Why does manipulation matter?


Line in the sand

Does the manipulation of news and documentary photographs matter, and how should we talk about this issue?

The discussion about the number of images disqualified for manipulation in the 2015 World Press Photo contest has been intense, and the debate will be ongoing. But I’ve now left the Secretary’s seat for this year and have returned to civilian life as an independent writer. As Secretary I had enough to say on the specifics of the contest issue last week, and those contributions are best summarised in this podcast and its associated links.

Now it is time to reflect personally on why manipulation matters. I’ve written a lot about manipulation over the years, but not really addressed up front why it matters. In many respects the reasons for being concerned about manipulation, and the way those reasons are articulated, have not been at the forefront of the recent controversy either.1 To keep the big picture in mind, so to speak, we need to focus on the reason and how it is justified.

The first thing to observe is that the question of possible manipulation is far from exhausted by the focus on processing digital image files (though that priority makes perfect sense for a debate ignited by a photo contest). At almost every stage in the photographic process from capture, production, to the publication and circulation of photographic images contains the potential for manipulation. The mere fact of going to place A rather than place B to produce an image involves a choice that might represent reality in a partial manner. How travel to a photographic location was enabled and funded raises a series of questions. Once on location, the composition and framing of scenes necessarily involves choices that shape representations. The editing, selection, tagging, and captioning of images for potential publication adds more layers of decision. Which images are then distributed to media clients for purchase, and how those clients present, sequence and contextualise those images, is another realm of creative choice that shapes the representation of events and issues. As David Levi Strauss has observed, “the truth is that every photograph or digital image is manipulated, aesthetically and politically, when it is made and when it is distributed.”

I agree with Levi-Strauss here, especially as I once wrote that we should regard all photography as staged. That was a deliberate provocation to try and break away from the exhausted, incoherent and unsustainable position that photography could be objective and true, which is a commitment still so strong we see traces of it every time an image’s status is questioned.2 Given its manner of production and distribution, all photography is unavoidably and inherently a construction, an interpretation, a claim or a statement. As a result, I don’t see the concern about manipulation in terms of defending truth or securing objectivity, because nobody has ever been able to do that. If we knew what was irresistibly true and objective in any given situation, there would be no need for any debate or questions – we would just acquiesce to the obvious.

The constructed nature of photography is even more of a fact in the digital age. In many ways, while the digitisation of photography has been understood as transformative, I don’t think we have full appreciated quite how radical the change has been. We have conventionally thought of photography as a practice that makes images directly. This is largely the case with analogue processes, which produce observable or latent images on film or other media. In this context, the camera is understood as a picture-making device.

In the digital era, we still think of the camera of a picture-making device, but this needs to change. In the digital era, we need to understand the camera as a data-collection device, a device which, according to Kevin Connor, is “gathering as much data as you can about the scene, and then later using advanced computational techniques to process that data into the final image. That creates a much more slippery definition of an original, because what is defined at the time of capture is not necessarily a fully formed picture.” With this understanding we need to appreciate much photography has become “computational photography.”3

This should change much of the language in the manipulation debate because no image exists without processing. Sensors record data. It takes processing to produce the first in-camera file as well as the image on the camera’s LCD screen. That means the idea of “post-” processing is redundant, because there is no “pre-” or original image, to work on. Raw files are not negatives, but data files that are the first step in processing which both allow for and require further processing. This makes all the references to the darkroom, and what famous photographers used to do in those spaces, an anachronistic and irrelevant analogy for the question of manipulation today. These conceptual and technological points underscore the fact concerns about manipulation cannot be expressed in terms of truth and objectivity. What, then, can the concern about manipulation be founded upon?

This is where we need to change the conversation about photography – meaning news photography, photojournalism, documentary or editorial photography, however your want to name these visual accounts of our world. The change involves understanding the integrity of the image in relation to its function, rather than its philosophical status as an object. We need to focus on the process of photography rather than just its products, and consider the issue in terms of what images do rather than what images are.4

Images can have lots of purposes, and there will be many we want to just entertain or please us. For them, we can have more relaxed standards. However, if we want some pictures to be able to function as documents and evidence, we have to ensure certain things so those pictures can function as documents and evidence. Given that the first question asked of a contentious image is always whether it is faked or somehow changed, it is only by drawing a tight line against even materially small changes that we can underwrite the credibility of such images. We have to be able to show, in a variety of fora, that for the pictures we want to be documents and evidence, material content has not been added or subtracted from the data file captured by the camera and later processed. This is a task for image makers, editors and publishers alike, and it will take time to enhance the integrity of the image through this commitment. No doubt many will break it or bend it in practice, but if there is at least a very low tolerance for even materially small changes, it is feasible to imagine norms changing over time so that the trust of readers and viewers is bolstered.

It is obvious that manipulation is a problem for news images, and the changes are significant, when we see photographs like those of North Korean hovercraft or Iranian missiles cloning objects in order to deceive. It might seem less of an issue to some when the alterations seem to be just tidying up the photographs but not changing their overall meaning, as has been argued in relation the Narciso Contreras’ case. Associated Press severed ties with him when he revealed he removed an object from the bottom of corner of one of his news images. The level of manipulation might have been materially small, but it was nonetheless ethically significant, because AP said he had violated their standards for truth and accuracy. Lewis Bush made a fair observation that AP was defending its business model despite the fact Contreras – who outed himself for an aesthetic change that was not by itself intending to deceive the audience – had in effect revealed the constructed nature of imagery. Lewis argues persuasively Contreras’s revelation runs agains “a common sentiment amongst proponents of photojournalism, that the truth of photography must be continually shored up against the erosive waves of untruth.”

This rhetorical commitment to truth is obvious in many of the comments on the New York Times Lens blog that debated the rules and ethics of photojournalism in the digital age. It is also obvious in the more sophisticated claim that what makes photography unique is the indexical relationship between image and subject. Those who asserted truth in various ways were matched by commenters who expressed their doubts about objectivity by asserting that photography was self-evidently subjective. And there was the featured but anonymous photojournalist, who asked:

What is truth? Photography certainly isn’t. Photography is artifice. We can underexpose and overexpose the same image, neither version is “true” or “untrue” — it is just a different interpretation of the world in front of us.

Claiming photography is just artifice or subjective is very different from what I am arguing here. The notion of artifice can just refer to creativity and expression, but it also means a contrivance designed to deceive or trick, so that is not helpful. Subjectivity is equally problematic. It is a concept that depends on objectivity as its other, the reverse side of the same coin. Logically, if we doubt objectivity we bring down the edifice that includes subjectivity too. Subjectivity is also a concept that leaves the impression everyone has a perspective of equal credibility and value. That might be an appropriate claim for art, but it is not a claim that can advance the understanding of contentious events and issues, where there has to be a struggle in terms of those claims that are better supported by evidence than others.

I have said above that my starting position is that “all photography is unavoidably and inherently a construction, an interpretation, a claim or a statement.” That is the basis on which all I think all understandings of photography must be built, but it is an insufficient basis on which to rest. That is why I think we need to accept that, but then proceed to consider images in terms of what they can do rather than what they are. I think, following Ariella Azoulay, we also need to understand an image as being one statement in a larger regime of statements, so that we dispense with the idea that pictures alone can testify to all they show. Images can be powerful documents and evidence, but they require other statements, other information, to be truly effective.

This is where dealing with the pragmatics of photography (what we want images to do) rather than being bound by false commitments to an untenable philosophical ideal (what we think images are) offers a recasting of the manipulation debate. That might seem like a semantic change to some, but I believe recasting the issues in the terms I have outlined – how do we underwrite the credibility of images we want to function as documents and evidence? – offers a completely different way of understanding manipulation. The return to the mystical foundations of truth have not moved any of this discussion forward because we always founder on the obviously vacuous rocks of objectivity or surrender to the hopelessness of asserting subjectivity. Instead, the reframing in terms of the purpose of image I am detailing here suggests we need to maintain the most vigilant line against material changes to data files that compromise processed images we need as documents or evidence, but we do so in a way consistent with the inherently constructed nature of photography.

