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The ethics of photography

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By The New York Times Feb. 17, 2015 Feb. 17, 2015

Significant questions have arisen after a large number of images were disqualified from this year’s 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 percent of the photos were disqualified by the judges. This was often because of significant addition or subtraction to the image content.

These disqualifications — almost three times more than in last year’s competition — have generated discussion about the standards in photojournalism for post processing and the alteration of images. Understandably, there is concern over the degree of manipulation in widely published images.

Hoping to forge a conversation on what happened and how the photojournalism community might move forward, Lens has asked several participants in the World Press Photo competition, as well as other photographers, to reflect on these issues.

We also invite you to add your thoughts in the section below, and will post selected comments of fewer than 250 words to further the conversation.

Michele McNally, jury chairwoman, 2015 World Press Photo contest

Many of us have been thinking for a while about how we still refer to traditional darkroom techniques as providing suitable guidelines for what’s acceptable in digital image processing. But as we learned last week, digital is not film, it is data — and it requires a new and clear set of rules.

That became painfully clear to the jury when 20 percent of the photographers entering the penultimate round — where images are considered for the top three awards — were disqualified after technicians compared the entries against the unprocessed RAW files.

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Winners from past contests have included John Stanmeyer, Paul Hansen, Samuel Aranda and Jodi Bieber.

Some were disqualified for sloppy Photoshop manipulation. However, a large number were rejected for removing or adding information to the image, for example, like toning that rendered some parts so black that entire objects disappeared from the frame. The jury — which was flexible about toning, given industry standards — could not accept processing that blatantly added or removed elements of the picture. When the entries were compared with the originals we could not recognize them as being the same picture.

Once we saw the evidence, we were shocked. 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.

Many of these photographers clearly didn’t think what they were doing was wrong. But I’m telling you that it was often very wrong and not accidental. For now, it is hard to know what’s comprised and what’s not.

World Press Photo needs to be more exact about its rules, and they know it. But the industry needs to be more exact, too, about what is — and isn’t — acceptable. We have to do something, but I don’t know yet what that is. Do we check every single picture’s RAW file before it goes out? Is that even possible? But we all have to take action, because right now, the situation is heartbreaking.

Michele McNally is the director of photography and an assistant managing editor at The New York Times. She was the chairwoman of the World Press Photo contest jury this year.

Melissa Lyttle, independent photographer

As a Pictures of the Year international judge this year, we had some serious conversations about the toning of images — both in terms of ones that were overtoned and undertoned. Unlike World Press, POYi winners do not have to submit a RAW file for verification. But I know that if there are any concerns with the images in POYi as they’re being submitted, sorted and checked, contest coordinators can request an original image file at that time. As a judge, I trusted that if anything was egregious, it had been caught on the front end, rather than the back.

“It’s a dangerous and slippery slope to travel down when altered work is lauded.”

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?

It also reminds me of something I was told as a kid: lying is easy, telling the truth is the hard part. If we, as journalists, can’t be trusted to tell the truth in our reporting, the entire foundation of our profession is going to crumble underneath our feet.

, the newly elected vice president of the National Press Photographers Association, was a judge in this year’s Picture of the Year international competition. She is an independent photographer based in Florida, specializing in documentary projects, editorial and travel photography, and freelances for The New York Times.

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Contests are a necessary evil. Freelancers need contests for visibility and marketing, to keep alive in the editorial rat race. We are pressured to do more and push the envelope — not so much for our vision but for our business model.

World Press has some pretty straightforward rules by which we all abide, but since the advent of digital files — of RAW and the ease of Photoshop — the rules have blurred. Some things should be standard, like don’t make stuff up. Don’t pose photojournalism.

Cloning isn’t acceptable. Taking something out of the soda can while leaving the background clean is not cool. But neither is cropping. That is — for all intentions — the same thing, ethically. And on that level — why is it O.K. to use flash and basically bring a portable sun? That is not “real” light.

A RAW file contains much more information than a negative. A photographer can expose for highlights to make completely black dense shadows and there is still information in the RAW. So is the truth of our images now more about intent when shooting? Intent must be considered. But what do we do? Hire an assistant to follow us around with another camera so we can be recorded saying “I’m trying the make this image super contrasty!”

The world is used to filters and manipulation for the sake of aesthetics. How do we as visual communicators adapt? I believe that many of us adopted certain techniques, not to change the truth of what we were attempting to articulate, but to make our images stand out from the crowd. As photojournalists or documentarians we aim to highlight life and tell stories, but we are all do it in our own way. Each of us is a product of our own experiences in life and those experiences determine our motivation behind each click of the shutter.

“Cloning isn’t acceptable. Taking something out of the soda can while leaving the background clean is not cool. But neither is cropping.”

