Image manipulation hits World Press Photo

Twenty percent of the images in the penultimate round of World Press Photo 2015 were disqualified because they were manipulated, according to Lars Boering, managing director of the organisation – and the Sports Stories category was so badly affected that the jury were unable to award a third prize. “I don’t want to say it is just sports photography because in every category was affected,” Boering comments. “But after the penultimate round, after we had awarded the first and second place, there was nothing left. All the other images had been removed.”

Rocked by scandal over suspected image manipulation in recent years, World Press Photo now insists that photographers who reach the penultimate round of the competition submit their raw files and negatives. “They are then all checked by a team of experts, who find everything,” says Boering. “In this case we found a lot and that was very disappointing. It is about trust, about the basic ethics of journalism. These images should be genuine and real; we have to be able to trust the photographs they put in front of us….Of course we all know that photographs never show everything that’s going on, they are always an interpretation, but we have to know that photographers are showing what’s going on in the world.


“In the penultimate round, all raw files are requested and are looked at by a team of technicians who present to the jury their findings,” adds jury member Michele McNally. “Some of those findings can be considered just a type of post-processing that a photographer legitimately does, and it’s up to the jury to decide whether that’s permissible. It might not be to the jury’s taste, but it might be to industry standard. We had to work out whether they’re acceptable.

“And then there was the extreme – we saw some real manipulation, a lot of photographers who added or subtracted elements of the image,” she adds. “Real manipulation, and it’s a remarkable thing to see. It was remarkable to see what things were, and what things become, what was removed. Sometimes you think it’s a little thing, or they’ve made an accident, and then you realise ‘No, they’re trying to deceive us here.’ It’s very debilitating. Some of the members of the jury felt they were being treated badly, and these people were trying to cheat them….Those individual photographers get a letter why they’re being disqualified, with the evidence and statements from the jury.”

“I don’t know how many [sports images] were eliminated – I work on the first jury, which selects the images then passed on to the final jury,” adds Bob Martin, the distinguished sports photographer and member of World Press Photo’s specialist sports jury. “But clearly there was a problem with the sports features category, and across the board lots of retouching – and very good retouching [as it could only be detected by experts using the raw files or negatives for comparison]…To have this many images disqualified is terrible and unacceptable.

“But we need to come together as a community of editorial people and decide what is acceptable,” he continues. “My view is that if something is added that wasn’t there, or something is removed, then clearly that’s not on. But if the contrast is increased, or the corners darkened, or areas are dodged and burned – what then? We used to do all that in the darkroom, and now Photoshop is our darkroom.”

Martin brushed off any suggestion these standards apply less to sports images than other kinds of photojournalism, arguing that they should remain reportage. But he pointed out that portrait photographs are regularly retouched, across the board, and added “if it is a news competition we must have the same standards across all categories”.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy