Photographic manipulation: the new World Press Photo rule

December 6, 2009 · by David Campbell · photography

World Press Photo has included a new clause about the manipulation of imagery in their entry rules for 2010. This clause says:

The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide.

For WPP, this clause is clear:

In essence, this means that the content of an image must not be tampered with. The new clause is flexible enough to allow the jury some room for interpretation, because enhancement may be defined differently, for example, for a portrait than for a hard news picture.

This new clause is most likely a reaction to the controversy sparked by the exclusion of Klavs Bo Christensen’s Haiti photos from the Danish picture of the year competition – a controversy I discussed here in April. (Note that some of the links in that post no longer find details of the Christensen debate – it seems that what was being openly discussed earlier in the year is now being closed down. A summary and two of the offending images can still be seen here however).

As Photo District News observed, this clause begs more questions than it answers. What are the “currently accepted standards in the industry”? The recurrent controversies suggest they don’t actually exist. And the flexibility accorded to the jury in permitting interpretation for different domains of photographic practice demonstrates that even if standards can be cited, they are far from universal or fixed.

Nonetheless, the WPP clause is significant because it shows that the grounds for judging the legitimacy of documentary photographs come, not from external or objective standards linked to notions of realism, but from accepted practice within the genre of photojournalism and its history. In this conventional wisdom black and white photographs have long been the gold standard, but isn’t desaturating a picture a form of tampering? And if that is permitted, what is not allowed?

The clause also demonstrates that WPP clings to the desire to regard either the negative or RAW file as the foundation of photographic truth, the point of origin against which everything else can be judged. Given the operation of photographic technology both past and present that seems to be a misplaced faith.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in next years competition. For the WPP clause to be effective, the organization is going to have to be transparent about its operation and the jury’s deliberations should a problem arise.

6 Responses to “Photographic manipulation: the new World Press Photo rule”

  1. I think you’re being a little generous here David. The whole debate about the tampering of images in the digital age is totally bonkers, at least in terms of working with colors.

    To allow black and white digital is, as you point out, to allow a complete manipulation of the image. But photography is essentially an art of manipulation.

    The bizarre thing is that these people actually start from the point that photography is in itself a true representation of an event.

    How daft is that?

    If you really want to break judging down then you are examining every decision that a photographer makes. From where they stand, the time of day, the angle, the lens, the speed, the composition, the importance of the event, (all manipulations) right through to how the photographer manipulates the image when they get it on a computer. And the final question is what effect does this manipulation have on me?

    They should reject over photo shopped images on no other basis than that they look crap; that they detract from what is on view because they no longer ‘feel’ accurate. To ask for the RAW file is to in some way suggest there is an objective process going on. Bollocks.

    Do you like the photo or not?

  2. Thanks and very useful! Cheers

  3. they never said you couldn’t push or pull film, and cross processing was quite a major trend for a while, admittedly not for press work though, that was just pushed 2 or 3 stops and then developed in a grain tightening developer like Rodinol, and printed on grade 4. Kicking contrast, biting grain….not enhanced at all, Yeah right

  4. I know let’s spend billions on developing a photographic process that allows even more creativity to journalism and then crush it because we don’t like what the journalists produce. A journalist is a story teller and if a picture doesn’t tell the whole story, then I think it’s the duty of the journalist to make it do the job. We don’t live in a world where everyone agrees, we don’t live in a world where any one person knows the exact truth, but if we continue down this path of creative sensorship we will soon come to realise that we have lost our ability to provide opinion. Without this journalism ceases to exist.

  5. I think there are a whole host of problems here, several reflected by posts on this blog (e.g duckrabbit). I think the root of this problem maybe exists not just with what photographers do to their images but with historical traditions of image making. As Hubert Damische observed many years ago there is nothing about an image produced by a camera that is inherently natural. The design of the camera relates to the visual traditions founded in the Renaissance, i.e. perspective. Therefore the link between how a human being witnesses an event and how the camera describes the event is one that has been built upon visual traditions of (dominantly) Western culture and not objective reality. Further to this, since human beings can only interpret through perception, any standard of objectivity is, as Kant suggested of beauty, only arrived at by concensus. And this concensus is based upon these traditions. It is then ideological.
    Take for example the idea that realism in photography is best expressed in black and white. This is purely down to accepted historical practices. It is traditional and it is also, since digital cameras record in colour, purely a stylistic decision. There is nothing inherent in a black and white image that brings it closer to truth than a colour image, especially since we perceive in colour (and even then we all perceive differently).
    The problems with the WPP judgement on manipulation is that it is unable to to provide strict guidelines for either photography or human perceptual interpretation. Since all photographs are interpretations their truth value is not something that is natural but is determined by cultural traditions and conditions. To argue that some interpretations have greater truth value than others is evidence of the belief of some values over others.
    My concern with the images of Klav Bo Richardson is that they seem more wrapped up in the picturesque (image making for the sake of image making) than with the intentions of journalism (image making to help others) and so I think the WPP was right to question the validity of these images: they are too distant from how we would perceive the situation if we were there. They look theatrical and beautified in a way that appears synthetic. What I really object to is that they are far too concerned with the achievements of the author rather than with the situation at hand. Considering the events they seem inappropriate to the values of journalism.

  1. […] in December last year I posted a commentary on World Press Photo’s new rule on ‘manipulation’ of submitted imagery. The main […]

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