Of course, much will be needed in order to develop this argument properly. But one consequence of this reframing is that the integrity of the image cannot be underwritten by commitments to the credibility of digital files alone. Given the many points in the practice of photography which can result in manipulation – according to the broader sense of that term discussed above – the debate needs to bring the manipulation of pixels into the broader realm of verification. If an image is just one statement in a larger and wider regime of statements, then we have to deal with the credibility of that regime as a whole. Verification is a concept getting a lot of attention in journalism more widely, especially but not exclusively because of the rise of user generated content, and photojournalism needs to catch up with these issues (some of which I canvassed in section 9 of the Integrity of the Image report). A digital audit trail is an essential part of a broader commitment to open photographic practices that allow images and stories to be verified, and it is possible that a more developed approach to verification for photojournalism could address some of the broader issues of manipulation that cannot be revealed through digital forensics. That is a topic I will explore in the future.

PS: I meant to add this at the time of posting, but John Macpherson’s thoughtful comment below reminded me to include this as an update – I’m not going to debate here anything about the World Press Photo contest experience or rules. As I say at the start of this article, I’m back in civilian life as an independent writer, and interested here in the conceptual issues about how, when and why talking about manipulation matters with regard to images we want to function as documents and evidence in the media economy.


  1. I find this particularly fascinating because of my commitment to an ethos of criticism best articulated by Michel Foucault when he wrote that “practicing criticism is about making facile gestures difficult.
  2. There’s a lot that needs saying about the notion of objectivity as commonly used in relation to photography, something that will have to draw on the 500 page magnum opus on the topic, Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison’s Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007), which details the surprising cultural history of this supposedly scientific concept.
  3.  Seeing digital photography as essentially computational photography is to adopt a broader definition of computational photography, and take it beyond its more common concern with specific digital processes like HDR.
  4. There are many sites in which the purpose and process of photography is not properly highlighted. Elizabeth Edwards makes the compelling case that many exhibitions see the default value of photography as “art” even when presenting documentary images. As she writes, “this implies that photography’s ultimate purpose is aesthetic discernment and expression. But I don’t think that this alone communicates the importance or power of photography.”

16 Responses to “Why does manipulation matter?”

  1. john macpherson

    Very timely post David. I don’t disagree with much of it. However, and its a pretty expansive ‘however’ – it seems there may need to be a clear distinction made between editorial and other image uses, and (WPP) competition entry of images. (I may be wrong about that though).

    There’s obviously a clear difference in ‘standards’ within each – I’ll have to assume that the 20% rejected from this years WPP for ‘manipulation’ that went beyond WPP’s ‘arbiters’ standards were images that had already been published with nary a comment. No picture editors or anyone else in the supply chain to get them into the media made any comment about them. The photographers therefore, I assume, felt these images were acceptable for entry to WPP, to be judged by their peers.

    What I have no idea about, and its important, is whether the images submitted to WPP and rejected for manipulation had exactly the same aesthetic treatment (post processing) applied to them as had been applied for their use in the media*, or whether (and this is REALLY important) they had been manipulated by the photographer specifically for WPP entry to gain more of a chance at winning the competition.

    (*which of course raises the question was the original ‘look’ as widely distributed in the media, an aesthetic/financial consideration made by someone other than the photographer?)

    Now this is the difficult part – you cite the Contreras case, however harsh it might appear, as evidence of an ethical stance being made re manipulation. And despite WPP having (it could be argued) an equal dependance on the same ethical guidelines AND the right to show ANY images that are in the final selection process as part of any ongoing WPP publicity in subsequent years:

    “h. I grant World Press Photo permission to use material submitted in the contest and selected by the jury indefinitely and without any remuneration being due, in its online archive showcasing the results of previous contests.”

    …WPP chose NOT to publish the names and images from those disqualified for alleged manipulation even though this competition rule quoted above appears to give WPP that power.

    Now, I’m not saying you should do that, and shame people, I’m simply pointing out that the clear ethical stance on manipulation and its strict enforcement by AP as evidenced by the Contreras case has not been similarly, forcefully, upheld by WPP. Yes you rejected some 90 images, for whatever reasons, and despite having the means to do so, chose NOT to say who these photographers were, nor more importantly show the images that you felt transgressed.

    That’s not really a good situation for all concerned.

