World Press Photo controversy: Objectivity, manipulation and the search for truth

There’s nothing worse for a photojournalist than to have his or her integrity questioned. As the most recent debate about Paul Hansen’s winning World Press Photo image has shown, rumours, speculation and misinformation travels far quicker than the truth. Last week’s exposé by Extreme Tech, ‘How the 2013 World Press Photo of the Year was faked with Photoshop’, was shared 17,000 times on Facebook and more than 2500 times on Twitter, while World Press Photo’s clarification clocks only 130 shares on Facebook.


The intense debate forced World Press Photo to appoint a panel of forensic analysts to study Hansen’s image. One of these analysts found that, when comparing the raw file with the prize-winning version, “I can indeed see that there has been a fair amount of post-production, in the sense that some areas have been made lighter and others darker,” writes Eduard de Kam, a digital photography expert at the Dutch Institute for Digital Photography. “But regarding the positions of each pixel, all of them are exactly in the same place in the JPEG – the prize-winning image – as they are in the raw file. I would therefore rule out any question of a composite image.”

As far as World Press Photo is concerned, Hansen’s image is authentic – but questions remain. “Why did he do it at all?” asks Roger Tooth, head of photography at The Guardian. “I guess the answer is: because he can. The tools are there to do it. I guess, in the professional world, what’s actually changed is that photographers now have the raw files of their images, whereas, if we go back to the pre-digital era, they would have handed the film on to someone like me and I would have got a darkroom printer to do a decent print of it.”

Yet the idea of post-processing being a recent innovation is fundamentally wrong. Before digital, photographers made the same decisions about how their images should look. But, as Ashley Gilbertson argues, these decisions were made at B&H, when “we were buying these different film stocks and filters”. For the VII photographer, today’s situation isn’t different from what happened in the early 1990s in Bosnia, when “we had four photographers photographing the same thing on a street corner, where one guy was shooting with a tungsten filter, one guy was shooting with Kodachrome and a warm filter, another guy was shooting on black-and-white film, and another was shooting on colour negative,” he says. “You had four completely different images, four different perceptions of reality, four very different looks, but all very relevant.”

What has changed, adds Santiago Lyon, director of photography at the Associated Press and this year’s chair of the World Press Photo jury, is that previously “the aesthetic was proprietary, in the sense that it was a look that was produced from a film that was owned by a filmmaking company”, he says. “So, to a certain extent, you bought the aesthetic that you liked. Now technology allows us to create an aesthetic of our own choosing – people can go after a certain look if they like it.”

Gilbertson concurs. “We all have the same-looking raw file now. It’s when we go back to our hotel room that we make the decision of how our image is going to look.” But is it wrong to do so, as many commentators have argued in the case of Hansen’s image?

“I think there have always been different aesthetics in photography – whether it’s black-and-white, different colour temperatures, different kinds of film, with people preferring a Kodachrome look over an Ektachrome look or a colour negative. I don’t think that’s anything new,” says Lyon. “And, most recently, 10B [a post-production photographic lab in Italy] has produced a look that some photographers find so appealing they imitate it. In the end, it’s the photographer’s choice.”

Two years ago, Gilbertson was strongly against the idea of sending one of his frames to a lab such as 10B, “because I knew how it would come back, and I knew it would not look like the reality I saw,” he tells BJP. “Two years ago, I was only shooting in colour because I felt that black-and-white wasn’t real. But now I’m of a completely different mind and, to be honest, I love the toning of Hansen’s picture. It looks beautiful. A lot of my friends strongly disagree with me on that point; maybe, in five years, I will want to take 50 percent saturation out of my pictures because I’ll think it looks amazing.”

Yet, Gilbertson adds, photographers can’t hide from the fact that an increasing portion of the population is skeptical of the images they see. “The photographic process has become a lot more complicated ever since digital, but I think it goes beyond that,” he says. “Twenty years ago, the public trusted the blueish images they saw in Newsweek, the warm images in Time, the black-and-white images in The New York Times, and the straight images in Life magazine. I think the level of trust in the media from a public standpoint has dropped so dramatically that everything that’s presented now is questioned. People are looking for faults and reasons for things to be factually incorrect.” But, he continues, “When Alex Majoli presents a picture, when Philip Blenkinsop presents a picture, and when I present a picture, you get three really different styles and interpretations – and the word ‘interpretation’ is key here. It’s all about what we saw, how we envision it, and what we’re trying to say. Photographers are a lot more opinion-driven than reporters.”

And that should be at the heart of this debate, says Magnum Photos member Christopher Anderson. “It is beside the point to argue about the degree to which facts have been altered, because all photography does that,” he tells BJP in an email conversation. “I could care less whether or not a photographer uses HDR techniques to produce melodramatic, hyperbolic alterations of the facts. I am more interested in the truth in what they have to say, even though I know it is subjective. I don’t need an algorithm to know that I am looking at a lie. I know because the world we live in does not look like that. My mind knows it, my heart [knows it]. When a suburban kid in garage in New York is retouched to look like he is in a burned out alley in Aleppo, I don’t have to examine the raw file to know that the photographer has created something that has nothing at all to do with facts.”

He adds: “My point is that facts do not exist, but truth does. And truth is paramount. Authenticity and integrity in the image is something I think we understand intuitively. When we come to grips with the fact that all photography is a lie, the question is not whether or not it is factual, the question is whether or not it is true. It is not the technique that makes it true or not, therefore it is pointless to argue about how much retouching should be acceptable. But, as a general rule, heavy handed retouching makes me doubt the photograph’s intention towards truth.”

Anderson is quick to point out that he too retouches his images and alters the colour palette to his liking. “I am not making a claim to some integrity in that regard,” he says. “But I also do not make claims to factual, objective photography anymore. My goal is truth, not fact, but it is my own personal subjective truth. That is all I can offer, and I no longer enter contests for that reason.”

For Anderson, the question of photojournalism’s integrity is on the table because of the “perpetuation of the myth that photography is objective,” he says. “I think journalism and the public will be better served when we acknowledge that photography is subjective, but it can also be ‘true’ – and that truth is a personal truth.” Yet, he argues, the aesthetics as seen in Hansen’s image might not help. “The intention in creating these colours is different, and this is where the truth begins to break down. The intention is to alter the reality to make it look otherworldly. This is an insult to intelligence because we know the world does not look like that. And somewhere in the back of the public’s mind, even if it is not a conscious thought, a question is raised: ‘Can I believe what I am looking at? Why is the person who is delivering this message trying to fool me? Why does it look like an airbrushed cartoon?'”

For 10B, which helped popularise this ‘look’ with the work of photographers such as Yuri Kozyrev among many others [full list here], these questions are influenced by a sort of technophobia. “It is appalling how today’s criticism of digital photojournalism overlooks the simple historical fact that in the days of analogue, the big ethical dilemmas and the responsibility of photojournalists were just the same,” says Francesco Zizola, a Noor photographer who co-founded 10B. “Disapproving of the ‘look’ is necessary, if this ‘look’ is the result of manipulation. But disapproving of the use of new technologies that improve and amplify perception – the real thing represented in the image in full compliance with the strict rules of photojournalism – requires us to be acquainted with the history of photography and its technology.”

He adds: “The general public is experiencing a new relationship with photography, in terms of numbers and purpose. The global spread of mobile devices is changing the relationship between image and society. This in turn is having important consequences on a number of social and cultural processes: how identities are formed; how information and knowledge are transmitted; the relationship between memory and historical documents; the value of images as historical evidence, etc. We live in an age where the picture on our ID document is not enough to prove our identity, yet photos are still accepted in law courts as evidence of a crime, or as evidence of a discovery in a scientific environment, without mentioning certain sophisticated technologies that enable doctors to take very complex images inside our bodies. Journalistic and documentary photography will have to rediscover the underlying reasons of their essence.”

Zizola welcomes the public criticism. “It’s very useful, especially if it gives us a chance to reflect on the political importance of photographs. What is of fundamental importance is to keep interrogating ourselves on our personal and collective responsibility as witnesses, and on the purpose of the images we produce. Technology has a huge impact on our visual language, but it doesn’t necessarily alter its credibility.”

In the case of Hansen’s “unnatural colours”, Zizola argues that they appear as such “because they are different from what we are used to seeing since the appearance of the first colour photograph of the modern era, in 1935, with the invention of the Kodachrome slide. The question is: when was the representation of reality ever natural? Certainly not when one photographs in black-and-white; in that representation, all colour data disappears. Today, when a photojournalist photographs an event in black-and-white, no one contests it and no one asks for his or her exclusion from a competition for having falsified reality.”

That might be because black-and-white is closely associated with the history of photojournalism, says Gilbertson. “Black-and-white is regarded as arty. There’s a tradition behind it but, in actual fact, if we are to talk about the manipulation of colours, that is the most violent you can be.”

The question remains: what should World Press Photo in particular, and the photojournalism community as a whole, do to regain the public’s trust? “World Press Photo and other contest organisers need to think about the predominance they have in today’s world of photography,” Lyon argues. “They have an important role in defining what is acceptable, and I would encourage them to take an active role in defining these things. If that means they should request the raw file from all entrants, I personally think it would be a very good thing because it would make photographers aware that their images are going to be compared and contrasted to the original files. That level of transparency would be very useful and powerful, and would serve to encourage photographers to attempt to display their work as closely as possible to what they saw in the first place.”

This, however, would be the start of another debate: “What did the photographer see, or what does he remember seeing? Does he remember a particular colour being vibrant? And when that photographer sees his image, it might be at odds with his memory of it,” says Lyon. “Memory plays into it. And sometimes your memory plays tricks on you.”

For Anderson, there’s no point in coming up with new rules. Instead, “we could create a dogma for contests that illustrates the pointlessness of trying to perpetuate the myth of photographic objectivity: no black-and-white (the world is not black-and-white); no wide-angle or telephoto lenses (the eye does not see in that way); no retouching at all. But then we would have to include everything that makes a photo subjective,” he adds. “The photographer cannot choose the moment to press the shutter, but instead must just randomly and repeatedly press the button. And no framing – you can’t even look through the viewfinder. These would constitute choices to include or exclude moments, events or subjects, and that, of course, means altering the objective truth. And, of course, the photographer could not choose the image that is submitted to the contest. Only through a silly dogma like this can we ensure objective photojournalism in the contests.”

“I think that we have to learn to understand the context,” adds Zizola, “draw barriers, ask questions, look carefully, think consequently. This is the only healthy attitude with respect to the truthfulness of images, avoiding such excesses as believing that all is fake and nothing is true, or the opposite – that photography is nothing but the exact representation of reality.”