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. 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.“] 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. 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.] 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. 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.]

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. 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.”]

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.



The integrity of the image: Global practices and standards concerning the manipulation of photographs


I am directing a research project on “The Integrity of the Image” for World Press Photo. We trailed this during the sessions on manipulation at the Awards Days in April, and the terms of reference have now been finalised.


To undertake research in order to compile as comprehensive a map as possible of the current practices and accepted standards relating to the manipulation of still images in photojournalism and documentary photography world-wide, focusing predominantly on the post-processing of these images. This research will be published so as to encourage debate on the integrity of the image, and inform World Press Photo about issues relating to manipulation relevant to its annual contest.


  1. What forms of manipulation are relevant to the integrity of the image? In addition to post-processing of negatives, RAW files or unprocessed JPEGs, it could also includes the framing, cropping, selection, captioning and contextualisation of images, among other issues. Should these dimensions also be considered and, if so, how?
  2. Is manipulation generally a growing problem? If so, how and why?
  3. Is post-processing itself a problem, or is post-processing a problem only when certain levels of changes are made? If so, how are the legitimate levels known or identified?
  4. What ethical guidelines and protocols relevant to the integrity of the image are followed by media organisations in different countries?
  5. What ethical guidelines relevant to the integrity of the image are promoted by professional media associations in different countries?
  6. Are there national, regional and cultural differences in the ethical guidelines, accepted standards, and current practices relevant to the integrity of the image? Are there any points of consensus on manipulation regardless of geographical or cultural differences?
  7. Are there different norms with regard to manipulation in different image genres? Are the norms for news and documentary the same as those for nature, sports, and portraits (staged and observed), or are their differences?
  8. What are the most effective means for the detection of manipulation?
  9. What sanctions exist with the media industry after manipulation is detected?
  10. What rules exist within major international photo contests relating to the integrity of the image?


The primary research will include interviews with directors of photography, senior photo editors and relevant media executives at quality news organisations and international wire services; interviews with directors and/or relevant staff at photography agencies; interviews with directors and/or relevant staff at national media and photojournalism associations; interviews with digital forensics experts; interviews with camera manufacturers’ sensor/software experts; and the collection of codes of ethics relating to the integrity of the image from media organisations and professional associations world-wide. The secondary research includes online and library research for existing scholarship on ethical debates relevant to the integrity of the image.


The research will be as global as is practically possible, and will aim to interview people and examine documents from at least nineteen countries: United States, China, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Germany, India, France, Russia, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Denmark, Mexico, Argentina, Japan, and Indonesia.

We will present the findings in October/November this year. I would welcome any feedback on the project’s aim, questions and scope. And I would very much welcome any contributions of ideas or references.

Photo credit: Unidentified American artist (Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders), ca. 1930, as exhibited in  Faking It: 150 years of Image Manipulation Before Photoshop.

Featured photography

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

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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


Who believes photographs?


Should we accept the oft-repeated view that nobody believes photographs anymore?

Skepticism about the veracity of images is widespread. In a recent interview with Art Info, Nan Goldin recalled:

I gave a talk at the Tate a couple of years ago, and I asked an audience of 200 people how many of them believed that photography was still a true statement. Five people raised their hands.

In his excellent new book, Believing is Seeing, Errol Morris writes:

Today, possibly because of Photoshop and other photography-doctoring software, people have become suspicious of photographs [p.45].

In Picture Perfect, her account of our photo-op culture, Kiku Adatto declares:

Now we are alive as never before to the artifice of images. Today we pride ourselves on our knowledge that the camera can lie, the pictures can be fabricated, packaged and manipulated [p.7].

And yet there are powerful counterpoints to these conventional claims of disbelief and suspicion.

One is anecdotal, but you might recognize something similar from your holidays. Driving around the Isle of Skye this summer, a regular hazard was the tourist, standing precariously on or near the road, holding a digital camera at arms length, capturing part of the stunning scenery, to presumably affirm their presence, make a record and invoke a memory and feeling. When I came across these tourists – and there were many each and every day – I contrasted it to the claims of distrust and wondered: why would so many of us make pictures if we believed all photography was a fraud?

Another counterpoint can be found in situations of upheaval. In a report on the capture of Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound one newly liberated citizen was quoted:

‘I’m taking photos to show to my brothers and family still in Tunisia,’ Salah Ermih explained, snapping the ransacked interior with his phone camera. Ermih, a surgeon, said that he had dashed from his overworked hospital to have a look at Gaddafi’s inner sanctum.

Ermih’s photography was pure documentary, recording scenes as evidence for others not present to see. He was not alone – the role of the phone camera (both still and video) in making the Arab Spring visible to those beyond the region has been widely noted.

