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

media economy photography

World Press Photo 2014 contest: Reflections from the Secretary’s seat


I’ve been in Amsterdam for fourteen long days working with many others on the intense process that judges the winners for the World Press Photo 2014 contest (which includes the award of the World Press Photo of the Year 2013).

This was my first year working as Secretary to the contest jury, though it was the second year I have witnessed the judging. Last year I was present for about two-thirds of the time, learning from my predecessor about the Secretary’s responsibilities. Unlike other jury members, the Secretary does not participate in debates or vote on photographs in any of the rounds. The Secretary is tasked with ensuring fairness in the process and is responsible for all procedural matters relating to the conduct of the judging, which means applying the written rules to ensure the jury can reach the best possible outcome. Looking back on the last two weeks I’m in no doubt we ran a judging process that treated all contestants and jurors equally and fairly.

I’ve had a long association on and off with World Press Photo, having presented the 2005 Sem Presser Lecture and directed the Multimedia Research Project in 2012-13. Up until the time I was employed by World Press Photo for the research project I occasionally wrote here about debates involving their procedures and the prizes awarded. When I was directing the research project I decided I could no longer do that. While the Secretary is not an employee of World Press Photo, I still maintain the position that it is not appropriate for me to comment one or another on winning photographs. I leave that for the time being to others, and you can see Martijn Kleppe’s independently curated list of commentary for most of those debates.

What I want to do here, therefore, is detail how the judging process operates so that the jurors can reach their decision. I am presenting some detailed information for others to debate if they so wish, but will not be debating these points directly myself. World Press Photo keeps its procedures under review and I will be contributing to those internal discussions. I am writing this because after two years of having an insider’s view, I feel that those on the outside will benefit from knowing more about the stages of what is a long and complex process. Sometimes I get the sense that without knowing what happens at various stages, people on the outside view the jury process as something akin to the cardinals electing a pope – an opaque process, in which deals are done and favours called in, that culminates mysteriously in the release of white smoke to signal a conclusion.

I’m sure there will be many who continue to hold that view even if they read this, but I feel it is my responsibility to the nineteen jurors who gave their time and energy to the process this year – without payment – to lay out how they worked. All the jurors and the Secretary are bound by a signed commitment to confidentiality, meaning we are unable to discuss what individual jurors do or do not say, and we are unable to discuss which specific images went out and why. This cardinal rule is designed to create an environment of openness and trust within the jury room amongst the jurors, so they can speak critically and freely in the knowledge their contributions will not be misrepresented later. This of course complicates the desire to be transparent about all aspects of the debates. Other competitions operate in different ways, with, for example, Picture of the Year International running live webcasts of its judges at work. While that seems to be the model of openness, I have heard from former PoYI judges it has the potential to constrain judges in speaking freely because of the concern that those up for awards might be watching. Which approach is superior is for others to debate, but there are good arguments on both sides, and as a result I can only discuss how the procedures of the World Press Photo contest work.

I know also there are a number of people who doubt the value of contests in principle, and that can be a valid view point. World Press Photo has been judging professionals annually for nearly sixty years and retains considerable respect and status within the international photographic community. While I am Secretary I want people who question the contest to do so from as informed a position as possible. As a result, this will necessarily be a long post, quite dry in large part. I will be covering:

  • data on entries
  • jury structure and principles
  • the first and second week of judging
  • conflict of interest procedures
  • manipulation and processing issues

I hope those wanting to continue the debate will take the time to read it closely, because a good critique depends on some knowledge of what you are talking about.

Data on entries

This year the contest received 98,671 images from 5,754 photographers with 132 nationalities. Photographers enter their images in one of nine categories

Data on the national breakdown of entries is interesting. If we consider all countries from which 100 or more photographers entered we get this list of the proportion of entry nationalities:

USA 10%

China 9.4%

Italy 8%

Spain 4.4%

UK 4.3%

Germany 4%

India 3.6%

France 3.4%

Russia 3.1%

Poland 3%

Brazil 2.8%

Netherlands 2.8%

Iran 2.3%

That means entrants from thirteen countries constitute 61% of the total number of entries, and those from 119 countries make up the remaining 39% (with Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Indonesia and Mexico prominent amongst those). We would have to look at other years to know whether this national breakdown was either typical or anomalous. It is worth noting that 61% of this year entries came from freelancers who work professionally, with 39% from directly employed professionals. Male photographers made up 86% of entrants, and 14% were female.

