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2013 - the year we lost sight of what photography can achieve

15 March 2013 - Graham Harrison

This year’s announcement of the winners of two major competitions for photojournalists, World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International, created more than the usual fire storm. Raking through the ashes, Graham Harrison looks for a way forward, and reveals how one major grants programme for photojournalists had no restrictions on image manipulation at all.

Late on the night of 14 February the Swedish photojournalist Paul Hansen received a phone call from the offices of World Press Photo in Amsterdam to be told that his photograph of a funeral of two boys and their father, killed in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, had won World Press Photo of the Year. After giving a whoop of joy Hansen summed up the predicament of the award-winning photojournalist with the words, “It was a horrible day, it seems so strange to be happy.”  

News of Hansen’s success, in what is widely considered the most prestigious award in photojournalism, triggered comments across the internet on the amount of post production used in an image that was quickly labeled ‘cinematic.’ 

Defending the selection, World Press Photo jury member Véronique de Viguerie said the winning photograph met WPP criteria. “There’s no question that a raw image file has to be altered in order to produce a publishable image,” said de Viguerie. “The question is, to what extent.” 

Funeral of two children and their father, Gaza City: Paul Hansen’s 2013 World Press Photo of the Year (left) and how it appeared on the front page of Dagens Nyheter on 21 November 2012. Click here for enlargement in new window.

World Press Cliché?

For the Belgian born photojournalist John Vink, a member of Magnum photos since 1997, the line had been crossed. Speaking to EPUK Vink suggested that the root of the problem lies in the standardised world in which competitions like World Press Photo now exist.

“When I saw the winning photo, I couldn’t help wondering where the light came from,” said Vink. “That question came a fraction of a second after having integrated the context the picture was taken in.”

“We know about Palestine, about the unfair treatment of the Palestinians, about the blind (or is it cynically targeted?) violence, but I ask where does the light come from? How troubling is that?”

“Of course reporting over and over again on these situations is necessary. People tend to forget. Memory has to be stirred. But Hansen’s winning image is yet another graphical version, ‘well done’ and therefore easily understandable, a shortcut to what happened. But I am a bit afraid that what makes the picture stand out, what caught my eye, is the weird light.”

“Also: this is World Press Photo. A place which year after year provides a rather predictable vision of the world which, in a sort of self-castigating or suicidal mode, fits perfectly in a dwindling and whining editorial market. Quite similar to the mindset one can find at Visa Pour l’Image. Feeding the beast that will not feed you anymore. Perpetuating an ailing system.”

“It’s not that the photographs aren’t any good,” said Vink. “It is that pre-formatted vision of the world I have difficulties with.”

Aware of the limitations of that pre-formatted world, Gary Knight, anticipating chairing the WPP 2013 jury (before stepping down due to a bereavement), told World Press Photo in December, “I would love to see a representation of the world that isn’t reductive, that doesn’t represent the world in photographic clichés.”

And that, according to John Vink, leads to another problem, “To stand out in a world of clichés you sometimes let go of bits and pieces of ethics.”

“The World Press Photo of the Year didn’t need so much post production to be understood. It needed it to win the prize,” said Vink.

To understand the power of the processed image in the minds of the 2013 WPP jury take a look at Paul Hansen’s winning portfolio for Newspaper Photographer of the Year in the 2013 Pictures of the Year International awards, a title announced on 9 February.

Of the thirty-eight images in Hansen’s winning portfolio only the photograph that won World Press Photo of the Year (No. 17) appears to have had significant post production. 

Two black and white stories in Hansen’s POYi portfolio, covering the aftermath of the Utøya massacre and a women’s chain gang in Arizona, are in the documentary tradition of minimal post production.

World Press Photo gave their top award to the most processed image in an otherwise normally processed portfolio of work. 

The old one-two: Four days after award-winning photographer Paolo Pellegrin responded to criticism of his working methods posted on Bag News Notes former US Marine Corps photographer Samuel Corum attacked Pellegrin with new criticism.

It’s my caption and I’ll write what I want to

As the debate about the relationship between Photoshop and photojournalism began to subside a new argument blew up involving John Vink’s Magnum colleague, the multi-award-winning Paolo Pellegrin, who was accused of misidentification, plagiarism and purposefully omitting information for dramatic effect in his captions for two photographs in a photo series called The CrescentThe Crescent refers to roughly five poor neighbourhoods that border the centre of the US city of Rochester.