What these counterpoints establish for me is the need for a more complex view, one that refuses a simple black or white rendering of the situation, and appreciates the co-existence of seemingly contradictory attitudes:

If one side of us appreciates, even celebrates, the image as an image, another side yearns for something more authentic. We still want the camera to fulfill its documentary promise, to provide us with insight, and to be a record of our lives and the world around us. But because we are so alive to the pose, we wrestle with the reality and artifice of image in a more self-conscious way than our forebears (Adatto, Picture Perfect, p.8).

We have to be alert to the artifice of the image and the inescapable place of aesthetics in photography. But we have to be careful in our analyses to avoid sweeping and fashionable claims. Recognising the capacity for manipulation does not mean abandoning the documentary promise. Everyday, amateur photographers with their vacation snaps understand this, and we should too.

Photo: Elgol, Isle of Skye, August 2011, from the Campbell family album.

More posts photography politics

The aesthetics of the war in Afghanistan


The US-led war in Afghanistan is one of the longest running conflicts in America’s history. After more than nine years, the US and its allies have been fighting in Afghanistan longer than Soviet Union was by the time of its 1989 withdrawal. The war in Afghanistan has also surpassed the formal duration of the Vietnam War, although that claim can be contested.

Photographing this war has only been possible through the system of embedded journalism the US and its allies established for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leading to an understandable concentration on certain locales like the Korengal Valley (as I discussed here, in a good debate with Tim Hetherington). Only on rare occasions have we seen the conflict from a perspective beyond allied forces, as in the Taliban photographs recently made by Gaith Abdul-Ahad.

Covering such a long-running conflict, the dynamics of which have not altered greatly in its nine years, necessarily produces a certain uniformity to the subjects conveyed. In’s Big Picture gallery for November 2010 we see 43 high quality images that detail allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families. There is also an inevitable regularity to the look of these images. As Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder has noted,

most photojournalists working today, including me, are using similar equipment (very high end 35mm digital SLR cameras) so what we do sometimes looks very uniform.

The aesthetics of the conflict is a vital dimension of assessing how the war in Afghanistan as been pictured. But to raise the issue of “aesthetics” is to travel into troubled terrain. A lot of photojournalism is still predicated on the idea that it conveys “things as they are.” This phrase stems from a Sir Fancis Bacon quotation that Dorothea Lange regarded as her working motto:

The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error and confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention

It also provides the title for the World Press Photo book on the history of photojournalism (Things As They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955), it crops up in Henri-Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment, and I heard David Hurn invoke those same words during a foto8 seminar in October this year.

The commitment to photojournalism’s descriptive ethos in opposition to “a whole harvest of invention” runs deep. It is a commitment that suggests description is distinct from aesthetics, which is taken to be solely about art and beauty, such that any attempt to “aestheticize” a reality like war is morally suspect.

Photo: Private Santiago taking a cigarette break after a firefight. Damon Winter/NYT

We have seen this in recent months through the mixed reactions to the Afghan war images made with iPhones and photography apps. In March this year David Guttenfelder produced a portfolio of Polaroid-like pictures (using ShakeIt Photo) detailing daily military life in Afghanistan. Then last month Damon Winter also made an iPhone series with the Hipstamatic app, one of which was used in the New York Times.

For both Guttenfelder and Winter these pictures, made in addition to their “straight”, DLSR produced, photographs were designed to represent both the daily grind of the war and the vernacular images that soldiers themselves take. According to Winter, “composing with the iPhone is more casual and less deliberate…And the soldiers often take photos of each other with their phones, so they were more comfortable than if I had my regular camera.” Guttenfelder made this interesting observation:

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that Marines and soldiers are now shooting more photos and video themselves. They email them home or post them on their Facebook pages. I’ve even seen them set up a little point-and-shoot video camera next to themselves in the middle of a firefight. But usually they photograph the little moments during their down time to show how they live. The photos are little bits of memory, keepsakes from their long deployments, and a way of communicating with people back home. So, in a way, I was trying to create those kinds of real-life, non-newsy snapshots that Marines might shoot for themselves.

One of the things that is interesting about the Guttenfelder and Winter pictures I have chosen here is their stylistic similarity to Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press Photo winner of an exhausted US solider in the Korengal Valley. It seems that whatever the chosen tools, some looks are common.

That said, the need to produce something new after nine years of war is part of what is driving photographers to deploy new approaches and tools. It is evident in different subject matter like Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen, and in novel forms like Damon Winter’s rotating panoramas of US military locations. However, the attention garnered by iPhone pictures and the panoramas led two of the best analysts of contemporary photography to a shared critical commentary on Twitter (14 December 2010):

(Michael Shaw, @BagNewsNotes) Hate to sound like luddite, but iPhone pics and now buzz re: 360º views feels like war coverage has forgotten the war.