The jury structure and principles

In the first round their are specialised juries – News and Documentary, Nature, Sports and Portraits. – that consider their respective categories. You can see who was on each specialised jury here. News and Documentary is the largest specialised jury, with five voting members, because it considers the bulk of the entries – 68,023 photographs this year. The other juries have three voting members. A great deal of effort goes into having a diverse group of jurors. There were nineteen judges from more than a dozen nationalities, though judging always takes place in English.

The juries operate with three general principles:

  1. Over the two weeks juries are, in two stages, editing a large body of work down to smaller numbers in order to award prizes to singles and stories in each category.
  2. The jury process is a form of peer review, where people from the industry and wider photographic community make the judgements.
  3. The images are presented anonymously, without any credit identifying the names of photographer, agency or publication. Jurors are prohibited from mentioning any names if they recognised images and they are prohibited from speculating on names if they are unsure, and this prohibition applies both inside and outside the jury room. As it is not uncommon for different photographers to independently submit images from the same event or place, event those who think they recognise work are often surprised when the names of winners are revealed after the conclusion of judging. To enable discussion of anonymous entries, each image and story has a code number jurors can refer to if they wish to review something.

The contest has five voting rounds: the first, second, third and fourth round, and the finals. Each jury has a specific role, and each round had different voting requirements and procedures.

The first week of judging

The first stage of the judging process runs for the first week. In each specialised jury, singles or stories are passed to the second round if one member of the jury says ‘yes’ on the basis of seeing the screened image. All images are on the screen for roughly the same brief period of time, and there is no caption information available at this stage.

Because they are dealing with smaller bodies of work, the Nature, Portraits and Sports juries proceed to the second round in the first week. Work passed with a single ‘yes’ is then seen again, and requires at least two votes to proceed. If stories do not proceed, then each jury member can if so desired select a single image to be entered into the same singles category. These specialised juries then bring a minimum of six entries in each category to the second week of judging.


The second week of judging 

The General Jury conducts the second week of judging. The Chair and Secretary of News and Documentary act as Chair and Secretary of the General Jury. They are joined by the Chairs of Nature, Portraits and Sports, and five new members who did not participate in the first round.

The General Jury begins with the third round. Voting is anonymous, with an electronic voting machine recording each jurors ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only the Secretary sees and calls the results of each vote. It requires at least 6 votes of the 9 voting members for a picture or story to pass to the fourth round. Caption information (provided by the photographers when they enter) is available. It was read as a matter of course for stories and on request for singles. Work voted out can be recalled if proposed and the vote is supported by at least 6 jurors, and work can be moved to another category if proposed and supported by the same number of jurors.

In the fourth round, voting is also anonymous and conducted electronically. The aim of the fourth round is to edit each category of singles and stories down to between four and six entries for the final round. That is achieved by alternating negative and positive voting. Jurors first vote to reject work for the finals by voting ‘no’ with the machine, and it takes at least 6 ‘no’ votes for something to go out. If there are less than four or more than six entries left, the jury will then revert to positive voting (voting ‘yes’ with the machine) to reach the four to six entries required for finals. If this takes longer, then the process alternates between positive and negative voting.

In a new procedure for this year, all singles and stories voted through from the fourth round to the finals were reviewed by an independent digital expert to see they complied with the contest rules on manipulation and processing. I’ll detail that process in the section below. Those entires deemed eligible entered the finals for consideration for prizes, with a maximum of four entries in each category.

Extensive discussion is a feature of the process. From the third round onwards the jury engages in extensive debate on the singles or stories in front of them. This was like being in an advanced visual studies seminar – jurors explored aesthetics, ethics, editing, the depiction of violence, informed consent, stereotypes, narrative, story and more.

In the final round, a different voting process, involving the distribution of preferences, operates. Entries are still presented only with their code. Voting is anonymous, using paper ballots, and jurors are prevented from discussing their votes. Jurors have 10 points to distribute to singles or stories they wish to award first, second and third prizes too. They can award a maximum number of 7 points to any entry. This means they chose any combination of 10 points from 7/3/0 to 4/3/3 is given to the three winning entries they favour. Once they have voted these points are counted and the prizes determined.

After all first/second/third prizes are awarded in the nine categories for both singles and stories then the process of selecting the Photo of the Year begins. Only those singles which were first place in their respective categories, plus any frame from any of the first/second/third prize winning stories that was taken is 2013, are eligible to be considered for Photo of the Year. Jurors then nominate photographs – which are still anonymous, without the names of the photographer etc – to be considered and a long list is produced. After debate, successive rounds of positive and negative voting along the lines described above (each time requiring at least 6 votes to keep a photo in or remove it) are conducted until two photographs remain. After more debate, a secret paper ballot is conducted with jurors voting for photo A or photo B. The photo with at least an overall majority amongst the nine members is selected as the winner.

