What’s Wrong with This Picture?

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

In February, the photojournalism world was rocked with the announcement by the World Press Photo that 20 images out of the 90 reaching the penultimate round of their annual contest had been disqualified due to some form of post-production manipulation. Worst among these was Italian photographer, Giovanni Troilo, who was disqualified for staging several of the photographs in his 10-picture series about Charleroi, Belgium, titled, “The Dark Heart of Europe.”

Most of the disqualified images were ousted due to alterations within the images, but we may never know the details. After several inquiries, the WPP would only tell me “there (was) no list of reasons.”

But here are what some people are willing to say about the controversy.

Michele McNally, New York Times director of photography and a 2015 WPP judge, told her paper’s Lens photo blog: “Some were disqualified for sloppy Photoshop manipulation. However, a large number were rejected for removing or adding information to the image, for example, like toning that rendered some parts so black that entire objects disappeared from the frame. The jury—which was flexible about toning, given industry standards—could not accept processing that blatantly added or removed elements of the picture. When the entries were compared with the originals we could not recognize them as being the same picture.

“Once (the jury) saw the evidence, we were shocked. Many of the images we had to disqualify were pictures we all believed in and which we all might have published. But to blatantly add, move around or remove elements of a picture concerns us all, leaving many in the jury to feel we were being cheated, that they were being lied to.”

Lars Boering, managing director of the WPP, said in a statement accompanying the news about the disqualifications: “It seems some photographers can’t resist the temptation to aesthetically enhance their images during post-processing either by removing small details to ‘clean up’ an image, or sometimes by excessive toning that constitutes a material change to the image. Both types of retouching clearly compromise the integrity of the image.”

What “rules” did these photographers violate? Only one of the 2015 WPP general rules addressed manipulation: “The content of an image must not be altered. Only retouching that conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards.”

Simply stated—there are no “industry standards.”

A Brief History of Photo Manipulation

From Abraham Lincoln’s head placed atop John Calhoun’s body or, later, Joseph Stalin and Mao removing comrades who had fallen out of favor from official photographs, photo mischief has played a part in visual history.

Photo manipulation can occur even before the shutter is snapped. Posing a subject in a certain way, having a person act in an illustrative manner, or re-enacting a scene are all forms of manipulation. When a photographer chooses a particular time of day, which side of a subject’s face to feature, and, before digital photography, choosing a film stock matching the desired tonal temperature.

Post-production is the time after the original image is captured and has been opened in an editing software, such as Adobe’s Lightroom or Photoshop.

The latest image manipulation blooper comes from the Orthodox Jewish newspaper in Israel, Kikar Hashabat. The paper took a photo posted on Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s Facebook page showing him having lunch with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and pasted a restaurant receipt over the portion of the photo showing Ms. Kardashian. The newspaper’s website posted a response to complaints: “We have no problem with women’s pictures; we have a problem with pornography.”

These are outlandish examples of photo manipulation, but there are more nefarious examples to cite.

A heavy-handed “artist” at Time-Life removed a fence post from behind the head of Mary Ann Vecchio in John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the 1970 Kent State killings.

“It was done by Time-Life photo for one of their publications over 20 years ago,” Filo said. “The retouching was done with airbrush, bleach and dyes by hand. I asked them to remove from their library the retouched version, but who knows for sure if they did.”

At the time, Time-Life clumsily pointed the finger at Filo.

Certainly not the next instance, but in 2003, Los Angeles Times staff photographer Brian Walski composited portions of two digital photos showing British soldiers with residents of Basra, Iraq into one image. Walski admitted wrongdoing and resigned.

In 2006, a freelance photographer working for Reuters in Beirut, Lebanon, Adnan Hadjj, digitally cloned portions of smoke rising from the cityscape during an Israeli bombardment and another showing an Israeli F-16 fighter jet firing multiple missiles, duplicating the one defensive flare the pilot actually fired for the effect. Reuters dropped Hadjj and a photo editor lost his job.

