In the past several days, two contest-winning photographs have become fuel for a Blog world explosion of opinions on the ethics involved in digital post-processing and proper journalistic captioning.
This NPPA Ethics Blog is a compilation of a series of eMails as these two issues came to light over a number of days. The participants in this discussion were John Long, chair of the NPPA Ethics Committee; committee members Peter Southwick and Steve Raymer; and NPPA’s immediate past president Sean D. Elliot.
The first photograph in question is the World Press Photo of the Year 2012 by Paul Hansen which was thought by some critics to be over-processed. The second is a photograph from a story on Rochester, NY, by Paolo Pellegrin of Magnum, which came under fire after winning spots in both the World Press Photo contest and the POYi contest. Some of the people involved as subjects in the story and as Pellegrin’s assistants objected to the captioning and the conduct of the photographer when creating the image. Discussions on both these images are still developing.
Both photographs are included here:
John Long wrote: “Let me start with a short story – An old Vermonter tells a tale:
“Last night I was headed home on my sleigh. It was snowing a bit and it was cold. My horse was uncomfortable but I stopped for a few minutes checking out how the woods near my farm looked. But after a few idle thoughts, I went home because I had a bunch of things to do.”
“But Robert Frost tells it a little different:
“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
“My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near.
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
“He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
“The words of Robert Frost are so well structured, so full of meaning, so concise, so full of emotion. These are the words of a person who knows what he is doing with language and has total control of his craft.
“Here’s the point: all art is one. The principles that apply to one art form apply to all art forms. A good photographer has control of his craft, knows how to construct an image, process an image to tell the story he is telling. The truth is in the clarity of the emotion. The presence of the photographer is in every great photograph.
“All this is prologue to the question at hand – what are the limits to processing images?
“This has become a hot topic of late, especially in the wake of the discussions surrounding the WPP shot by Hansen that shows a procession through a narrow street in Gaza City. The image looks over-processed to some, overly digitally enhanced to the point of no longer looking real.
“When I started in the business in 1971 I learned how to print black-and-white in tones appropriate for reproduction on an old hot lead printing press. Quality prints on Agfa Portriga looked terrible in our newspaper (flat and dark) so we printed in high contrast and airbrushed like crazy. We burned the heck out of the corners and skies. It was how we practiced our craft in that age. When color came into general newspaper use, we had long discussions on whether Kodak or Fuji made the more accurate color negative film.
“Today the question is over-processing RAW and JPEG images. Ethically it comes down to making the images look as accurate as we can to the original scene, as we remember it.
“Of course, the mind is a terrible thing. How we remember color, light, how we frame and select details, how we feel about the subject, how we remember the temperature, the air quality, the smells and the sounds around us, is all part of how we print our photos. And all our images are liquid today because all images in a computer are liquid.
“There is a mythos around photography that a photograph IS reality. The older I get the more I see that photography is honest, yes – as honest as painting, as honest as poetry – which is a really good thing. But we have imbued our photographs with a sense we are looking at reality itself and not a human construct.
“Convention tells us that today honest photographs do not have burned in sky, for example. Convention tells us honesty today is non-glaring color, non-extreme contrast. To make rules regulating limits in processing is impossible. It evolves as the technology evolves. Photography is much more subjective than I used to believe.
“For many younger photojournalists the profession is moving beyond our old concepts of what constitutes honest photojournalism to a more subjective approach. It only maters that the photograph expresses my truth. Accuracy be damned. I will never be able to buy into that idea!!!
“We ask: What model are we holding our photographs to today? What is the ideal tonality, what are the limits of contrast and coloration? What is honesty in a photograph and when do we all agree a photographer has gone too far?
“Rather, the question should be: does this image convey a sense of the reality of the event? If the craftsmanship of the photographer helps us be present for the events he or she is observing, to see these events through his or her eyes, to feel as though we are present for history as it is being made, then the photograph is successful and honest. If we are distracted by elements in the picture that detract from our seeing through the photograph to the reality for which the photographer was present, then the picture is a lie.
“Conventions change, evolve, mutate. The English language Chaucer used is almost unintelligible today, yet it is still English. The meanings of words evolve, as does spelling and syntax. The same can be said of photography. No one prints like Stieglitz today; no one uses Autochrome to document news events. We laugh at our old prints from the 1970’s when we see how we used to use the Hand Of God printing on our best black-and-white images.
“Great craftsmen are masters of technique and tools of the trade. When I looked at Ansel Adams’ photographs of Yosemite I felt I really knew the place. I sensed the grandeur of the valley. I was surprised when I visited Yosemite that there was green in the trees and blue in the sky. Without thinking logically about it, I imagined Yosemite in black-and-white because of Ansel Adams. His art conveyed a sense of truth in a beautiful way where the technique did not call attention to itself or detract from the integrity of the image. All great art works this way, including photographic art.
“For me the bottom line is this: if the digital processing helps us read the image, if it helps us feel we are there with the photojournalist as history is happening around him or her, if we sense the photographer is showing us what was happening as accurately as possible, then the processing has done its job. The best processing is invisible; it fades into the background and lets the meaning come forward without calling attention to itself. If we find ourselves discussing how the photograph was printed rather than what it means, then the image is a failure.
“In the end we need to trust the photographer to bring us accurate, fair, and complete information and if he or she is a great craftsman, all the better. Today we are blessed with a number of phenomenal photographers who have mastered the new realities of digital photojournalism and, just as Robert Frost, e.e.cummings (sic) and Ezra Pound pushed the boundaries of language in their poetry, these photographers sometimes confuse us and challenge us to rethink ‘honesty.': It is a wonderful sign of the vibrancy our profession.”