Conflict of interest procedures

I have laid out the jury structure, principles and process in detail because I don’t think these procedures are widely known. The complexity of the voting structure over five rounds is designed to ensure that to progress singles and stories have to build strong majority support and resist majority opposition. The anonymised images and confidential voting process is specifically designed to prevent one individual pushing a favoured image, for whatever reason, against the majority view. Having watched this for one year and operated it this year I have no doubt it works exceedingly well.

The judging process, as I observed at the outset, is a form of peer review. It is inevitable that when you have entries from thousands of professional photographers around the world, someone on a jury of peers could have some relationship with submitted work. This is dealt with in two ways. Firstly, if they know they have an interest jurors must publicly declare it to the jury so it can be factored into debate. Secondly, to check that jurors are declaring an interest, from the third round onwards in the General Jury, the Secretary is given data from the support staff that cross checks the entries remaining to highlight potential interests. I can make two general observations on this. The first is that to date the only reason jurors have not declared an interest before being told of the interest is because they do not know or recognise the work under consideration as being somehow related to them. People assume jurors automatically recognise all work from their colleagues or publications, but this is far from being the case. The second is that people should not assume jurors declaring an interest automatically go on to advocate for the work in which they have an interest – they are at least as likely to oppose it.

Of course, there are many ways organisations can handle the appearance of, or potential for, conflicts of interest. Pictures of the Year International represents its process in these terms:

Pictures of the Year International selects judges who maintain the highest journalistic and ethical standards. We have confidence that these same values will apply as jurors for POYi. We recognize that our profession is a close network and that the judges are also working journalists. So, we carefully research and consider any potential conflicts and then counsel all the members about their obligations to be fair and impartial. Any judge with entries in a category are asked to recuse themselves. The entire three weeks of judging is an open forum for anyone to quietly observe the process. POYi conducts the annual competition with complete transparency and integrity.

Without knowing the full detail of their research and counsel, this sounds similar to the World Press Photo approach. One big difference is that World Press Photo jurors cannot submit entries in the year they are judging, so there are no ground for recusal as there are for POYi judges.

The appearance of a conflict of interest has been a topic in the aftermath of the Photo of the Year award because the winning photographer, John Stanmeyer, is a member of VII, founded by Gary Knight and others. As Lens blog reported:

Mr Knight said that although he had asked to be removed from the final judging because of his friendship and professional relationship with Mr Stanmeyer, the World Press rules did not allow for it. He emphasised that at every level there was complete transparency. “If anything,” he said, “I was a hindrance for John getting the award, not a help.”

This is true. According to the rules, all jurors have one vote and must vote, and no one can abstain in the vote. There was complete transparency at every level and all the rules were followed strictly. The winning image had to progress through the various rounds with majority support as detailed above. Like all the votes from the third round onwards the final vote was anonymous and confidential so we do not know how any individual juror voted. To be blunt, it is an insult to the intelligence and integrity of the eight other voting members of the jury to suggest they made an award on the basis of a declared interest. As Secretary and the person responsible for the integrity of the process I have no doubt whatsoever that all the winners were decided on in accordance with both the rules and the spirt of fairness and equality. There is simply no basis in evidence for questioning the conduct and integrity of Gary Knight, the general jury chair, who at all times created an open environment for free debate on all entries. That was one of the things remarked on and appreciated by all jurors.

Peer review is the backbone of a good system of governance. Anyone with experience in research knows that peer review helps ensure the best quality outcome. In academia peer review determines the award of grants and publications that involve millions of dollars and secure employment. Yet procedures in the university sector often lack the levels of assurance and robustness found in the World Press Photo voting scheme.

The problem is that peer review in a relatively small professional community is going to create the appearance of a conflict of interest where none exists. That is a difficult issue we will struggle with so long as judging by peers is the principle. I’m sure those respected film, literary, musical and theatre awards which use peers from the highest levels of their respective industry struggle with similar issues. Given that 5,754 professional photographers from 132 nationalities entered, making the avoidance of the appearance of a conflict of interest the primary basis on which a jury was structured would eliminate anybody – photographers, editors, publishers, broadcasters, journalists, gallery owners, writers, curators, foundation funders, not to mention any personal friends or current and former partners – who in some way were associated with or worked with that global network. If you made recusal mandatory for any declared interest, then contests could be decided by a jury of peers reduced to a much smaller number of people that could alter with each vote on a single or story, which would distort the process and outcome in other ways. Would it be fair if there were nine jurors voting on one entry, six on the next and only two on the last? That would be a nightmare to administer in terms of equitable procedures.

Of course, you could advocate having a photography contest judged by people who had absolutely nothing to do with any aspect of the global network of photographers who entered. But then you would have a totally different contest and potentially a whole new set of problems. It might be a good idea for someone to set up such a contest and see how it works out, but it’s obviously unlikely to be under the auspices of World Press Photo.

In the end, I don’t know an easy way around the problem of communicating the integrity of a process based on peer review in a small professional community beyond what is covered here. I would be interested in any considered responses on that topic. My hope is that fair minded readers will appreciate that the detail of these reflections is necessary in order to understand how the structure of voting deals with the conflict of interest issues in advance of the specific processes for checking and declaring an interest. With regard to this year’s award, too many critics have, in ignorance of the procedures, remained at the level of appearance, confusing correlation with causation. We know we have a communications problem, and we know that appearances matter. What we do not have is a fairness or integrity problem.

Manipulation and processing issues

In a new development, this year World Press Photo had all entries being considered for prizes in the final round examined by an independent digital photography expert from the Netherlands before the jury proceeded to deliberate. This was to determine that all singles and stories going into the final round were eligible. 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. 120 photographers were contacted with the request to submit the unprocessed files for analysis. The jury received a full briefing and 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. The jury applied accepted standards in the industry, which, for example, allow for the cleaning of dust and scratches, and this judgement was applied in the same way to each entry in each category.

The jury decided that 10 entries were not eligible for the finals. That is 8% of the entries that were still in competition after the fourth round. There were 8 stories and 2 singles rules to be ineligible, entered in the Nature, Sports, People, Spot News, and Contemporary Issues categories. World Press Photo will be writing in confidence to those photographers whose work was ruled ineligible to make them aware of the decision.

Was this a large number of problem entries at that stage of the competition? Given that it is the first year this process has been in place, there is no point of comparison. We will have a better idea in the future, but then we would expect that percentage to drop as future entrants will be aware of what being caught means, so we won’t be able to say if that proportion is reflective of the industry as a whole. The Jury Chair reflected on these numbers:

I was really distressed, especially because so much of the post-processing that had made these images ineligible was absolutely unnecessary…It was materially minute but ethically significant. Or it was just laziness – it was photographers trying to turn a pig’s ears into a silk purse. One image in one story disqualified the whole story.

The review of eligible entries is an on-going process given the need to closely analyse unprocessed files as they come in from photographers. Work found to be ineligible can be disqualified after judging, as was the case in a previous year.


I am presenting this detailed information on the process for others to debate if they so wish, but will not be debating any points relating directly to this year’s competition myself. I am happy to accept comments below, but will only respond myself if there is a factual point about this years procedures to clarify, or a general observation to engage.

I have to conclude by saying I was honoured to accept the post of Secretary to the World Press Photo contest jury and I am already looking forward to next year. I am proud of the way this year’s judging was conducted by all concerned. There’s lots of analysis to do on what the contest can tell us about the state of the global visual economy and the representation of the world it gives us, and this was something this year’s jury debated too. But since returning form Amsterdam I have been sleeping well in the knowledge the results of this years contest were achieved fairly, equally and with unquestionable integrity on the part of all who deliberated.

Update: 18 February 2014

The World Press Photo Managing Director issued a statement which concludes: “World Press Photo has total confidence in its judging process and how it was applied this year. We trust absolutely in the integrity of our chairs and jurors and we honor the selections they have made.”

Photos credit: © Michael Kooren photography / Hollandse Hoogte — the general jury working, at World Press Photo HQ, 11 February 2014.


World Press Photo Multimedia research project

I’m pleased to announce that I am directing a research project for World Press Photo – under the auspices of the World Press Photo Academy and supported by the FotografenFederatie (Dutch Photographers Association) – that will map the global emergence and development of multimedia in visual storytelling, especially photojournalism.

‘Multimedia’ is an imprecise and problematic term, and some refer to ‘photo films’ or ‘web documentaries’. While not a replacement for other approaches, these concept point to an emerging consensus in photojournalism that, , presenting a story through a combination of images, sound, and text offers a number of advantages. Stories are able to provide greater context and give their subjects a voice, while being easily distributed through new digital channels (the web, apps) that are no longer constrained by the limited space of print publications. However, one of the major challenges is to see how the production of quality content through these means can be supported and expanded.

This project, underway now and to report by next April, will examine these issues through a comparative study looking at multimedia trends in three parts of the world: the USA, Europe, and China. In each of these locations, this study will ask five general questions:

1.  How is multimedia being produced?
2.  How is multimedia being financed?
3.  How is multimedia being published and distributed, and who is publishing/distributing multimedia?
4.  How are viewers consuming multimedia?
5.  Which types of multimedia attract the most attention, and what are the criteria of success?

