The problem with World Press Photo’s contest

March 9, 2015

There are certain things photojournalists are never supposed to do if they want to remain credible visual communicators. They are worth reviewing to understand the ethical cyclone that struck one of the profession’s most prestigious awards organizations.

  • Photojournalists should not arrive to take someone’s photograph and start telling them what to do, to pump their fist or hold a sign a certain way. The rules are more flexible when taking a portrait — the idea being that the very essence of portraiture suggests something’s been posed. But for everything else, no posing.
  • We should not construct a scene and pass it off as a “found” moment. Once we have taken the shot, we should not add or remove objects during post-processing. The editing done in this phase should be about sharpening the image, not fabricating a new one.
  • We should not lie or mislead in writing captions for our photos.
  • We should not change the emotional trajectory of a situation by encouraging protagonists to make nice, or toughen up.

These are some of the basics. And then there is the practice.

As a photographer covering presidential politics in the 1990s I watched in astonishment as the most prominent wire service and magazine photographers routinely directed candidates into positions they thought would make the best photographs:

“Stand this way, Governor Clinton, closer to your wife. Put your arm around her.”

“Look this way, Senator Dole. How about a thumbs up!”

One photographer who was known for privileged access stood on a New York City stage and directed campaign staff to refocus the spotlights prior to an event so that the exposures would be more favorable to his frame.

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If national picture editors didn’t know this was happening they should have known. We all knew.

Are these manipulations minor aesthetic adjustments or unethical intrusions and for what intent — to clarify a story or create one that mainly exists in the mind of the maker? That’s the crux of the controversy which for the last month has rocked World Press Photo, one of the industry’s most influential and respected organizations.

If you haven’t been following the story, these are the bare bones: On February 12, after reviewing 97,912 images submitted by 5,692 international photographers, the World Press jury announced multiple photo awards, with its top prize, photo of the year going to Danish photographer Mads Nissen for a quiet image of a gay couple in St. Petersburg, Russia. Discussion of the photograph’s merits was drowned out by the parallel announcement that 22 percent of the entries that made it to the final round were disqualified for sloppy or blatant post processing.

Once we saw the evidence, we were shocked.

Nearly all digital files require some post processing — changes in contrast, light, shadow, white balance, and sharpening done to a digital file before it is sent for publication. This work can be done by photographers before they file, picture editors, and in the past darkroom technicians. But it’s going too far when objects are added or removed, or the scene is radically transformed through excessive burning or dodging.

By looking only at the photograph, it can be almost impossible to tell something has been excessively doctored. But the WPP requires that once an image advances to the finals, photographers must submit the raw (unprocessed) files for expert review.

“Once we saw the evidence, we were shocked,” jury chairwoman and New York Times Director of Photography Michele McNally said on the TimesLens blog. “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.”

Last year, 8 percent of the those that made the finals were disqualified.

And in 2013, Paul Hansen’s photo Gaza Burial which won the World Press Photo of the year, was criticized for appearing hyper real through his use of a post processing technique that merges multiple exposures of a scene into one image as a way of toning down the highlights and lifting up the shadows. After enormous scrutiny, World Press Photo affirmed its choice of the Hansen picture because he used only one frame in the HDR process and not several.

This year, WPP has so far declined to release examples of the actual photo manipulation or name the photographers disqualified, creating further confusion as to what is and isn’t permissible. WPP referred to a previously commissioned report as a guideline. But that’s not enough. World Press Photo should stream their contests live, as does another competition, Pictures of the Year International. This would help clarify the discussion, allow the disqualified photographers a voice, and protect jurors from accusations of nepotism or bias.

The chatter over post-processing dimmed temporarily when a new photographic ethics controversy tripped onto center stage during the WPP contest. Photojournalists, bloggers, even public officials began scrutinizing the work of Giovanni Troilo, whose color series shows images of public sex, dementia, and fear within the Belgian city of Charleroi. He titled it, “La Ville Noir”—The Dark Heart of Europe.

