Awards Days Discussion Recap: Current Industry Standards in Post-Processing

Managing director Lars Boering shows examples of manipulated images similar to those that were disqualified from the 2015 Photo Contest.

The panel of the Current Industry Standards in Post-Processing during the 2015 Awards Days.

Following the rejection of 22 entries that reached the final stages of the 2015 World Press Photo Contest—20 for the addition or removal of details, and two for the original files not being made available for verification—a panel of experts came together to discuss current standards in post-processing, and to cast an eye towards the future.

World Press Photo managing director, Lars Boering, opened the session by showing fabricated images that had been manipulated in similar ways to the rejected photos—a cigarette butt removed here, a window toned black there. In many cases, the changes were small, raising the question: why do it? Was it simply a case of cleaning up the image? Where was a line to be drawn? There was space for debate.

Panel host, the photo critic and academic Francis Hodgson, pointed out that any photograph involves some notion of manipulation, from the real world to the finished photograph. The question was not only of where you drew the line, but whether we needed to draw lines at all, and if so in what form. World Press Photo, he said, is an organization that provides leadership and to some degree sets standards, but also one that seeks to respond to changes, and to see if old standards still applied.

Responding to the images Boering had shown, Alessia Glaviano, senior photo editor at Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue, said that photojournalism was a specific kind of photography, that rules were there for a reason—to keep the documentary value of photojournalism—and that not interfering with what was in the frame, nor interfering with reality by staging (apart from in portraiture) before the picture was taken, were fundamental. Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography at The Associated Press, commented that an absolute line could be drawn at staging, but that toning was acceptable within limits. There was always a difference between all that the human eye saw in a situation, and what a camera captured, and we should recognize photographers’ attempts to tweak an image to reflect what they had seen. At the same time, there was much at stake, and photojournalists should not open themselves to the criticism of distorting the truth.

Photographer Pete Muller said that he hoped some parameters could be found for the more objective toning conversation, because that was where he and other photographers felt a great degree of trepidation about what exactly the standards were. The raw file of a picture was indeed often a very limited version of what you had witnessed. Thomas Borberg, photo editor-in-chief at Politiken, said that toning was a matter of judgement, that they held daily discussions at the newspaper on a case-by-case basis, had a strong culture of trust with individual photographers, and that what was needed was guidelines, rather than rules.

Hodgson drew a comparison with written journalism, where a cigarette butt lying on the floor might not be mentioned in an interview, and asked whether eliminating something as minor as that from a photograph for clarity of position or argument might not be acceptable. But Glaviano pointed out that written journalism and photojournalism were two different languages, to which different rules applied. Photography was the only medium that had such a direct relation to what was real. In today’s climate of distrust, we had to be rigorous about keeping photography as a reliable form of journalism, of documenting reality.

The panel discussion soon turned to the question of style. Francis Hodgson asked whether establishing oneself as having a photographic voice, having an individual signature, did not also involve choices in how one transferred information from the real world: otherwise, by the hard rules of objectivity, all photos of the same incident would look the same.

Alessia Glaviano responded that photographers such as Nachtwey and Salgado clearly did have their own signatures, and did play by the rules. Decisions regarding cropping, or which photo you might select from a series—a photographer’s eye—were what constituted a photographic signature. But wasn’t that a judgement call, Hodgson asked, if you tried to apply rules, wouldn’t people push against them? Thomas Borberg reiterated that the issue was one of truth and trust. The daily discussions at the Politiken photo desk depended on knowing the photographer, and using a journalistic rubber band in allowing photographers to establish their own identities. Pete Muller agreed that trust was a major factor, and said that the digital age had made photographers careless about how they constructed photos upfront. Instead of being deliberate about visual distractions when taking a photo, people too easily relied on adjusting the image later. Santiago Lyon acknowledged that there was great pressure on photographers these days to stand out, but confusion as to how to achieve that. Your style, he said, is what is in your pictures, where you point your lens and when you press the button, not based on how you process the images.

The discussion evoked lively responses from the audience when it came to issues of subjectivity, of whether some areas of photojournalism were getting closer to artistic expression, and whether the issue was one of scale. Opinions were passionately put forward that journalism was not art, that there was “no ‘scale’ about reporting”, that photojournalism should “show it as it is, not how we would like it to be shown.”

The issue of toning emerged as the greatest area of confusion. Opinions on how to deal with this varied between expressing a need for strict rules, a concern that such rules would be limiting and might not apply globally, the belief that guidelines were a better option than rules, and a conviction that trust was paramount. Suggestions for a way forward included the publishing of concrete examples of what was not acceptable, and a ‘track changes’ option on images, not only for editors, but for consumers. Discussion also touched on the need for distributors—such as editors who put pressure on photographers to produce something different— to act responsibly, and on the crucial need for honesty and accuracy in captions.

The core question was whether the high percentage of entries disqualified in the contest reflected a crisis throughout the industry, of whether photographers were lacking guidance. Lars Boering concluded by saying that there was clearly an issue here, one the industry really needed to take in, and find ways of discussing with the people involved. World Press Photo could play a role in catalyzing this discussion and bringing it into the public realm.

Posted May 1 2015

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