@BagNewsNotes couldnt agree more: 1st mobile hipstamatics and now 360ºs enuf with the tech over substance war photos

@foto8 Thing is, it’s not about hi-tech, lo-tech, old-tech or no-tech so much as plain fundamental boredom with the war.

I think we should ask hard questions about how to represent a war that has gone on for so long. I don’t think, though, that those questions are best pursued by a concern over the technologies of representation or the anxiety about aesthetics.

That is because the critique of photography in terms of aestheticization gets to the very nature of photography itself. As Mark Reinhardt asks in Beautiful Suffering, “do indictments of aestheticization in the narrowest sense shade into a challenge to photographs’ sensory engagement itself? Is it the work of giving photographs aesthetic form, as such – is it the very nature of the photographic image – that provokes anxiety?” He thinks so, and I agree.

As the introduction to Things As They Are notes, “in the end, the business of representing reality is all about invention.” In this context, aesthetics is about how we see, perceive and represent the world generally. Photography as a technology of visualization is therefore inevitably and inextricably bound up with aesthetics. Nobody taking or making pictures can escape that.

Photo: An injured Corporal Manuel Jiminez, struck by an IED, is shielded by his fellow marines as a medvac helicopter lands in the clearing. Victor Blue.

As an example, consider the photographs of freelancer Victor Blue. According to PDN, ‘Blue is shooting the project primarily with a Canon 5D Mark II, and converting his images to black and white. “I envisioned Afghanistan in gray tones. I saw color as a distraction,” he explains.’ Blue’s photographs, excellent in many regards, invoke the traditional aesthetic of Vietnam era photojournalism. And, as always, they demonstrate that the desaturation of shots is permissible while oversaturation or specialist apps are deemed to be dubious. And what about David Guttenfelder’s “regular” DLSR photographs. Are they not the product of a conventional news/reportage aesthetic?

Perhaps we have reached an impasse in photographing the war in Afghanistan, with both the standard and different approaches no longer carrying the emotional weight of a nine-year conflict. Perhaps, then, the path forwards is not a matter of expressing anxiety about aesthetics per se, or choosing one aesthetic approach over another, but of using the full range of aesthetic options to tell a different story? Which begs the question – what is that different story that needs to be told about the war in Afghanistan after all this time?

Featured photo: A US marine wakes up in the morning after sleeping with his platoon in a mud walled compound in Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helamnd province. David Guttenfelder/AP


  • Mary Panzer, “Introduction,” Things as They Are: Photojournalism in Context since 1955 (World Press Photo/Chris Boot Ltd, 2005)
  • Mark Reinhardt, “Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain, edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

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.


Photographic manipulation: the new World Press Photo rule

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.


Photographic retouching exposed

The issues surrounding photographic meaning, manipulation and Photoshop have been prominent recently (see my previous posts here and here, with some updates amongst the comments for each).

Via Fred Ritchin’s After Photography (see his 24 April post) comes news of a Swedish government project Girlpower dealing with sexism in advertising.

One element is a magazine cover where, step-by-step, you can un-do the manipulation of the model to see how the glamorous cover was produced. You can go through each of the twelve changes that have been made, and at the end click on a red button to see the complete before and after images.

We know it happens, but in this case, seeing is really believing.


Photographic truth and Photoshop

Photography’s anxiety about truth, manipulation and reality has been on show recently. In different ways and from different contexts, people have been asking: “how much Photoshop is too much”?

From the realm of fashion, French Elle is being celebrated for running a cover story in which the models photographs have not been ‘Photoshopped’ (thereby confirming, as I’ve noted previously, that digital manipulation is the norm in this visual domain).

From the world of photojournalism, blogs like 1854, PDNPulse and the Online Photographer (with a follow-up here) have been buzzing with the story of the Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christensen who was excluded from that country’s Picture of the Year competition for excessive colour manipulation of his Haiti story.  Along with two others, Christensen was asked to submit his RAW files to the competition judges who felt that the colour in his photographs had been excessively saturated, and removed his images from the competition as a result. Christensen was subsequently happy to have his files put on the web for comparison and discussion, thereby performing an important service to the photographic community.

My interest in the case is less in the rights and wrongs of Christensen’s images and more in how we talk about the rights and wrongs of these images. For those who feel the judges were right and Christenson was wrong, the case is relatively simply. Both the judges and the bloggers are in broad agreement. Photography is understood in terms of either art or documentary/photojournalism/reportage, with the latter supposed to be free of manipulation that gets in the way of seeing the world as it really is. You can make changes to digital images that replicate what would have once been with film and paper in the darkroom, but no more. It all seems straightforward with nice clear lines that should not be crossed.