Named Freelance/Agency Photographer of the Year at the 2013 Pictures of the Year International awards, Paolo Pellegrin was also awarded second place in the competition’s Issue Reporting Picture Story category and picked up a second prize in the General News Stories section of World Press Photo. The Crescent featured in all three wins.

When Pellegrin worked on The Crescent story in 2012 the Rochester Institute of Technology provided facilities for Pellegrin and ten other Magnum photographers for a wider project on Rochester called House of Photos. RIT students acted as production assistants to the Magnum photographers.

The first photograph in question Pellegrin had captioned, “A former US Marine corp sniper with his weapon. Rochester, NY. USA 2012.″ It showed, we were later told, not a military sniper but a former Marine Corps photographer and gun owner, Shane Keller, then a Rochester Institute of Technology student and not, as far as Keller himself was aware, a Crescent resident. Keller was photographer in his garage.

The second photograph at the heart of the Pellegrin argument, not successful in the awards, was simply captioned ‘Breet with his gun.’ It showed, apparently, Pellegrin’s assistant in Rochester, Brett Carlsen, another RIT student, posing with a handgun that belonged, not to him, but to Carlsen’s fellow student Shane Keller.

Pellegrin defended the first photograph of Shane Keller in his garage at length, pointing out that “to tell more fully the story of gun violence in Rochester, as exemplified by what I was seeing in the Crescent, I wanted to make some portraits of gun aficionados. Like any journalist, I worked with my assistant to locate such people, and Shane was one of the people we located.”

What Pellegrin did accept was that the caption should be amended, something World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International did. Both organisations stood by their awards to Pellegrin, WPP saying they were “not fundamentally misled” and POYi that they “do not probe for reasons to disqualify work and understand that errors occur.”

Four days after Pellegrin’s statement in defence of the first photograph was published, a former US Marine Corps photographer and close friend of Shane Keller, called Samuel Corum, broke the story on the second photograph.

Corum, who said he’d spoken to Keller “multiple times” about the controversy, wrote in his blog that accurate caption writing for photojournalists was vital, “because the main tenet of our job and industry is to tell the truth above all else.”

Well enough timed to damage the multi award-winning Magnum photographer and Canon Ambassador, Corum asked about the minimal and misspelt caption ‘Breet with his gun:’ “Is purposefully omitting information in order to guide the viewer into coming to a more dramatic conclusion the same as lying?”

When contacted by EPUK, Paolo Pellegrin said he’d been on the road for two months and had not read the Corum blog entry. Magnum President, Alex Majoli, backed Pellegrin saying, “Magnum supports Paolo and his work fully.”
Perhaps though, with a little help from their friends, three foot soldiers from the western provinces had, with the old one-two, winged an emperor of prize-winning photojournalism.

For one born in Rome, Paolo Pellegrin might have been more diligent. Like any of us, even in triumph you are not a god. Look behind you. Remember you are a man.

Stepan Rudik, photographer: An easy sacrifice for an ambivalent standard?

So where does this leave us? The amount of acceptable post production for photojournalism contests remains, for World Press Photo, at least, a moveable feast. There was noticeable progress on captions, however, with the director of Pictures of the Year International, Rick Shaw, telling the New York Times Lens blog, he “intends to update the entry rules for next year, adding language about self-authorship and accuracy, in captions or story summaries.”

Regarding the easier to define issues of retouching and image alteration, one might reasonably have thought all the major competitions had reached a consensus. But as EPUK found out that was not the case.

In 2010 World Press Photo introduced the following rule on image manipulation: “The content of an image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed.”

Vague as it was, its implementation led to the well publicised disqualification of a Ukranian photographer, Stepan Rudik, whose third prize for sports features was revoked when it came to light he had digitally removed a distracting highlight, part of a light-coloured shoe, from one of his photographs. 

WPP’s Announcement of Disqualification of 3 March 2010, stating Rudik had “violated the rules of the World Press Photo Contest”, remains on the WPP site as a warning to others, like a head on a spike.

Since 2010 disqualification from WPP has been a less public affair. Jury president Santiago Lyon of the Associated Press admitting in 2013 that, “Certain images were disqualified for excessive alteration,” although he declined say how many. 

What remains certain, however, is the ambiguity of “currently accepted standards in the industry.”

In response, Michiel Munneke, Managing Director at World Press Photo told EPUK today that vague as it may seem the phrase is not meaningless. “We appreciate that there is little agreement about what those currently accepted standards are in explicit terms of settings and grades in software packages,” he said.