The aim is to have a comprehensive survey that makes clear what is possible and practical. I don’t envisage defining what ‘multimedia’ is or is not: rather we want to see the full range of what is happening globally and how it is being made possible, and what we can learn from that for the future.

The research is going to involve a combination of secondary literature and primary interviews with key players. I am also keen for anyone interested in the topic to contribute, so will be making appeals for information from the photographic community.

There is a dedicated email address for the project, so please get in touch at david (at)

A final note:  as an independent research and practitioner, I make a rule of recusing myself from public comment on organisations who employ me. As a result, while I will continue to publish my own personal analyses on photojournalism here, and I will not be making any comments about any issues relating directly to World Press Photo, the World Press Photo Academy or the FotografenFederatie while working on this project.




This photo is not just what it is: reading the World Press Photo debate

What can Samuel Aranda’s 2011 World Press Photo of the Year tell us about how we view photojournalism?

For this post I’m not interested in whether it deserved to win or didn’t deserve to win, or the details of what it means or what it doesn’t mean. Anyone who wins an award for one picture selected from one hundred thousand deserves our congratulations, and anyone who works in situations as difficult as Yemen deserves our respect.

Rather than dealing with the photograph itself, I want to focus on the subsequent debate about the photograph. I want to take a step back and ask: what does the conversation prompted by Aranda’s winning photograph tell us about the conventional way of understanding such images?

For Aranda, such debate is unlikely to be the issue. When asked by the British Journal of Photography if the Pieta-like form of the image was deliberate, he remarked:

It was not intentional…You know how it is in these situations – it was really tense and chaotic. In these situations, you just shoot photos. It is what it is. We’re just photographers. I consider myself just a worker. I just witness what is going on in front of me, and shoots photos. That’s it.

Aranda’s description of his modus operandi embodies one of the most treasured assumptions about photojournalism: that it is a window on the world, transparently witnessing a moment before the lens.

The production of an image, however, is just that: the production of an image. Reality is not copied by the camera, it takes on meaning through the whole apparatus of photographic practices that culminate in – but are not limited to – someone releasing the shutter. Photography is much more than what the photograph ‘is’. The meaning that results in part from the image is not limited to either details within the frame or the intentions/self-understanding of the photographer.

We can see that in debates like the very one prompted by the award for Aranda’s picture, a debate that Martijn Kleppe has curated at The fact that the New York Times (which first published Aranda’s picture) instantly cast his photograph in fine art terms as “painterly” shows how even the industry’s readings quickly move beyond naturalism to aesthetics. “Painterly” may be one of those oft-repeated and rather tiresome labels, but the Lens blog’s invocation of the idea should lay to rest the misleading notion that news pictures are somehow beyond aesthetics.

If you go through all the posts discussing Aranda’s photograph collected by Kleppe, the variety and richness of the interpretations is remarkable. People have understood it as a Christian icon, a 19th century orientalist painting, a sculptural form, a depoliticization of the Arab Spring, evidence of the hegemonic Western eye, a sign of a bloody conflict, a rendering of universal humanity, a personal moment of compassion, an affirmation of the strength of Islamic women, and an image whose beauty forces us to look.

This range of readings demonstrates neither a problem with the photograph nor a failure of criticism. To the contrary, it shows how photographs are polysemic and polyvalent – as part of their condition, they are inescapably open to multiple readings, and can often sustain different if not contradictory readings. The proliferation of clashing interpretations demonstrates the naturalist faith is untenable. If a photograph were just what it ‘is’ there would be nothing to discuss and the pictures’ public role would be minimal at best.

Robert Hariman is right when he says,

we need to see through symbols, but in both senses of the verb: to use them to see more than we might see otherwise, and to recognize and look past their limitations to see what they would distort or occlude.

The disparate readings of Aranda’s photograph, taken together, contradictions and all, are thus helping us see through symbols, in both senses of the verb.

The lesson from the debate about Aranda’s winning photograph is that even with press pictures we see through symbols. Such photographs are inescapably symbolic. We might think they illustrate the news through a simple process of depiction, but it is much more common that they function as symbolic markers. Indeed, the New York Times original publication of Aranda’s photograph is a case in point – it accompanied an October 2011 article that led with US drone strikes in Yemen even though the picture’s subject was injured by Yemeni government forces.

Nor is the symbolic nature of this picture a function of Western concerns or readings. If you consider closely the quoted statements of those Yemenis speaking approvingly about Aranda’s picture, they talk of how they, their country and their struggle have been and should be represented. In the words of the Yemeni blogger Affrah Nasser,

it sums up what the Yemeni nation and the rest of Arab (and non-Arab) revolutionary nations have gone through in pursuit of democracy and freedom.