What is truth? Photography certainly isn’t. Photography is artifice. We can underexpose and overexpose the same image, neither version is “true” or “untrue” — it is just a different interpretation of the world in front of us.

When I was notified that I was disqualified last year I was shocked and embarrassed. But then I realized that I didn’t do anything different than I ever did. They said my shadows were too deep and they believed I darkened my shadows too much. They asked for my RAW file this year and my entry this year was not disqualified, as far as I know, even though it was processed in the exact same way.

To be honest, I don’t think I broke the rules. In the end it’s all in the hands of the judges and their sensitivities and proclivities.

We live in a world where there is a ton of image manipulation — if 20 percent of the highest level of photographers are doing it — maybe we need to examine what they are doing and come to accept that as a growth of photography.

The photographer is a seasoned photojournalist who would allow his reaction to be published only if he was not identified.

Lars Boering, managing director, World Press Photo

As of 2015 all participants are required to provide files as recorded by the camera for all images that proceed to the contest’s final stages. The photographers were cooperative and were willing to send us the RAW files, which shows us that they understood the rules. Every photographer who enters the competition can on our website. They were again informed in November when we on our website, where we also published the report on manipulation.

There is no indication that the rules are unclear to the participating photographers. When they have questions during the period they submit the work, a team is available to answer these questions. We have not experienced any difficulty with photographers understanding these rules. They act in accordance with the guidelines of professional conduct.

“There is no indication that the rules are unclear to the participating photographers.”

In preliminary evaluations during our judging period, we have discussed how to improve the ways we use to explain the rules on manipulation. We are now thinking about setting up a series of video tutorials that show participating photographers what kinds of manipulation are not allowed. They will make clear that manipulation — the addition or removal of significant content, other than sensor anomalies — is not allowed, regardless of the technical process through which that addition or removal is achieved. We think that a visual explanation might work better than a text-only explanation.

But again: we must realize that most participants do understand the rules and the limitations.

During 2015 we will be hosting further debate on the issue of manipulation.

If further debate makes clear the community has changed its ideas on the issue of manipulation, World Press Photo will discuss the possible need to adapt the rules. However, we will not change the basic rule that prohibits removing or adding material to the picture. We think that is the foundation of basic journalistic values needed to present credible photographic documents and visual evidence.

David Campbell, secretary to the World Press Photo contest general jury

The World Press Photo research project on “” was commissioned in order to assess what the current worldwide practices and accepted standards relating to the manipulation of still images in photojournalism and documentary photography. As an independent consultant, and following specific terms of reference set by World Press Photo, I conducted a survey of 45 industry professionals from 15 countries that examined standards for the processing of images.

The question of possible manipulation is far from exhausted by the focus on processing. At almost every stage in photographic practice from image capture to circulation there is the potential for manipulation. The mere fact of going to place A rather than place B to produce an image involves a choice that might represent reality in a partial manner. How travel to a photographic location was enabled and funded raises a series of questions. Once on location, the composition and framing of scenes necessarily involves choices that limit representations. Some may set scenes up. The editing, selection, and captioning of images for potential publication adds more layers of decision, and so on.

The study’s principal finding is that a de facto global consensus exists on how media organizations understand manipulation of images. Manipulation is regarded as involving material changes in the processing of an image through the addition or subtraction of content, and it is always deemed unacceptable for news and documentary pictures, as well as nature and sports. The only exception is the removal of tiny details caused by sensor anomalies like dust.

“Manipulation for the juries was not about there being ‘too much Photoshop.’ Manipulation is not synonymous with processing.”

Adjustments to photographs (such as limited cropping, dodging and burning, toning, color adjustment, conversion to grayscale) are accepted, and they are usually described in terms of “minor” changes being permitted while “excessive” changes are prohibited. What counts as “minor” versus “excessive” changes are necessarily interpretive with respondents saying they are judged on a case-by-case basis, suggesting, even if it was technically possible, there will never be a clear line demarcating these concepts. It is because of this there is, and always will be, much debate about the toning of pictures.

The contest rules state “the content of an image must not be altered. Only retouching that conforms to currently-accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards.”

Manipulation for the juries was not about there being “too much Photoshop.” Manipulation is not synonymous with processing. Jurors may have liked or disliked certain levels of toning, but that was just one factor to consider in their overall assessment of images. All images are processed, and levels of processing are aesthetic judgments and do not by themselves violate contest rules. The only point at which processing becomes manipulation is when the toning is so great — usually by transforming significant parts of an image to opaque black or white — that it obscures substantial detail.

Over all, photography should have no limits on creativity, and overtly constructed imagery has much to say about our world. But for those reportage images we want to be documents and evidence, clear standards are necessary to underwrite their credibility. Photographers like Narciso Contreras and Miguel Tova have lost their jobs because of manipulations that crossed the one line we can draw. Of course, that line has to be constantly examined and possibly refined. But we don’t want the first question for every news image to be whether it is faked or not. The best way to guard against that is to be vigilant against all material changes in this realm.

is a writer, professor and producer who analyses visual storytelling. He has been a research consultant for World Press Photo, and served as secretary to the World Press Photo contest general jury in 2014 and 2015.

Patrick Baz, juror, 2015 World Press Photo contest

I feel sad that our profession has been tainted by award hunters who use lies to get recognition, but in reality are jeopardizing the essence of photojournalism. The disqualified photographers are not only cheating the jury, the public and their colleagues: they are also cheating themselves. Some of them do not need to doctor their images to win, so it is very shocking to see what they did.

The greatest athletes have been caught cheating using drugs, and I see no reason strict rules shouldn’t apply to our profession.

Manipulation isn’t new in photojournalism; it dates back to the birth of photography. Then it needed real lab technicians, but nowadays it only requires few mouse clicks.

The World Press Photo contest has clear rules on the matter. The disqualified pictures did not meet the rules. I believe World Press Photo needs to be more transparent and explain why the images we are talking about have been disqualified. I call on the management of World Press Photo to show the public what happened and give the reasons those photographers were disqualified. It’s the only way for the public and the photographers to understand.

“I feel sad that our profession has been tainted by award hunters who use lies to get recognition, but in reality are jeopardizing the essence of photojournalism.”

I highly recommend that photojournalists all over the world download and carefully read “The Integrity of the Image,” by David Campbell. This document should be the basis of a Ten Commandments for our industry. Photography is a very subjective art, but in photojournalism there is also journalism and that part must be predominant. We need to draw a line, otherwise we leave the door open to abusers.

Patrick Baz is a photo manager, editor and photographer for Agence France-Press based in Beirut. As a teenager in the 1970s, he covered the Lebanese civil war and many other conflicts since. His Iraq war photos were published in the 2009 book, “Don’t Take My Picture, Iraqis Don’t Cry.”

After reading these essays, we invite you to add your thoughts about the photograph in the comments below. We will add selected comments of fewer than 250 words to this text to further the conversation.

Here are selected comments from readers:

Andrea Star Reese

The world isn’t black and white, it’s without the slight distortion of a wide-angle lens, it does not have a shallow depth of field, and motions never blur. I doubt that the 20% disqualified by World Press, images taken by professional photojournalists, were meant to obscure the truth. I am sure that many of them were simply using the equivalent of some darkroom technique, since using darkroom methods used to be our guide for acceptable practices.

Data is a word that means information, and I would argue that there is data in a film image. In this new normal, we must keep the bright white cups and plastic bag bits that bomb our photos visible to ensure that the public knows we are telling the truth. We must preserve the traces of artifacts that remain visible in our highlights, lest someone think we are hiding importance.

I am sorry, integrity is serious, it is fragile and precious, especially in journalism. But the Photoshop inquisition is no joke either. I would guess that some of the disqualified photographers have taken huge risks to tell their stories. I doubt that all of the dodges and burns made are the most significant examples of errors in the news business. Do we really need to question their integrity? I think if all of us go through years of our images we will find a white paper cup that was burned in more than we would burn in now. I am a freelance photojournalist doing my best to show every bit of truth that I can photograph.

Alessia Glaviano, Chair of the portraits jury for this year’s World Press and senior photo editor, Vogue Italia

I think it’s good for World Press to have clear standards. There have to be rules for news photography.

Documentary photography is growing, and there is work that is more interpretive, more like a personal vision. Cristina de Middel’s Afronauts or Jennifer Karady’s staged work on veterans are not supposed to be “real” in the photojournalistic sense. I suggest there should be another category for more interpretive work, a category that acknowledges all the new work out there in the intersection between reality and a more individual and artistic version of it.

Sean Cayton

This isn’t a crisis of photojournalism. It’s still there, unmanipulated — for the most part — everyday in newspapers and magazines the world over. This is a crisis of photography competitions. It’s nuts to believe that in a world where millions of pictures are produced and displayed online and in print daily, that there is one picture or a handful of pictures, or a handful of photographers that should be considered the best in the world in any given year.

If competitions are about picking winners, then it’s not shocking to see the lengths photographers, photojournalists or not, will go to create an image that is absolutely perfect. To remove distractions and create a piece of art that impacts — did I say impact? I meant manipulate — a juror to select it over another? That’s part of the job.

I humbly suggest it’s time to rethink the mission. Is World Press Photo about showcasing photography as art that makes a statement? Is it about justifying the job of photojournalist in an age when virtually everyone with a camera is capable of documentation? Is it about highlighting the most pressing stories of the year in a way that will create conversation and change?

World Press Photo and other news photography competitions should revisit and reframe the purpose of a “competition” before demanding photographers change their ways.

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