“In inviting photographers to enter in our contest, we have chosen to be inclusive in accommodating the range of practices within the photojournalistic community, both stylistically and geographically.”

“Within the international photojournalistic practice, different standards co-exist and the standards evolve from one year to another. In our case we consider the jury to be authoritative representatives of the industry, and in their choices they will determine what they consider currently acceptable standards,” said Munneke.

Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography are presented annually at Visa pour l’Image. Since 2005 Getty Images have donated $800,000 to photographers, rules on image manipulation were not introduced until 2013.

Getty Images: no rule on image manipulation for Grants

In September, Aidan Sullivan, the Vice President of Photo Assignments at Getty Images, stood before an audience at Visa Pour l’Image to announce the winners of the 2012 Getty Grants for Editorial Photography. Getty Images, he said, were proud to help four “extraordinary photographers complete their very important projects” with an award of $20,000 to each. In total Getty had given over $800,000 to photographers since 2005, said Sullivan.

Surprisingly the Terms and Conditions and FAQ for the editorial grants contained no rule on image manipulation until January this year. The amendment came after EPUK wrote to the five high-profile members of the independent panel of judges.

Two emails to each of the judges received no reply but eventually a letter mailed personally to each of them produced a response from Aidan Sullivan who wrote back on 14 February defending the “thorough and robust” judging process but conceding, “We do appreciate your concerns and as a result will adopt an entry criteria similar to World Press Photo.”

The Terms and Conditions for the 2013 Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography now begin, “Work entered into the Grants for Editorial Photography may only contain levels of retouching which the independent jury and Getty Images decides conform to currently accepted standards in the industry.” 

The standardisation of the rules on image manipulation across all the major photojournalism competitions has to be seriously considered, and if that is achievable, then we should take the next step and look at ways to clarify those rules.

“A serious violation of ethics”

In the UK The Press Photographers’ Year has avoided the major pitfalls. Small compared to World Press Photo, The Press Photographers’ Year has, because of support from sponsors such as British drinks multinational Diageo, been able to exhibit their final edit at the National Theatre in London each year and publish a number of glossy annuals. 

Looking at the winning work on-line and in the annuals it is hard to find a single image that would raise a question about retouching or excessive post production.

The PPY’s success in this respect is partly due to the limiting of the competition to professional photographers supplying the British and Irish media and to the members of the jury being drawn from that same group (two EPUK moderators have been jurors three times between them). With your peers judging your work there is no place for a suspect image to hide.

The PPY rules are clear on image manipulation: “No composite or restructured images will be accepted, and no selective colourisation (Schindlering) will be accepted. Any adjustments to any files submitted must be limited to those replicating conventional darkroom techniques.”

Although conventional darkroom techniques might be unknown to many today, the PPY rules allow far less wriggle room on manipulation than do those of World Press Photo or the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography. 

Regarding post production, PPY organiser Dillon Bryden told EPUK, “Photographers closely connected with the day business of news and sports photography know what is and what isn’t appropriate treatment of their images, given technical and editorial restrictions. It’s just instinctive.” 

“I say appropriate as opposed to acceptable as who can really set the limits, but you tend to just know,” said Bryden.

Across The Pond the White House News Photographers Association cover all options with precise rules as photographer Tracey Woodward found out last month. Woodward had an image disqualified from the WHNPA annual competition because he had burnt in, darkened, a figure in one of his competition entries. The excessive darkening was both contrary to the ethics policy of his newspaper, The Washington Post, and the WHNPA rules.

The WHNPA rules state that although adjustments that restore the authentic nature of the photograph are acceptable, “No element should be digitally added to or subtracted and the image must be a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure. Excessive changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that alter the original scene are not acceptable. Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning.”

The image disqualified was an altered version of what had originally been published in The Washington Post where digital manipulation of photographs is a serious ethics violation. Clearly ethics had moved successfully from the traditional media to a competition.

Photography can speak on behalf of those without a voice

Two and a half years ago EPUK published For God’s Sake Somebody Call It, an article in which former World Press Photo Chairman and Magnum head Neil Burgess announced the death of photojournalism.

“There are some things which look very like photojournalism,” wrote Burgess. “But scratch the surface and you’ll find they were produced with the aid of a grant, were commissioned by an NGO, or that they were a self-financed project, a book extract, or a preview of an exhibition.”

“The bottom line, is this photojournalism thing is broken,” agreed former Time contract photographer, Kenneth Jarecke, in a blog entry on the Pellegrin caption controversy.

“The people that should be working to fix this,” said Jarecke, “are the powerful editors and highly respected older statesmen, who are (with some notable brave and bold exceptions) either making excuses, keeping their mouths shut or benefiting from the situation.”

To correct this absence of leadership needs time. Dependent on integrity and consistency, respect for that leadership can only be built slowly. Long term investment is essential.

Investments in photographers such as the Getty Grants are welcome, but as we found out organisers and distant, seemingly aloof, panels of judges need to be reminded that if photojournalism is anything today, it is not about image manipulation.

Since 2005 Getty Images have donated over $800,000 to photographers, yet is wasn’t until questions were asked that a rule on image manipulation was added to the Terms and Conditions for their Editorial Grants this year.

For those on the ground it is through the risks taken to get the stories, the time and dedication needed to reach locations and gain trust that the medium gains credibility as a faithful witness. It so easily loses that credibility when judges make choices that allow us to lose sight of the power of that simple document, an unadulterated photograph.

For World Press Photo that may be a difficult task because of its international nature. “Our role is to facilitate the decision-making of the juries,” said Michiel Munneke. “We are constantly evaluating our position on ethics and manipulation and we keep adapting the judging procedures. The aim is always to safeguard the integrity of the process, and increasing transparency about the process without breaching confidentiality.”

Dillon Bryden sympathises, “Each year WPP deal with photographers from all over the world, of different nationalities, with varied aesthetic senses and wide ranging skills,” said the Press Photographers’ Year organiser. But in the worst cases “World Press Photo can become an issue of style over substance.”

The Press Photographers’ Year is effective when it manages to leave the drama to the images on display. The presentation is less about first, second, third than about producing an edit of photographs that showcases what is good in UK press photography as a whole. After all their deliberations the PPY jurors head home weary but with a sense of having nurtured and celebrated the work of talented colleagues. A feeling which stays.

For Paolo Pellegrin the purpose of photography contests is to “draw attention to the stories we are trying to tell.” However, the man at the centre of so much debate in 2013 did acknowledge, “To the extent the actual stories are getting overlooked, perhaps we all need to think how to improve the system.”

World Press Photo might benefit photographers by shifting its emphasis from a grand announcement, which focusses attention on a single photograph and a single photographer, to stories or large bodies of work, something Pictures of the Year seems to do more successfully. John Vink of Magnum puts it like this,“Single pictures are always a reduction of what happened, of what is at stake, of the lives of people. I need more than a shortcut. I need text also, I need layout, I need sequencing.”

“It is more about the people being photographed than about the photographer isn’t it? It is their story we want to tell,” said Vink.

Text, layout, sequencing. The people in the photographs. Where are they in this competitive environment? Maybe we need a new competition, or better still we need to adjust those that already exist to be more sensitive to, as Dillon Bryden puts it, “What photography does best.”

So next year what about introducing a new category like ‘News Story which most benefited those without a voice’ or ‘Portfolio which changed the way people think.’ Difficult you say. Of course it is. The first step is to come down from those ivory towers. Difficult you say. Of course it is. But not as difficult as, some time in the future, looking back and wishing that you had.

Text © 2013 Graham Harrison with thanks to EPUK colleagues David Hoffman, Jeremy Nicholl and Tony Sleep.

Also on EPUK: Ethics and Photojournalism and Image manipulation – a five step scale of what is, and what is not acceptable.

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If the photographers winning all these remarkable awards were actually any good in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to fake anything. Secondly good photographers normally are really bad writers so why they are required to explain their work in words to me is inexplicable.

Comment 1: Mareli, 16 March 2013, 04:40 PM

The world of photojournalism is suffering the same way professional sports is suffering. There is pressure to capitulate to extraordinary means or enhanced methods to win what is intended to be a competition of the best that unadulterated nature and reality have to offer. The competition becomes, as in advertising, circus shows and politics, not who is most authentically best but “Who is the best magician?” We have fallen off the cliff and as the article states, those who are in a position to do so are not sticking their necks out over the abyss pull us back up.

Comment 2: Beverly, 17 March 2013, 10:31 PM

“Troubling” for Vink it might have been, but not half as troubling as the fact thats overlooked in all of this hand-wringing which is, I would respectfully suggest, that press images are not created for other press photographers to obsess over, and to anguish about where the lighting came from. Yes its great that competitions like WPP exists, and peers can congratulate their fellows, promote the work of younger photogs and raise the industry profile, but…..