    However it might be simply resolved in future, insofar as WPP image entrants are concerned, by simply making it abundantly clear to entrants that any image judged to have been manipulated beyond the levels permissable by the clearly stated rules will automatically be rejected, the author named, and the work put online to demonstrate clearly where the (WPP at least) boundaries lie. The debate can then be specific, about the reality of certain images and their manipulation, and the consequences of that manipulation in the widest sense (because it’s not just about images, its about the audience being manipulated too). That would also pull in the decisions made by picture editors and others who MUST be a key part of this debate, and bear some responsibility, as their decisions to use the images for particular purposes would also be subject to close scrutiny.

    This might be harsh but I’d suggest that the vehicle for getting in about all of this might not be from the bottom up, from a bracing chat amongst a variety of editors and agency representatives (although that would be useful), but from the top down by WPP enforcing strictly what it considers is and is not allowed, and giving equal prominence to the ‘deceitful’. This would sharpen the attitude of photographers certainly, but crucially it will also give pause for thought to ‘the gatekeepers’ – picture editors and agency reps who are in the front line of image selection and arbitration in the first place. I don’t think this is solely a matter for the button presser alone, there’s a whole food chain attached that arguably must also bear some of ‘the burden of proof.’

    And at the moment like a great many other observers, I’m not entirely clear whether WPP’s ethical stance is more, or less, rigid than for example AP’s.

    As I’ve noted before, the chance for a WPP award and the benefits that flow from entry should not be a poisoned chalice, with a career in tatters because ‘standards’ across the industry are anything but standard. WPP is important. It should not just be about prizes and the cosy warm fuzzy glow of celebrating winners, but about pushing the standards higher and higher, and if that means embarrassing a small minority of people, then that’s perhaps an unavoidable cost worth incurring.

    Thanks for continuing the debate.

    • David Campbell

      Lots of interesting points John for WPP to consider. But here I’m not concerned with that contest or specific rules in any photo competitions. I’m writing personally about how, when and why I think manipulation matters even when we accept – as we must, especially in the era of computational photography – the inherently constructed nature of photography. I’m concerned with the conceptual foundations on which we have this conversation even before the matter of contest rules arises, because the traditional framework of truth/objectivity/subjectivity just cannot any longer offer us grounding or guidance. I will return to your points if/when I put the Secretary’s hat on next year, but for now I want only to debate the conditions under which we consider issues of manipulation re images we want to function as documents or evidence in the media economy.

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  3. Fabiano Avancini

    Thank you Mr. Campbel for the debate.
    Stated that in the western countries, as McLuhan says: “The Media is the Message”, it’s not a surprise that AP defends their role, sacrifying Contreas, and WPPA does the same with some 20% of the entrants, without publishing the names (action that could destroy careers).
    The media is AP and WPPA, as well as all the magazines around the world: they have to affirm and defend their role and position. The photographer that wants to publish must play with their rules.
    And the manipulation (as interpretation) is from the beginning to the end, not only for the image but for the whole news.

    If we concern about the media.

    If we concern about the message: the photographer has a duty on the subject, and the only question to ask is: WHY is he taking that photograph.
    If it’s for AP, WPPA or whatever magazine do not forget that we are working in “infotainment” and to be published is the main issue, to sell: to inform looks secondary to propaganda today, and the needed “empathy” with the subject has to fit the market rules. For that someone beautify or dramatizes the images.
    Looks like we cannot manage reality as it comes.

    Facing that: truth is fragile.

    I want to translate what I’m saying with a couple of images, not to promote myself but to better explain what I’m thinking:


    the left one is a reportage on leprosy, the right one is fashion photography.
    The first one cannot fit any magazine, because there could be a protest from the advertisers, the second one is perfect for all publications.
    I’ve sent that reportage to the WPPA, without saying one W: “where” in China it was made, to preserve the subject from possible reprisals bureaucratic; obviously I was exluded. Simply I concern for the subject.
    I did that without assignement because I think that a photographer has to document reality first, than face the document. In the mean time I’ve been using my photographs to address direct contributions to charity, to help the subject and not the agency or the newspaper. To pay my bill I can do any kind of work, even fashion, but when you face dignity you have to protect it, expecially in the editorial environment.

    Why you are doing that photograph, remember?

  4. Mark M

    Thanks for this David. It’s nice to read something with a little more weight than the soundbites that have been making the rounds. And thanks for referencing my post.

    One small point about the ‘camera as a data-collection device’ that I cut from that piece was that C.S. Peirce had a fair amount to say about indexical relationships specifically as they relate to photography. He had a background in astrophotography. Many of his ideas about photography that are often applied to normal photographic images evolved from his work at the Harvard Observatory where he was collecting photometer images. The photometer produced images that looked a little like smears on a slide that represented the luminosity of stars. The photometer images look nothing like stars — there’s no iconic relationship — but they are certainly indexes. Reading Peirce with this understanding is helpful because most things we call photographs tend to be read as a mix of icon and index (and make a nice correlation to Barthes’ studium and punctum). But the photometer is pure index while still being a photograph. In fact, it would be much more accurate to call it a data-collection device even though it is thoroughly analog.

    Not sure if this has any application to the discussion regarding image manipulation, but thought it was interesting.

  5. Hugh peralta

    First I would like to know that I concur with must of the comments. However there are a few related items that also need to be consider. The analog days in photography are almost disappeared. Commercialy digital technology has taken control Of the media . There are nearly 9 B potencial photographers each armed with a point and shoot cameras, some loaded with suphistîcated editing features. Some of thE material, manipulated or not, produced by pocket cameras is finding the way to editors desks.
    Some 45 yrs ago that I started in this business, even the word “manipulation” was mentioned in the photographers guide book. Anyone cough adulterating an image, got his termination check. This was true with the 2 dailies and the 2 wire services that I worked for. As for Mr Contreras/AP, I am very for him.

  6. Josephine Sun

    We have reached a critical stage where a movement towards verification is necessary in order to preserve the value of the photographic real which is crucial in photojournalism. Just as Mcdonalds and restaurants in the U.S are held accountable for the nutrients of their food, photojournalists should be held accountable for any digital processing in their photos, especially in high stakes competition such as the WPP.

    In fact, this digital audit trail, as you suggested, (anything from brightening/ contrast to cropping) should be shown next to the displayed images. The audience has the right to know what they are seeing!

    If we are to continue honest photojournalism practice, then it’s time to unveil the practice of digital processing. Digital processing should not be something done under the table. Even all ‘acceptable’ processing should be put in the open. Let’s not forget that even the World Press Photos that are NOT disqualified HAVE been professionally processed. A digital trail would be a good way for the WPP to regain its legitimacy after all the scandals in recent years. And hopefully the industry will follow.

    • Josephine Sun

      (I meant to include that Mcdonalds and restaurants in the US have started listing the calories, fat and sugar content, and other nutritional fact of their foods on the menu. This is the type of accountability I’m hoping to see in high stakes photojournalism, as complicated the process may be)

      • Fabiano Avancini

        I’m sorry, but: junk food, even with nutritional facts listing, remains junk food.
        As well as a lie remains a lie, even if with bright lights/dark shadows.
        The aestethic of a photo (done in equilibrated manner) is part of another process: to link it to contemporary common sense of beauty, or something near.
        Think at black and white, it’s the highest level of manipulation in photography: you decide to keep the colors for you to emphasize the moment, the graphics, the aestethic and all the syntax instruments to underline something you think is important on your image (as photographer’s subjectivity) and it is not forbidden.

        But a lie remains a lie.

        A journalist has a name and if he is a liar: he has to embrace another career.
        Even with nutritional fact listing: he must be responsible for his lies.
        It is not professional ethics it is simple education.

  7. Josephine Sun

    Fabiano – are you referring to the subject manipulation in ‘The Dark Heart of Europe’? In that case I completely agree and my response is that this guy simply made this story up and the WPP actually took it without investigating the actual situation!!! This is NOT photojournalism. Period.

    We need to resist the temptation to exaggerate our stories in order to make it more appealing/ exciting (let alone make up something that is completely untrue).

    • David Campbell

      Josephine, I don’t know how you know “this guy simply made this story up.” That’s a broad and unsubstantiated claim, which is odd given your are talking about the importance of journalistic ethics. And your statement that WPP is not investigating it is also factually wrong – a detailed investigation has been underway for some days.

  8. Josephine Sun

    What I was referring to earlier was simply the matter of digital manipulation and how photojournalists should not be tempted to alter their images in order to ‘beautify’ it. A true image is much more valuable than a pretty one, when it comes to reporting.

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