It doesn’t get much more symbolic than that.

This photograph, then, is not just what it is.

And that opens up the way for thinking differently about the function of photojournalism, which is something I will write about in the future.

Photo: screenshot of, 20 February 2012.

photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.24: Lu Guang’s activist photography

What is the power of photography?

In the abstract, that is an impossible question to answer. There are many general claims about photography being able to ‘change the world’, but when it comes to evidence for such arguments, we know surprisingly little about how photographs actually work. There are clearly moments in which images can induce action. With Lu Guang’s photography, we can appreciate the impact some projects can have in some circumstances.

Lecturing in Beijing recently as part of the BFSU/Bolton MA in International Multimedia Journalism, Lu Guang discussed his long-term investigation of pollution in China, which he began in 2005. A self-funded freelancer, Lu Guang has won international recognition for his work in the form of World Press Photo awards, the 2009 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and the 2010 National Geographic photography grant. As the Lens blog noted, Lu Guang’s affinity with Eugene Smith is apparent in his commitment to investigate and expose the consequences of rampant industrialisation.

Lu Guang’s 2003 portraits from the AIDS village in Henan are as graphic and unvarnished as any images you will ever see. They had a dramatic impact in China, forcing local and regional authorities to provide the care and treatment they had previously refused. In his lecture, Lu Guang described how his current work on pollution, which is equally direct and to the point, offering pictures as evidence, is also prompting remedial action at local and regional levels.

That photography can move authorities in a political system well known for its desire to control information is remarkable. That someone like Lu Guang, even when commissioned by a western NGO like Greenpeace, can work effectively in China challenges the external perception of a system constantly covering crises up. Lu Guang spoke candidly of the harassment he faces while working, so the risks he take should not be underestimated. But he made a fascinating observation – if he was revealing something specific and unknown to particular authorities, Lu Guang felt he could carry on and overcome the obstacles in his path. While his disclosures are uncomfortable to profiteers, the political authorities sometimes either tolerate or encourage that discomfort.

Having spent a fair amount of time in China over the last eighteen months and more, I have been constantly struck by the large number of indigenous journalists and photographers whose daily work manifests an unflinching commitment to critical investigation regardless of the consequences. I think we have a lot to learn from the likes of Lu Guang.

Workers at a lime kiln in the Heilonggui Industrial District in Inner Mongolia. The woman on the left is wearing two scarves, a red one to protect her eyes, a grey one to cover her mask. Photo: Courtesy of Lu Guang, 22 March 2007.

Top photo: The sewage plant of the Fluorine Industrial Park discharges its untreated waste into the riverbed of the Yangtze River through a 1,500-meter-long pipeline. Changshu City, Jiangsu province. Courtesy of Lu Guang, 11 June 2009.



Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington on war and sexuality

Sleeping Soldiers_single screen (2009) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

I’m publishing here a short article written earlier this year by Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington that explores the themes of aggression, masculinity, sex and war, and the way they informed Tim’s work.

Entitled “The Theatre of War, or ‘La Petite Mort’,” the article was a collaborative effort. As Stephen Mayes told me, “we’d talked about these subjects for years and he approached me to write the piece with him, and we managed to distil many of his ideas into it. He read it, liked it, and went to Libya.”

Originally written for a small American journal, it was never published in this complete form. Because it offers a fascinating insight into Tim’s thinking – with the themes present in his work form Liberia to Afghanistan (especially the ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ project) and then Libya – I am pleased that Stephen has agreed to it being made available.

World Press Photo and Human Rights Watch have just announced the establishment of the “Tim Hetherington Grant,” a €20,000 award for a photographer “to complete an existing project on a humanitarian or human rights theme.” Applications close on 15 October this year, and you have to have participated in the World Press Photo awards between 2008-2011.

Last year Tim had spoken of a post-photographic world, and the need for visual communicators to stop thinking of themselves as just a photographer. I hope that the judges of the Tim Hetherington Grant will look for creative approaches that embody this position. Above all else – and despite the mere 750 words provided to applicants for a proposal – let’s hope the judges reward someone who puts as much effort into thinking about the issues he visualized as Tim did.

Link to PDF, Stephen Mayes and Tim Hetherington, The Theatre of War, or ‘La Petite Mort’

photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.10: Jodi Bieber’s Afghan girl portrait in context

Jodi Bieber has won the overall 2011 World Press Photo award for her portrait of Bibi Aisha, the young Afghan women disfigured in an act of punishment (above left). Bieber outlines her thoughts on making the photograph in a brief interview here. Any image selected from over 100,000 entries produced by 5,847 photographers is going to draw its fair share of advocates and detractors. Rather than passing comment on the particular merits of the award, I am interested in what this photograph says about the context of pictures, how their meaning is produced, and how we judge them.

