Critical Thinking: Should Photo Contest Rules Change to Accommodate the Digital Age?

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Critical Thinking: Should Photo Contest Rules Change to Accommodate the Digital Age?

This year, the World Press Photo contest disqualified 20 percent of the photos submitted because of “excessive post-processing.” One juror said many of them still refer to traditional darkroom techniques for judging guidelines. Do you think photo contest rules should change to accommodate the digital age, and what is an acceptable amount of photo editing for publishing?

Kelby Wingert, 22, senior, Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa)
Wingert is the photo editor of The Iowa State Daily, Iowa State’s student newspaper. She previously served as assistant photo editor and staff photographer. Before transferring to Iowa State, she was the assistant editor and sports editor at The Coe College Cosmos, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She’s majoring in journalism and mass communication with a minor in sociology.

I followed the World Press Photo contest pretty closely this year, and I was shocked and a little confused when I heard about the 20 percent of entries disqualified because of over-editing. I wasn’t sure what exactly that meant. What was considered “over-editing?” Was it still OK to bring up the exposure if the image is a little dark? Is cropping in a little bit still acceptable?

The week that the winner of the contest had his award stripped, I sent an article about that and the other disqualifications to my photo desk to discuss at our meeting that week. I thought we’d spend much of the time discussing the ethical issues with setting up photo situations, but we spent nearly the entire time discussing post-processing. It was one of the most meaningful and productive ethical discussions we’ve had at our meetings—we’d never really had a reason to discuss over-editing before.

I don’t think photo contest rules need to change to accommodate the digital age. From what I’ve read, the judges of the World Press Photo contest disqualified the photos that were edited so much, the context and subject matter changed. It’s not unreasonable to disqualify entries when the final edited photo and the original raw file are two completely different images.

Yes, I do think photo editing software is incredibly helpful in those situations when you grab your camera to cover breaking news and you forget to adjust the white balance or the photos are a little bit dark. However, there is a line when it comes to post-processing—a line that should not be cross and when it is, it takes away all the integrity and legitimacy of what we do as photojournalists.

Karen Mitchell, 55, visual coach, The Tennessean (Nashville, Tenn.)
Prior to her position at The Tennessean, Mitchell was a professor of convergence journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism, was a state photo editor at the Associated Press in Chicago and New York City, and served as director of photography at The Des Moines Register.

Change happens, and change often necessitates more change.

Like the rotary dial phone, black and white television and VCRs, photography has changed. The digital camera has replaced film and some of our photographic techniques must necessarily change to fit the new tools.

Twenty-five years ago, even the developers of Photoshop, the premiere photo manipulation software, had a hard time with change. They named the tools of this new computer program after many traditional darkroom practices. Even the icons looked like the tools we used in the darkroom. The “dodge” tool is used to hold light back or lighten the exposure — and the “burn” tool is used to add light or darken the exposure.

But even in the digital world, the guidelines for the tools have not changed: you cannot use the tools to deceive, mislead or significantly change the essence of the moment. You don’t change reality.

Our mission is to show our audience the world, free of bias, free of trickery. Digital photography makes manipulation of reality so very easy. It is only our written code of ethics and our internal barometers that protect the truth and accuracy of our photographs.

The rules of the contest clearly state, “The content of an image must not be altered. Only retouching that conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed.” The medium used — film or digital — isn’t mentioned because it’s not necessary. The rule addressed the content of the image and the journalistic standard to “show truth with a camera” (Cliff Edom, the Father of Photojournalism). This rule could stand as is in 1970, 1990 or 2015. It has latitude and takes into consideration the current climate of the journalism industry. 


2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: Should Photo Contest Rules Change to Accommodate the Digital Age?

  • May 22, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    Everyone, from the photographers to the editors to the pressmen, should work to create a final printed image that a reasonable witness of the event photographed would agree is fair and accurate given the limits of photography and printing. That, to me, should be the guiding rule — not a list of what tools not to use in a specific editing application — because the tools change). So, along with the usual details about not changing the size or location of individual objects, I’d say nothing artificially dramatic — don’t warm up colors to get an emotional response, no silhouettes (okay, almost never), no HDR / tone mapping, don’t increase the amount of background blur and so on. And then, I’d say — globals only. Don’t select, don’t dodge and burn specific areas, etc. (it looks fake when done badly). I say this for two reasons — modern image editors can tone whole images in a smart way that nearly always eliminates the need to make selections and if you haven’t selected anything you can’t be charged (rightly or wrongly) with manipulating the image for the wrong reasons.

  • May 22, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    What’s the point of a news photo contest to begin with? Is the point of a photo contest to get the goriest photo of a personal or public disaster? If the point of the contest is to “tell a story,” then the photo should be unaltered. What about photos used in court? Can they be altered or enhanced to tell a story better? You know what’s right and what’s wrong…don’t alter the photo! You can do what you want in your own darkroom, but don’t submit it for publication in the press nor on social media…and even a disclaimer saying that a photo has been altered (or if some parts of that photo have been edited out) is not enough to overcome the mistake of putting something out there that isn’t true to the story. Get the picture? Get the picture right!


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