Photographic manipulation: World Press Photo needs to be transparent in enforcing its rules

Back in December last year I posted a commentary on World Press Photo’s new rule on ‘manipulation’ of submitted imagery. The main point concerned the ambiguity of what “currently accepted standards in the industry” meant as the governing criterion. I concluded that “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.”

The rule has been tested in its first year. WPP has announced that a winner — Stepan Rudik, 3rd prize in Sports Features — has been disqualified for removing an element from his photograph. According to WPP, “the photographer ventured beyond the boundary of what is acceptable practice.” (You can read the full WPP statement here; the British Journal of Photography report is here; and @photojournalism posted this link to Rudik’s photograph on Twitter).

Now is the time for WPP to be transparent about its decision. The statement from the organization is commendable in so far as it goes, declaring how it acted in accordance with its new rule and making the decision public. But where are the details on the image and the photographer’s transgression? How was the photograph altered, and how did this venture beyond the boundary of acceptable practice?

These questions need to be answered given that the judgement has been made in terms of supposedly accepted industry standards. Such standards won’t mean much unless they are obvious to all, and WPP needs to offer a more detailed account of this case.


The New York Times Lens blog has more detail on the story here. It has a response from Stepan Rudik, and provides an important link to a post on PetaPixel which shows the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images from Rudik that show what the WWP jury objected to. These warrant a close look.

And here is the interesting thing…it was acceptable for Rudik to crop and desaturate an image of a hand being bandaged, but not acceptable to remove a small intrusion from something in the background of the cropped/desaturated photograph. No doubt Rudik violated the WPP rules, and I am not defending his removal of what is said to be part of a foot on the edge of the hand. My question — as always in these cases — is why is extensive cropping and complete desaturation acceptable but other changes not?

This is why WPP needs to be more transparent about this case. Its great that blogs like PetaPixel have done the investigative work, but we need to hear from WPP itself on what makes some changes acceptable and others not. How do these standards come to be “currently accepted” in the industry? We’ve heard from the photographer via PetaPixel, now we need to here from WPP.

8 replies on “Photographic manipulation: World Press Photo needs to be transparent in enforcing its rules”

Having reviewed the ‘before / after’ shots of this particular case I can’t help thinking that this disqualification was completely unjustified.

But, the question does remain what would be acceptable?

The judges should understand that without digital post processing pictures would have to be controlled pre-photographing. This, IMHO, would create an even more fake effect. So let’s accept that honest is not perfect, but perfect is not honest.

[…] Onduidelijke regels Eerder dit jaar werd bij World Press Photo de Oekraïense fotograaf Stepan Rudik gediskwalificeerd nadat bleek dat op één van zijn foto’s een voet was weggehaald. Alhoewel de fotograaf het oneens was met de diskwalificatie waren de meeste mensen vooral verbaasd dat het niet toegestaan is om een voet weg te halen, maar het blijkbaar wel geoorloofd is om het beeld te ‘croppen’ en te bewerken tot korrelige zwart-wit foto (lees bijvoorbeeld David Campbell). […]

Its interesting isn’t how the photo is almost completely unrecognizable from the original not because a bit of leg disappeared but because of the massive cropping and burning of the image.

Essentially a completely new image, certainly in they eyes of the viewer, has been created in post production. Maybe the rule should revolve around whether the image is editorially true to the original shot.

I wonder though David whether you can really construct an objectively enforceable set of rules?

Tricky but interesting.

Mika — thanks for the thoughts. The BJP update is confirmed by the NYT Lens blog and PetaPixel and information I have included in my own update above. I agree with you that what is/is not acceptable post-processing is the key issue, and that is why I think WPP needs to be more transparent and offer more than its statement yesterday.

Paul – I think ‘manipulation’ has become some part of the ‘art’ (as my various posts over the last year on this topic discuss), but the issue is where the bounds of acceptable versus unacceptable manipulation of still images lie. I don’t, though, follow your reference to multimedia in this context. There are important ethical issues in that domain, but in so far as it employs still imagery at its core, the same questions of how much post-processing is acceptable apply.

It looks like BJP has updated their article and now it says that the Rudik had removed a leg from one of the photos in his series. I hope WPP would show which image it was to see how exactly it was altered. I couldn’t find the series anywhere online. The only photo I could find was the one I tweeted (@photojournalism is the account for my blog Photojournalism Links) and my gut feeling is that it was not that particular image which was altered.

On a different note, it looks like digital photography has in many ways freed the aesthetics of photojournalism as a result of of easier post-processing. Most post-processing is of course within the accepted rules, but in my personal opinion it can often look pretty brutal. One of the most common examples is adding strong vignetting, which can for instance be seen in the World Press Photo 1st Prize stories winner ( Sometimes, when I see these heavily vignetted images, I cannot but help to think whether the vignetting is hiding something in the image. If you hide something by adding vignetting, it is not necessarily all that different from removing something from the frame by other Photoshop methods. (N.B. please do not read this as me accusing Gihan Tubbeh of anything. Just using his photos as an example).

How much has this manipulation become part of the art? Many seem to embrace multimedia while at the same time shun enhancing photographs, yet both are merely exploring/utilizing budding technologies.

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