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.