Steve Raymer wrote: “There is post-processing and there is post-processing. I feel strongly that in setting any standard in photojournalism, there needs to be room for the creative choices of a photographer. Just as we allow creative choices for print and broadcast journalists in HOW they would frame a story and/or tell that story – first person narrative, backing into a story with an anecdote, etc. – so, too, do photojournalists need freedom in how to present a job.
“Light, of course, is our single strongest storytelling element. And composition. And in today’s world, color. As I have said a million times, when I was a staff photographer at National Geographic, I would leave the office with four or five different Kodak and Fuji color transparency films. All would present the same subject in a different way in terms of contrast, saturation (intensity of a hue), color bias, etc. In today’s professional world, the overwhelming majority of magazine and documentary photographers shoot RAW files that need to be processed. In a RAW file there is nothing there but digital ones and zeroes (plus a crappy little JPEG preview). The photographer then needs to interpret their file, just as we had creative choice in the darkroom about what grade of paper on which to print a black-and-white image.
“I realize newspaper people shoot JPEG files in which the color processing is, by and large, done in the camera, not the computer. But please don’t negate or dismiss the prerogative of the photojournalist decide how to tell their story.”
Raymer also wrote: “I have seen a lot of chatter on social media about the winning image from Syria in the World Press Photo contest. My first reaction was the same as many, I suspect: Where is the strong side light coming from? The question remains, where do we draw the line? John Long once appeared in a video and talked about visual grammar, what was allowed in the darkroom in the days of film, etc and it all made sense. But we now have a generation and a half of photographers who never worked in the darkroom and, increasingly, their focus is not on the reader but on themselves and their creation. Would sure make a great round table discussion with representatives from industry, various news media, and a creative director thrown in for good measure.”
Peter Southwick wrote: “I have to admit I’m not that wound up about this one [Hansen’s World Press image]. I don’t see the processed version as being radically different from the other, and I don’t think it deceives or misinforms the viewer. If anything it makes it possible to see more clearly what’s in the photograph, and certainly it still qualifies as a moment.
“I’m not for a minute denying that there are issues to discuss when it comes to processing, whether this photograph or countless others. But once again I do a little thinking back to an earlier era that some people hold up as the high point of photojournalistic integrity. Those black-and-white, really grainy, high contrast, heavily dodged, hand-of-God burned images that were the standard then were no more ‘real’ than some processed images from this day and age. I recently looked back at a few contest books from the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and it’s pretty appalling what won prizes then. Suffice it to say it was no golden age.
“Absolutely, we should continue to talk about and debate the appropriateness of using the tools we have in our hands now, but for me the bottom line is always going to be: did we inform the viewer/reader without confusion or deception?
“This photo, a clearly outstanding image, works for me in either version.”
Southwick also wrote: “One aspect I would like to see added to our debate on all of this is the expectations and level of knowledge of the viewing/reading audience. They haven’t stood still all these years, and they are much more up to speed on what can be done to photographs than we might suspect. Based on my unscientific research (asking people!), they know a great deal about Photoshop etc., and they expect that whatever they are looking at has been “processed” to some degree. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t necessarily trust what they see. They just assume that’s part of the photographic process, and they are more sophisticated than we think when it comes to seeing the reality of the image past the special effects.
“I think that younger people (I’m talking general population, not professional photographers) not only don’t pay much attention to this issue, they really don’t think it matters. It’s just part of their world, and there is no way time is going to run backwards to an era when this didn’t exist.
“The bottom line is that photojournalism is produced for a mass market (we hope) and the thoughts of those on the receiving end matter. Once again, I’m not for a minute saying this isn’t important. The fundamentals of photojournalism will always matter, and images that deliver information without deception or misinformation are always the goal. We need to keep talking about where those lines are drawn, even if they are constantly in motion. But we also have to make sure we don’t marginalize these conversations to the point that they will only resonate with a small number of veteran photojournalists.”
Sean D. Elliot wrote: “This is my latest missive on the discussion raging on the Photojournalists Cooperative Facebook group: All I can say is that if I turned in a caption that was that lacking in detail my boss would rip me a new one … and then if the subject of the photograph called when it was published to say I’d got such basic facts wrong … I might not sit for a week … figuratively. Even if this were only a case of sloppy journalism (and I’m sorry, it sure looks like a little more than that to me) it still is an example of why standards are so important. It’s why I’ve spent the last decade-plus of my life pushing the NPPA and its Code Of Ethics and the role of a cohesive professional community in creating and upholding standards.
“The photojournalism world has become so fractured, so scattered. We all work via remote … we don’t work in an office, our photo editors have been laid-off (or if not downsized then carrying such a workload as to be ineffective at editing) … our staffs, if they exist, are smaller and busier.
“I’m blown-away by the length and passion of this thread … it’s more of what we need. This discussion needs to have legs. Photojournalists all over the world need to be thinking about these things. Students need to be taught these issues, professionals need to think about them every day.
“Journalism is being diluted by increased workloads, reliance on handouts and citizen submissions … whether we are talking about established western democracies or emerging ones, the vitality of a free press is so important. Visual reporting is part of that mix and it must be seen as fair, accurate, ethical and thoughtful. We can’t parachute into places just because we think it might be interesting. We need journalists in our communities who can tell the stories and spread them to a wider audience. The journalists in Rochester are the ones who ought to be telling that story. Maybe they’re not because they’ve been downsized into submission … but the solution is not to bring-in outsiders, the solution is to find the model that allows for serious, ethical, professional journalist to do their work in their communities.
“This incident is a symptom … the disease is far bigger than Paolo Pellegrin and his Rochester jaunt.”