But……….the majority of people who view these images are not photographers, in the “ivory towers” that you mention, but ordinary news-consuming punters in their living rooms who could give a rats bottom about lighting complexity and apparent anomalies of the illumination, and are (hopefully) more concerned with the event being portrayed, knowing what caused it, and who it affected. And crucially knowing that its a real event. Basically knowing “The Story”. This whole debate, whenever it raises its head, seems to overlook that. Too much introspection about what it all means to the industry and not enough about what it might convey to the audience.

Now, that said, I wholeheartedly agree there is a need to have more context, story, depth, breadth to competitions, in effect getting ‘back to stories’, as Vink, Pellegrin and Bryden all suggest in your final paragraphs, which i think is an excellent idea. There is a good reason why the Magnum work of the Time/Life era was the way it was and has endured – the stories mattered, they mattered to the photographers who pursued them, and they mattered to the consumers who engaged with them and were immersed in the depth they offered. All that has changed today is that print is playing second fiddle to online delivery, but for the most part we are still stuck with stills, and the engaging ways in which the stories CAN be told online is not truly reflected in the ways most work is delivered, and as a consequence – the ways that competitions are structured.

I noted a comment about the superb NYT ‘Snow Fall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek’ multimedia piece which said something to the effect that ‘this was a glimpse of the future of online journalism and storytelling’. Which I thought was rather shortsighted – its not the future, it’s now, it’s just been overlooked that we have such astonishing tools at our disposal to tell these stories with this degree of accomplishment and imagination. It took the NYT piece to remind us of that. But is there really a burgeoning market for such multimedia pieces? Do these complex stories, with sound, video and inspired editing requirements in addition to the compelling stills content, earn more money per pixel space used, and time invested, than straight stills do? I’m not certain, but I really don’t think so. Do they? (I honestly don’t know) But if not, there’s a big problem right away.

But then I’m not a photojournalist, simply a consumer of their work, so please correct any misconceptions I might have about all of this ‘business’.

And as much as I know about lighting (a fair amount), all I saw in Hansen’s image was two dead children. You can re-edit the sombre tonality away, and reinstate the harsher lighting, but there’s still two dead children there. And anyone who is going to doubt the veracity of the events portrayed because it’s an image with dull and ‘unnatural’ tones is not likely to significantly change their opinion if its presented in glorious technicolour or black & white, sadly. But what I didn’t see, and really had to struggle to find in the online morass of debate over the image’s ‘surface’, were the names of the victims, and the reasons why they died. If THAT is getting overlooked by the unrelenting focus on the aesthetics of the image, then there’s a serious problem I’d suggest.

Bottom line: these photographers work is excellent, as is the work of most working at that level in the industry, but I think its an industry that lets them down in many ways, and certainly in the ‘competition’ arena, which is arguably where such work is put fully in the spotlight and widens the public ‘reach’ it can achieve. Time perhaps to take such competitions out of the cosy nepotistic slumber they’re in and get some objectivity in there. A wake-up call out of which will come the badly needed change that keeps getting alluded to. What will it be? I don’t know. What will it foster? Who knows. but it might be exciting. Whatever it might be its got to be worth a try.

I’ll leave the last, sage, word to Paolo Pellegrin: ‘……the purpose of photography contests is to “draw attention to the stories we are trying to tell.” ‘ “To the extent the actual stories are getting overlooked, perhaps we all need to think how to improve the system.”

Amen to that.

Comment 3: John MacPherson, 18 March 2013, 12:20 PM

Oh for goodness sake, Photography. Pull yourself together.
Forget competitions.
Open a newspaper, or go to a news website. There you will find photojournalism doing what it is supposed to do; telling the story of the day.
Competitions are great fun, especially for the winners. We love to know who’s in, who’s “up and coming”, who to name drop. But it’s what goes on the page that matters. And generally speaking, what photographers and their editors do does matter.

Comment 4: David Firn, 18 March 2013, 05:47 PM

While some of us were thinking about WPP this popped up… The blindness of photojournalism made crystal clear

Comment 5: EPUK Editor, 18 March 2013, 07:17 PM

World Press Photo to change contest rules following post-processing controversy – British Journal of Photography, 3 October 2013.

Comment 6: EPUK Editor, 16 November 2013, 03:13 PM

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