Critics charged that he staged events. One image shows a couple having sex in a car. The man turned out to be his cousin. Did he ask his cousin to perform? The captions were unclear. Another showed a naked woman in a cage, which the photographer said was not unusual given that the woman and her husband are involved in BDSM. The Mayor of Charleroi chimed in with a letter to World Press saying the entire series was a work of fantasy and a gross misrepresentation of his city.

The critics piled on. And then Jean Francois Leroy, the director of one the largest photojournalism festivals in the world, Visa Pour L’image in Perpignan, France, announced that he was canceling the World Press Photo exhibition this year.

The organization was placed in a difficult position, having to defend their stance against too much post processing while appearing to play fast and loose with one of the most basic tenants of photojournalism: thou shalt not stage images that the viewer assumes to be genuine.

WPP requested more caption information from the photographer, who explained the work this way:

“Some scenes just happened in front of the camera (policemen, clinic, pills and building) and I just found the way to be in the right place, but without any dialog between me and the subjects. In other scenes, like in the cage for example, the presence of the camera was declared, there was obviously a dialog necessary to setting up a proper portrait session. All of the photos were taken with the utmost transparency and correctness. In instances where the subjects are aware that they are being photographed, the original caption says so.”

Last week, WPP revoked Troilo’s prize, but for a different reason. Another photographer came forward to allege that one of Troilo’s pictures was taken in Brussels when the caption claimed it was shot in Charleroi. Miscaptioning is a definite violation of the rules, but it’s also an Al Capone-style solution — if we can’t get him on murder let’s get him for tax evasion.

And so little was resolved.

Is this a case of semantics? Or a clash of two styles of photography trying to exist in a contest that used to show mainly one? Is it an indication that the field is rapidly changing and a new definition is needed for photojournalism and documentary work? Are these the most important questions to ask when dealing with an inherently subjective medium, which aspires to communicate a vision of accepted truth? And whose truth for what purpose?

Before the great media disruption, photographers were sent out on a story for weeks, sometimes months. The purpose was for the photographer to watch. Quietly, patiently, carefully observing subtle changes in mood, emotion, light, shadow, and through framing and positioning, and trusted relationships with subjects, we were to bring back images that reflected an uncompromised, closely seen reality.

Then budgets shrank, three months turned into three weeks, three weeks into three days, three days into three hours and what’s left to shoot? A portrait where posing, lighting, sometimes propping, is now the norm.

Digital cameras and the ease of moving pictures from laptops and phones, created a wave of overnight photographers from diverse backgrounds — art, journalism, fashion — all vying for the same publications. Major media players like The New York Times and Time, now routinely publish a variety of photographic styles from staged portraits, some of them heavily post-processed, to traditional reportage to app-laced iPhone images, making it difficult to know what constitutes photojournalism today.

WPP intends to air a fuller discussion around image integrity at this year’s awards ceremony in April in Amsterdam.

In October, Columbia Journalism School, in conjunction with the Brown and Tow Centers and the Tufts Center for Narrative and Documentary Practice, will host a day-long conference on image truth, verification, representation and ethics with participation from WPP, other media organizations and academics.

Leaders in the profession need to tackle these issues straight on and develop a set of standards for post processing that is transparent and widely accepted. Contests need to better define what they are judging and why. Photographers must be part of the conversation as they are the innovators pushing the medium and changing our idea of storytelling.

Photography is an inherently subjective medium. Calling it photojournalism embeds the image with an expectation of truth. But from the moment I choose where to stand, when to stand there, who comes with me as a guide or censor, where I point my gaze, which lens I use to see, how much light fills the frame, these are all subjective decisions. Is a balanced exposure a politically neutral one? Should I use a flash to turn a gray sky blue? Should I silhouette faces into darkened shapes, and create an image which sails past the forensic file analysts and WPP jurors, but may not be anything like what the human eye sees?

More importantly, but rarely discussed, what are the political, cultural, and commercial decisions that make a photo editor pick up a phone and tell a photographer, you need to photograph this story now.

Nina Berman is a photographer and an associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism