Photo Manipulation and Verification
The status of the photographic image as a source of information has been questioned since the invention of photography. In response, the credibility of news and documentary photography is conventionally justified in terms objectivity, where the faithful recording of events and people in front of the lens is said to secure truth.
This questioning of photography’s status accelerated with the advent of digital technology. From the first days of the digital image revolution, analysts and practitioners have been concerned with challenges to the integrity of the image. Philip Jones Griffiths observed in 1999 that “we are probably the last generation that will accept the integrity of the photograph.” Yet the fact that we now live in a world where more than 1.8 billion images are uploaded to social media sites every day suggests people see images as having great value, while at the same time also posing more challenges with regard tot he credibility of images.
In the last decade, concerns about the credibility of news and documentary images have periodically erupted in debates about the manipulation and post-processing of digitally produced photographs, and in 2009 World Press Photo revised its rules to make clear that photographs in the contest could not be altered except in accordance with accepted industry standards.
At that time I independently wrote three posts on the issue:
- Photographic truth and manipulation
- Photographic truth and Photoshop
- Photographic manipulation: World Press Photo needs to be transparent in enforcing its rules
The major problem prior to 2014 was that no one had researched whether or not there are accepted industry standards about what alterations (if any) media organisations around the world permit. In April 2014 World Press Photo hosted two sessions at the Awards Days in Amsterdam to discuss these issues, and having been Secretary to the General Jury for the 2014 contest when 8% of entrants in the penultimate round were disqualified, I participated in that event and wrote about the proceedings (which include an audio recording of the event):
- What are the current standards relating to the manipulation of photographs? A discussion at the World Press Photo Awards Days 2014
After those sessions, I was commissioned by World Press Photo to research 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. The research sought to answer a series of research questions, and I detailed them here:
- The integrity of the image: Global practices and standards concerning the manipulation of photographs
The purpose of this research was to record, as comprehensively as possible, how members of the photojournalism community think about and deal with the issue of manipulation. The research was not designed to impose or recommend standards that organisations should adopt. It was designed to record those standards that organisations might currently hold or practice, thereby encouraging industry debate on the integrity of the image, and informing World Press Photo about issues relating to manipulation relevant to its annual contest. The findings were released on 24 November 2014:
The 2015 World Press Photo contest saw 22% of the entries in the penultimate round rejected for manipulation. I clarified the criteria, and commented on reports about this issue, in this Storify.
World Press Photo’s “Integrity of the Image” report deals principally with processing and digital manipulation, while noting that manipulation can occur in other ways. I’ve written personally about some of those broader issues before:
- Staging Politics: Beyond White House Access, the Photo Op is the Larger Issue
- Thinking Images v.16: Osama Bin-Laden and the pictorial staging of politics
Writing personally, I’ve published a long, conceptual post about how, when and why I think the manipulation of certain photographs matters. It argues for a reframing of photography in terms what we want image to do rather than what we think images are.
One of the conclusions that I personally find compelling is the need to move much of the debate about the integrity of the image towards verification, which involves much more than digital forensics. Section 9 of “The Integrity of the Image” report discusses what is involved in this move to verification. I’m hoping we can do more work on verification and visual storytelling in the foreseeable future.
Photo credit: Faked Iranian missile test photo, via Fourandsix.com.
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