If only. Framing the debate in these terms relies on a conventional understanding of the history of photography that cannot be sustained. The line between ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ has been blurred ever since John Grierson, who coined the term documentary in the 1920s, argued that its purpose was to generate a particular “pattern of thought and feeling” in the viewer. This sense, replicated in all the statements by well-known photojournalists that their function is to bear witness and record the otherwise ignored injustices of modern life, means there is always a particular perspective at the heart of documentary and reportage no matter how often people want to defend it in terms of simple realism.

There are also some more mundane reasons why the lines of judgment are not so clear-cut. As much as those who take issue with Christensen think that the RAW files are “pretty eloquent all by themselves,” are these files really like film negatives? Can anyone actually see a RAW digital file without any post-processing? (Could we actually see a negative without post-processing?).

All this suggests we are talking about the degree of alteration and post-processing that is deemed acceptable rather than either the absence or presence of manipulation. This is confirmed by reading some of the comments in favour of the judges. Mike Johnston summarized the view rather well:

And of course there’s nothing wrong with Photoshop (or any other image editor), or with darkroom manipulation. But in photojournalism those tools are expected to be used to increase the accuracy and veracity of the photograph to the scene—not decrease it. That seems to be Mr. Christensen’s failure here, not the tools he used. He’s simply made himself a suspect witness by overdoing his manipulations to the point of obvious unreality, subverting realism for cheap effects instead of reporting it with an appropriate modicum of dispassion.

This argument repeats the familiar terms justifying conventional photojournalism – veracity, witness, realism, dispassion. However, given these terms, allowing for some legitimate manipulation, the idea that one can increase accuracy and veracity – as opposed to simply record it without interference – undercuts the logic of the starting point.

Similarly, the Danish competition judges accept editing in Photoshop, thought some of Christensen’s images were satisfactory, but deemed most of them “too extreme.” So the issue is not whether you can manipulate or not, but how far one can go. The rules of the competition seek to make these limits clear:

Photos submitted to Picture of The Year must be a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure. You may post-process the images electronically in accordance with good practice. That is cropping, burning, dodging, converting to black and white as well as normal exposure and color correction, which preserves the image’s original expression. The Judges and exhibition committee reserve the right to see the original raw image files, raw tape, negatives and/or slides. In cases of doubt, the photographer can be pulled out of competition.

So, although you have to have “a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure,” even if you exposed the multi-coloured world in colour you can convert it to black and white. While Christensen was criticized for over-saturating his colours, he would have been in the clear had he simply, and completely, de-saturated them. The excessive addition of colour is a problem, but the total subtraction of colour is permitted. Is that clear?

Again, my interest is not in the rights and wrongs of the case, but, rather, the terms of the debate about what is right and wrong. We most definitely need photographs (including black and white pictures) we can use as documents, but we cannot justify documentary status through conventional understandings based on a mythical understanding of photography’s history and a supposedly secure analogue past. Photojournalism, as I’ve written elsewhere, has to learn to live with tensions and contradictions as it searches for a better foundation in our digital world.


Photographic truth and manipulation

We know photographs can be false yet we want them to be true. Indeed, the desire for photographic veracity has persisted, perhaps even intensified, even as knowledge about image manipulation becomes more widespread.

Reflecting on the Oscar ceremonies, MediaGuardian has documented the widespread use of Photoshop to enhance celebrity photographs in fashion and gossip magazines. Every cover, says one media insider, has been altered to some degree, with some of these changes exposed in the “Photoshop Hall of Shame” and “Photoshop Disasters”. So common is the practice that when an October 2008 Newsweek cover of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was not airbrushed, conservative anchors on Fox television complained that this amounted to liberal bias. (Fox knew about the political power of such changes because it had earlier manipulated the photos of two New York Times journalists it wanted to discredit).

Despite being widespread, digital manipulation provokes anxiety and unease, especially when news photographs are involved. The scandals surrounding Brian Walski’s 2003 photos from Iraq and Adnan Hajj’s 2006 pictures from Lebanon led to both men being fired from their jobs, and the governments of Iran and the US have been criticized when they released altered military images of missiles and a general.

What is commonplace in one visual domain (fashion) is regarded as taboo in another (news). Yet both realms are still regulated by a desire for photographs to be accurate and authentic documents. The persistence and power of this desire despite the long history of photographic manipulation (chemical and digital) is something that needs explanation.