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What are the current standards relating to the manipulation of photographs? A discussion at the World Press Photo Awards Days 2014

On the manipulation of images, the 2014 World Press Photo contest, and the future debate (updated 13 May)

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The manipulation of images poses a challenge for the credibility of photojournalism that seeks to document events and issues. In my capacity as Secretary to the World Press Photo contest jury, I oversaw new procedures relating to the contest this year. At the Awards Days in Amsterdam last week we organised a public discussion to make people aware of what these new procedures involved and the effect they had on this year’s contest.

In this post I want to outline this year’s contest experience, show some examples of alterations to images that led them to being ineligible for the final round of the contest, make available the discussion from the public panel held on 25 April, and indicate where we go from here on this important issue.

The 2014 Contest experience

This year’s contest saw new procedures with regards to manipulation. World Press Photo had all entries being considered for prizes in the later stages of judging examined by an independent digital photography expert before the jury made their final decisions. A total of 120 photographers were contacted in order to obtain their unprocessed files to compare to each contest entry.

To be eligible for prizes, entries must be valid according to the contest rules. The relevant rules states:

The content of an image must not have been altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry are allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards…

The expert carried out a case-by-case analysis of the level of post-processing in the files that were entered in the contest by comparing them with the unprocessed files. The jury received a full briefing from the expert on all the entries being considered for prizes in the last round before finals. This was followed by a thorough discussion.

In applying the contest rules, the jury affirmed the content of an image must not be altered. This means no significant material may be added or removed by either cloning or substantial toning. The jury based their decision on the outcome (whether significant material had been added or removed) irrespective of the technique (cloning or toning) used. This judgement was applied in the same way to each entry in each category. The result was that 8% of the images eligible for the finals were disqualified – 8 stories and 2 singles, entered in the Nature, Sports, People, Spot News and Contemporary Issues categories.

Each of the photographers whose work was ruled ineligible received a confidential letter detailing the specific frames and precise problems. Photographers who were asked for unprocessed files, but did not win an award, can safely assume in the absence of a confidential letter from World Press Photo that there were no issues with their images relating to manipulation.

While the actual examples of ineligible images will not be published, the independent digital photography expert (Eduard de Kam) prepared some examples to demonstrate what the 2014 jury considered to be problematic. (I discuss these examples at approximately 11:00 in the audio recording below). This gallery [updated 13 May 2014] contains three sets four sets of images, each time showing an original image followed by two altered examples, where either cloning or toning has materially changed the picture. These examples demonstrate the sometimes minor alterations that led to images being ruled ineligible from this year’s final round of judging. In order to examine the changes, please see the full size versions of these examples [also updated] on this page.

Awards Days public discussion

Public panel on current practices and accepted standards in manipulation - World Press Photo Awards Days 25 April 2014

The public panel last week began the discussion of manipulation in relation to the annual contest The past two jury chairs (Santiago Lyon and Gary Knight) discussed issues arising from the last two contests, from the controversy surrounding Paul Hansen’s 2012 winner (an image that was not “faked” and would have been eligible to win this year) to this year’s new procedures. We recorded the event – introduced by Barbara Bufkens and chaired by Olivier Laurent – and you can listen here to the one hour panel discussion and the half hour question and answer session here:


We were rightly called out for the lack of gender diversity on this panel. I can only speak about the panel I helped organise, but we should have offered a wider range of speakers. The previous day we had a meeting at which senior women from the industry – Daphne Angles (New York Times), Evelien Kunst (Noor), Sarah Leen (National Geographic) and Maria Mann (EPA) – contributed to a rich discussion on manipulation that will guide future research on this topic, and we should have had their voices on the public panel too. If we had been able to draw on the diversity that characterised this year’s juries – which had 12 men and 9 women from 12 different nationalities – we would also have benefited. However, the Awards Days panels were comprised of jury members and others who made their own way to Amsterdam for the event, as we were not in a position to bring specific contributors to the city for this discussion.

The panel’s discussion was nonetheless wide-ranging, as you will appreciate if you have the time to listen to the full recording. The first half hour deals with the issue of manipulation in the context of the last two World Press Photo contests, where the emphasis was on how the problematic alterations photographers made to their pictures did nothing to enhance or improve those images.

After that the discussion broadens out to a more general debate, considering the full range of things that can be considered under the umbrella term of “manipulation.” I think it is fair to say none of the panelists felt absolute, universal standards were either possible or desirable. Beyond the specific context of the photo contest, none of them favoured the creation or imposition of rules across the globe. Above all else, the panelists favoured the idea of an on-going discussion that would have diverse inputs and be committed to transparency in order to foster the integrity of the image for photojournalism and documentary photography.

Where do we go from here?

We need a better sense of these current practices and standards around the world relating to manipulation. It seems clear that different organisations in different countries operate different and varying standards. They also use different means to identify and respond to perceived manipulation.

