And from time to time some interesting post about general topics of photography.
    From me too thanks for your work, Dan!

  • You’re most welcome Dierk, how site’s running smoother from now on!

  • Dave

    Same here. And I would like to ask, why your webpage does not work via a VPN server?

  • Hmm, first time I hear this Dave. I use a CDN, shouldn’t distinguish between a VPN server and regular HTTP traffic. What error you get? Just doesn’t load? Blank pages?!

  • Dave

    The site just does not load.

  • Went through this article a second time, after a collaboration with Associated Press during the Venice Film Festival.
    The experience opened my eyes on how an important agengy like AP works, and what kind of photos are required.
    I signed an agreement where I declare that none of my photos would be altered in any way, and whatever alteration would only be done by AP.
    I have sit and looked next to the bosses to see and learn: to make the story short, the only alteration allowed seemed to be a slight exposure compensation, and a crop if necessary.
    Oh yes, they work directly on JPEG files, there’s no time to download heavy RAW files and do some post processing.
    (And that’s when you learn to take the right shot)
    I had the chance to take a portrait of photographer Yann Arthus Berthrand, just after an interview: I could only ask him to stand by the window or to look at me: his glasses were upside down on the table in front of him, and I left them in that position.
    Perhaps photojournalism “rules” might be strict, rigid, but if you are good and lucky enough to take a great photo, more respect to you.

  • Now where’s your YAB portrait!

  • I can post it because AP used other photos taken during that meeting. The room where he had the interview was rather empty. Light was not the best available, I warmed it chosing a different white balance, camera used was a LeicaQ. A great photographer and interesting person I must say. His movie Humans is a must see. He reminded me Sebastiaõ Salgado in some ways.