As many have observed, Bieber’s photograph recalls Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of Sharbat Gula that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 (above right). In her brilliant essay on Gula’s picture, Holly Edwards notes the original function of McCurry’s picture was to “epitomize the plight of refugees displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Since that time “the image has been republished frequently in diverse contexts, its meaning altered and augmented with each incarnation.”

It is revealing that a portrait can be so mobile and fluid. It is also revealing that two photographs similar in style can point to such different political situations: refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion in the case of Gula’s picture, and the barbarity of the Taliban in the context of the US-led invasion in the case of Aisha’s.

The individual portrait is the most common photographic style in the representation of context. But the portrait (as I argued in my 2005 World Press Photo Sem Presser Lecture) more often than not decontextualises and depoliticises the situation being depicted, leaving it to accompanying captions, headlines and texts to temporarily anchor meaning.

Jodi Bieber (whom I have never met) was interviewed after my lecture and remarked: “What Campbell said about our lack of control was quite obvious and very true. As soon as you hand over your work its not yours anymore.” This means when Bieber’s portrait of Aisha appeared on the 9 August 2010 cover of Time, with the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,” its form was beyond her control (see below left). At the moment it entered the public domain the image was no longer Bieber’s.


Focusing on the headline, Jim Johnson calls the Time cover propaganda and the World Press Photo award a category mistake. He provides an effective demonstration of how meaning is changed by associated text with an imaginary cover using the same photo with the headline “What Still Happened Despite Ten Years of Occupying Afghanistan” (above right).

Johnson’s most insightful comment is that the World Press Photo award has performed another decontextualisation and depoliticisation of the Beiber photograph. The award process has extracted the image from the political issues it became associated with, reconstituted the picture as a discrete object, and reattached it to Jodi Bieber as author.

World Press Photo focuses exclusively on pictures alone, and the jury never sees anything other than the photographs themselves when making decisions (though in the case of well-known images such as the Aisha portrait they will surely know what they are looking at).

That is a curious process for the World Press Photo award. Most of us in the viewing public encounter photographs in one context or another. We rarely if ever see them in isolation, devoid of contextual elements. Shouldn’t WPP somehow consider the way images are published and circulated? I am not suggesting that the organisation take political issues and interpretations into account when making their decision. But can we really judge photographs in isolation as discrete objects any more?


Holly Edwards, “Cover to Cover: The Life Cycle of an Image in Contemporary Visual Culture,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 75-92.

UPDATE 23/02/11: The Sunday Times in Johannesburg has an interview with Jodi Bieber in which she offers some very brief reflections on the use of her of photo. In it she says:

When the story broke in Time magazine, it was berserk. The headline was misleading and it flew all over the world, all over, in front of Obama, everyone. But it was a good thing, regardless of the headline…

There were some women who said I objectified Aisha by showing her in that way, but I want to go and tell them: ‘F**k you, you’re sitting in an armchair at a university and she hasn’t got a nose. Must I show her crying and without ears, too?’

I learnt a lot, because there wasn’t just one response. It depended on whether you’re right- or left-wing American, or a feminist. In South Africa, it was more about the photograph, because we have no association with the politics between America and Afghanistan. In the end, you just put your picture out there and you can’t determine the response or push it in any direction.

While the observation that ‘you can’t determine the response’ is correct and reinforces her quote used in the post, given the significance and prominence of the image it would have been good to have heard more about its use. Whether she said more that didn’t make the final write-up is something we can’t know.

photography politics

Has concerned photography a future? Photojournalism, humanitarianism, responsibility

For a long time I have argued that ‘photojournalism’ – that broad swathe of photographic practice that tells visual stories about the world, and which can include documentary, editorial, news or social photography – has a particular responsibility and a particular opportunity to both represent the world better and make better worlds imaginable. It is a sensibility that shares much with Cornell Capa’s desire, articulated in his 1968 anthology The Concerned Photographer,  for “images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism.”

In 2005 I gave the Sem Presser Lecture at the World Press Photo awards, with the same title as this post. It was a chance for me to pull together many of the theoretical, political and practical issues implicated in the production of “concerned” photographs. The purpose was to offer a diagnosis of our contemporary political condition and how a reflexive approach to the production of visual imagery representing that condition might offer a way of negotiating the limitations that bind us all. Five years on, while much could be added to the argument, I feel that the central concerns are still relevant.

World Press Photo once had plans to publish the Sem Presser lectures in a volume, but nothing ever came of those. As a result, I have been meaning for some time to make available the lecture I gave. In this post you will find a summary of the central argument, along with links to the full text, the accompanying slides as well as an audio recording of the event (introduced by Michiel Munneke, managing director of World Press Photo). The quality of that is not great – having been produced via a friend’s recorder in the audience – but it is better than nothing. Links to all these things can be found at the bottom of this post.

Photography’s distinction has always been – and should remain so, in my view – that it has a connection to the world outside imagination. The world is not an unproblematic reality and that connection is not that of an unmediated copy. As a technology of visualization photography constructs, and representation is unavoidable. But there is still some force to the notion of “indexicality” even as we problematise the notion of the index. The event and the world may not be a secure foundation for truth, but it still offers limits on lies.

Our current global context is one of permanent war, an on-going state of emergency and frequent humanitarian crises (Yemen is only the latest trace of this). Injustices abound, but a combination of military strategy and media corporatisation has meant the image of conflict available to us is being severely restricted – despite the proliferation of television channels through cable, digital and satellite.

One of the central issues we face is that large parts of the military, media and information industries have become interwoven and interdependent. This is no accident. Instead, it is a product of transformations in US (and British, and NATO) military strategy that go under the name of the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that has been underway since the 1990s.

The RMA is concerned with how networked information technology is integrated into and changes the battlefield for the military. This means that ‘the battlefield’ is not just a place where military units operate in distant locations. The battlefield is something that surrounds us at all times. We now find ourselves located within – not just the ‘military-industrial complex’ President Eisenhower warned Americans of in 1961 – but what James Der Derian has called the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET).”

Despite the pervasiveness of this new strategic environment and the scale of the challenge, puncturing the de-humanising logic of the RMA offers an opportunity for photojournalism. I think that photojournalism can be an instrument of humanitarian intervention in contemporary conflict even though the concept of humanitarianism has been appropriated by the leading military powers to justify their recent interventions.

Photojournalism is well suited to be an instrument of humanitarian intervention because documentary photography itself has humanitarian roots, and in the lecture I go through the well-known contributions of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and the FSA, amongst others. Nonetheless, significant though it was, the humanitarian ethos of photojournalism in the twentieth century should not be overly romanticised. It was the social conscience of a liberal sensibility that very much wanted to reform a system rather than fundamentally challenge or change a system. Sometimes it was also quite patronising and paternalistic.

So in the lecture I posed this as the central question:

If we were to revivify photojournalism’s humanitarian ethos in the era of global neo-liberalism, network centric warfare and the permanent emergency, what photographic form and style would enable a new progressive stance?

It was then, and is probably still, an impossible question to answer. But working through it helps unpack some of the issues. In the lecture I considered a series of photographs from Darfur. I read them in relation to the fact that Darfur is not a “tragedy”. Darfur is not “another disaster in Africa.” Darfur is a crime – indeed, a series of war crimes committed by people in Darfur and tolerated if not encouraged by people beyond Darfur. How can we picture that?

The most common approach involved foregrounding the ‘personal code’ – using individuals, often in close up, as the locus of the image. But in the absence of special measures to counter this, the personal code implicitly decontextualises and depoliticises the situation, and this is perhaps the most common theme and problem with much documentary photography and photojournalism.

The prominence of the personal code prompts a difficult question: how different are these images from pictures important to photography’s past? Photography emerged as a technology central to the development of anthropology and the power of colonialism – it helped fix and objectify the native in a way that secured racial hierarchies.  The intentions of most contemporary practitioners are of course radically different. But, have we come far enough from this sort of representation? Can we say that photography is now post-colonial? Or does it, even inadvertently, reinforce colonial relations of power? Again, there are no easy answers, but asking the question is an essential part of exercising responsiblity.

How did this lecture go down with the 2005 World Press Photo audience? As the subsequent World Press Photo report demonstrated, it was a mixed reception. This reflected in part the tension between the lecture and its setting. In previous years Vicki Goldberg, Fred Ritchin and then I offered Sem Presser lecture’s with perspectives from outside the industry, and this was not always an easy or comfortable fit with the celebratory air of the award days. It is interesting to see, therefore, that recent lecturer’s at the event have been distinguished photographer’s talking about their practice. While valuable, this means there is a need for World Press Photo to offer a public forum where the many issues facing photojournalism can be debated.

Sem Presser Lecture 2005 – text


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Featured post photo: Queue of containers next to a water source in Farchana UNHCR refugee camp, Chad, June 2004. Sven Torfinn/Panos.


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.