To get this better sense I am directing a new research project for the World Press Photo Academy over the next few months that is designed to map how different parts of the photojournalism industry identifies and deals with image manipulation. We are working on the terms of reference for the research now and will have more details in the next couple of weeks.

It is very important to be clear what we are not proposing with this research. We are not proposing to develop and impose a strict code or designated rules that apply in all circumstances and all places to all parts of the media. Instead, we will listen to and map how various participants in the global image economy deal with the question of manipulation. We will be seeking input from any interested parties and publishing the information we find in an open way so as to further the debate about manipulation. This discussion could then feed into further refinements of the contest procedures in coming years, as well as contribute to what should be an on-going, industry-wide discussion. By definition this research will involve a diverse range of global inputs.


Speaking personally, I think this is an interesting moment and great opportunity for thinking about the purpose of photojournalism and documentary photography. I was struck in the public panel discussion how participants spoke more often in terms of credibility and integrity than objectivity and truth. I think this is a good sign that the conversation about photography is changing. As I said in the discussion, if we can shift the grounds of the debate so that we recognise all photography is an interpretation and representation, we can think about the issues of manipulation in terms of their impact on what we want certain images to do, the work they perform for us, and the effects we desire them to have. To my mind that would be a much more productive discussion.

Photo credits: Faked Iranian missile test photo, via; Gallery of manipulation examples prepared by Eduard de Kam for World Press Photo; Awards Day public panel photo, copyright Bas de Meijer

9 replies on “What are the current standards relating to the manipulation of photographs? A discussion at the World Press Photo Awards Days 2014”

Sascha, thanks for the comment, but it is necessary to underline what these examples are designed to show. They are certainly not misleading in the context of the annual contest.

The examples are archetypes, general illustrations of the often small changes that nonetheless made certain entries in the 2014 World Press Photo Contest ineligible for the final round. The rule these entries breached was, as discussed in the post, that “the content of an image must not be altered.” Not being altered meant “no significant material may be added or removed by either cloning or substantial toning.” Significant here does not refer to an interpretation about the meaning of an image, but the addition or removal of any part of an image, big or small.

People may or may not regard the removal of a cigarette butt etc as significant to meaning, but that’s not the point. The addition or removal of anything, in the context of the contest rule, is what is significant. In fact, as the jury chair made clear in the panel discussion at the Awards Days, the addition or removal of material in the ineligible pictures did nothing to enhance or improve the story being presented. Nonetheless, for the contest, the simple act of adding or removing by either cloning or substantial toning is the problem.

Thinking beyond the contest, then, yes, your final point about other dimensions to manipulation are also important for photojournalism as a whole to consider and deal with.

I’m afraid the samples are rather misleading than helpful, as one has to look at the individual case. It’s difficult to discuss the issue without looking at the actual disqualified pictures (although it is perfectly understandable why you can’t show them), because the samples provided here may show examples for manipulation but the images themselves are not telling me anything significant, so the shown manipulations do not really alter what I’m told by the picture.

If you take the photo of the Iranian missile test at the top, it is clear why that manipulation is a problem.

In comparison the removal of the cigarette butt seems not a big deal as it is not really altering what the picture is telling the viewer, as the cigarette butt is not adding more information to the picture as, for example, some sensor dust.

Especially if you compare the removal of the cigarette butt to the massive change (even tough there has been no cloning etc.) between the published version and the World Press version of Hansens controversial picture from last year.

And of course there are other ways of manipulation outside of the digital file, that must not be forgotten, like staged pictures and misleading context or captions…

Thank you Mr. Campbell for this article and these details. I’m writing a thesis on the winning photographs at WPP. The organization’s fascinating and complex. I must also talk about the issue of manipulation of photographs. This expertise’s very important. Jury members have a moral responsibility on the choice of photographs because this competition’s a significant impact.

Thanks for the comment Neil.

Speaking with my Secretary’s hat on, I can say that the middle example (the building) is an illustration of some cases this year’s jury deemed ineligible, because they determined that altering an image meant no significant material may be added or removed by either cloning or substantial toning. The jury based their decision on the outcome (whether significant material had been added or removed) irrespective of the technique (cloning or toning) used.

Speaking personally, the fact that the same effect might be achieved through cropping and/or a tighter shooting angle, is an example of how difficult it is to think through some of these issues, though we will attempt to do that to some extent in the forthcoming research.

Additional comment 13 May 2014:

In today’s update to the post I have added an additional examples of removal of part of an image through substantial toning to black that could not have been made by cropping.

Hi David,

I understand and agree with the first and third examples, pixels are a being changed through cloning. But in the middle example if they’d achieved the same effect through ‘burning’ in, I don’t see why it should be rejected? Or is crsame as cropping but maintains the compositional form of the image. Or is cropping not to be allowed now in press photography?

I wonder if on these terms then the 2010 WPP picture of the year would have been disqualified?

Maybe it should have? It’s certainly another case of World Press Caption rather than photo, a bit like this years winner; impenetrable without the caption.

Kind Regards

Neil B.

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