A series of photographs by Stepan Rudik were disqualified from the 2010 World Press Photo contest for the removal of a tiny portion of one image of a foot protruding from a wrapped hand in a series of photos about street fighting in Kiev, Ukraine.

In 2014, the Associated Press severed relations with freelance photographer Narciso Contreras, who altered a 2013 image from Syria, removing a distracting camera from beneath a fighter in the conflict.

Education First

Many of the photographers cited above and those rejected from this year’s WPP competition likely have little to no education in journalism ethics. European publications, even the most mainstream newspapers and magazines, routinely publish manipulated images, so there are few second thoughts about altering images overseas.

In the U.S. and Canada, publications have relied upon educated journalists with a foundation in ethics. Our universities graduate students with an awareness of proper conduct, though ethics was not necessarily instilled in them before college.

“Many students come into our program with little-to-no understanding of what is ethical practice and what is not,” said Kevin Udahl, photojournalism instructor at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “I’ve had some students think nothing of asking me how to remove an ugly background element using ‘Photoshoppery.’ The ethical implications (don’t) seem to be on their radar. It is wrong for me (and all educators) to assume that students know what is ethical practice, and what isn’t in a news media environment. And, for a person like myself, whose career has straddled the film/digital divide, it’s easy to take these ethical principles for granted and forget that the younger generation has grown up in a very different media environment where media ethics may not be readily apparent.”

Stan Alost, associate professor in Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication, said that the topic of manipulation is covered in general courses and in the picture editing course that is required for both photojournalism and communication design majors. It is a major topic in photojournalism courses that include discussions on current events, covering still pictures as well as broadcast and documentary film practices.

“One of the points I make is that research shows that a visual misimpression cannot be corrected with words,” Alost said. “If an image is misleading, no amount of labeling or caption information will erase the information an audience has embedded in their brain. Illustrations that are clearly not depictions of reality are not misleading. Yet, whenever we resort to the easier path of illustrating rather than reportage, we deprive our audience of the experiential learning that reality provides. We have such a limited chance to communicate that it makes little sense to waste it on contrived imagery.”

Standards have loosened as information has spread from the printed page to the lightning speed and worldwide reach of the Internet. This has changed the basic definition of a photojournalist, as Sean D. Elliot, past president of the National Press Photographers Association and current chair of the organization’s ethics committee, said: “Up to the end of the 20th century, before the Internet truly democratized the field, the idea of a journalist needing at least some formal training and some general adherence to ethical standards was pretty universal. There is no practical way anymore to apply any standard.

“In all my time in the NPPA leadership, we have struggled with our competing beliefs about the democracy of journalism, the idea that anyone and everyone is a journalist, and that there can be no formal designation of who is or isn’t while also wishing for some professional standard upon which to base our membership aspirations and target audience.”

Is it minor or excessive? It’s gray.

With the rate of disqualifications increasing in the WPP competition, the organization enlisted David Campbell, who has taught visual studies and multimedia journalism at universities in the U.S., Australia, Britain and China, to produce a 2014 white paper, “The Integrity of the Image.”

In this, he laid out the fundamental principles of news photography, stating, in essence: “The addition or subtraction of elements is forbidden, but retouching for the removal of dust (and scratches in film) is allowable. Post-processing can included limited cropping, dodging and burning, color adjustment, and conversion to grayscale, as long as the alterations are “deemed minor/normal/subtle/moderate” and “Excessive use is not acceptable.”

Terry Eiler, professor emeritus at Ohio University, put it best: “The tools and manipulations of the 1950s are out of place in the 21st century.”

To Campbell, the final product must not violate the “emotional truthfulness” of an image. Photographs may not be staged, posed or re-enacted, and images altered for illustration purposes must be labeled, “photo-illustration.”

Campbell did allow news media outlets the ability to blur faces or forms of identification, i.e. license plate numbers, house address; particularly when mandated by court order.

The gray areas of “minor” and “excessive” remain the Swiss cheese of standards. To these, Campbell’s survey of photo professionals resulted in a vague agreement: “What constitutes a ‘minor’ versus an ‘excessive’ change is necessarily open to interpretation…on a case-by-case basis, and often (using) the anachronistic terms of darkroom analogy.”

“Open to interpretation” troubles professionals about the secretive WPP process. The photographers and their post-production indiscretions may be indefensible but without the details, no lessons are learned by anyone.

Vagaries also remain in the “truthfulness” of a photo. As Kevin Connor, president of Fourandsix Technologies, Inc., a company dedicated to the field of image forensics, said, “You ultimately need to make a judgment call based on a knowledge of what was in the scene at the time of capture and how accurately that is represented by the final, edited image.”

Under these standards, let’s examine Stepan Rudik’s photograph of the fighter’s hand from the series of twelve photographs, titled “Street Fighting, Kiev, Ukraine.” The collection initially won third place in the sports feature category but the award was rescinded when a question of manipulation was brought to the attention of WPP judges by the Ukrainian Photography Union.

WPP judges did not eliminate the photograph for the conversion from color to black and white. They did not act on the extreme crop or the excessive darkening of the cropped image. The sole basis for elimination was the removal of tiny portion of a foot peeking from beneath the juncture of the thumb and hand.

What are the solutions?

A standard code of ethics should be established in photojournalism in the U.S., but the weight falls upon continuing education of photographers and editors. No blame game or public humiliation (unless, of course, the alteration adds, deletes or moves an element in the photo), just lessons learned. In the end, the simplest solution might be the simple addition of software code.

Already, photographers and editors can enable history in both Lightroom and Photoshop that creates a log of the photograph from the moment the image was first opened in the software through all of the changes.

Since the history data can be altered, Adobe should add the few lines of code it would take to automatically register image metadata in an unalterable form. Likewise, Adobe can incorporate authentication tests, available in products like Fourandsix’s izitru tool (fourandsix.com/izitru) that certifies a file’s metadata is unmodified.

The original capture file should be preserved and editing performed on a copy, most likely going from camera RAW to JPG. If questions arise, the metadata of the edited image can be compared with the original.

“The original can then be verified, and it can be compared against the edited version to ensure that the edits are reasonable,” Fourandsix’s Connor said. “This allows the photographer’s intent to be clearly understood, but it also makes it easy for the publisher to ensure that none of the edits are out of line. Because all of the intended edits are in the metadata, it also can be easy to configure a content management system to automatically scan for questionable changes.”

Hal Buell, the former assistant general manager for Newsphotos at the Associated Press, recently spoke to a college audience about the new age and its perils. “Most of the news photographs we see each day are proper renditions of reality. They are produced at considerable cost, they are delivered promptly and are often captured despite great personal danger. Rascals among us sometimes create distortion and our efforts to expose these manipulative indiscretions highlight disproportionately a dark side of picture journalism.

“Generally photography’s latent authority as journalism has survived both historical and contemporary manipulations. Delivered ethically the photograph remains a fundamental document in the daily news flow serving as a reliable window to current events. Photographs remain also as a notebook to history; brief and universally understood, they refresh the memory by stimulating a greater, detailed recollection than what might otherwise be the case.”

“There are questions, however,” Buell continued. “Will photography retain its enviable position?  Or, will knowledge that photos can be manipulated quickly and that alterations can be better hidden void the contract between photographer and viewer?

“Will the revelation of misleading photographic information lead the viewing public to question the integrity of photo documentation? When the public comes to realize that it cannot distinguish between the altered picture and the real picture, will the public question all pictures? As institutions and governments manipulate photos, does the exposure of their manipulations diminish their authority?

“The lie of art is not a tool for the photojournalist. Only reality honestly delivered and thoughtfully consumed will mute the din.”


Dennis Whitehead is a writer, photographer and producer in Arlington, Va. He worked as a photo editor for The Associated Press and as a freelance photojournalist in Washington, D.C. specializing in newspapers.

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