This Contest Winner Looks Like a Movie Poster (And That’s Good)

This Contest Winner Looks Like a Movie Poster (And That’s Good)

John Stanmeyer of VII won the World Press Photo of the Year on Thursday with this magnificent image of migrants in Djibouti trying to get a cheaper cell phone signal from neighboring Somalia.

Photo by John Stanmeyer/VII

Photo by John Stanmeyer/VII

It looks like a movie poster, but not for the reasons that I complained about last year. In a departure from the typical, hard hitting spot news image that has typified almost every winner since the contest inception, Stanmeyer’s image is a quiet image that (literally) illuminates so many issues of modern life: immigration, communication, technology and more. Jury member and former WPP winner David Guttenfelder commented in the LENS blog, “It might provoke debate, but will signal to photographers that they can cover events with a different visual language and they will be taken seriously.” In a video produced by WPP on the winner, Gary Knight extolled that “This image is so hopeful.” In many ways, the image solves the oft-heard complaint that photojournalism is depressing and only highlights the plight of the suffering. I applaud the selection.

Amid all the celebration and discussion of John Stanmeyer’s non-traditional winning image, was the disclosure by jury Chairman, Gary Knight, that 8% of the final round images were disqualified for manipulation. Speaking to James Estrin on The New York Times LENS blog, Knight lamented, “As a photographer, I reacted with real horror and considerable pain because some of the changes were materially trivial but they were ethically significant. In every single case it was a meaningless and stupid process. None of the photographers improved their work and if they hadn’t done it they may well have been up for consideration.”

Since 2010, WPP has required photographers to submit RAW files, and in that year, Stepan Rudik’s 3rd place Sports Feature work was disqualified after judges determined that he had manipulated a photo. In Rudik’s case, he cropped the following image from a horizontal to a vertical, and then converted it into black and white. Here is the original:

Photo by Stepan Rudik

Photo by Stepan Rudik

And the submitted image:

Photo by Stepan Rudik

Photo by Stepan Rudik

But the image in 2010 wasn’t disqualified because of the crop and black and white conversion, it was because he took a white shoe from the background near the index finger and effectively made it disappear by heavy burning. To the judges, the violation was clear: a lighter object in the scene was obliterated in a way that altered the veracity of the photo.

This year, 10 entries in the final round were disqualified by the jury after consultation with an outside forensic effort would looked at cloning and “extreme toning,” and the affected photographers were being notified of their disqualification. That is 10 entries from a final round of about 125. It’s scary to think, therefore, how many of the original 5,754 photographers from the initial round also would have failed the examination. And even scarier to think how this extrapolates to every photo that runs across the wire on a daily basis.

I applaud WPP for hiring an independent consultant to analyze the files. In a technological world, we constantly struggle to reconcile rapid advances with ethical and moral dilemmas. It has been well over a decade since news organizations started to adopt DSLRs en masse, and WPP is the first mainstream organization that incurred the expense and time to address the pervasive issue of digital manipulation. In doing so, it has bolstered its credibility and positioned itself as a forward looking organization that doesn’t shy away from the challenges of photo manipulation.

But WPP could go further:

  • Release specifics on the methodology used by the forensic expert. Using an independent expert is a major step forward, but the process is still opaque. If, for example, the expert was using a simple software tool to make an initial determination, that same tool could be made available to photographers while they are assembling their entries. The industry’s goal shouldn’t be to apply a punitive measure after the fact, but rather, to help educate photographers so that the best work can rise to the top and be seen by all.
  • Show visual examples of manipulation. While privacy issues would likely prevent this year’s disqualified entries from being displayed, there is clearly a lack of “real life” examples that the industry can use to foment a discussion. Perhaps we will see some of the ten disqualified entrants rise up to the challenge and show us their work. In their absence, it would be easy to take “well known” images and apply manipulation to show acceptable and non-acceptable actions.
  • Continue to refine the definition of “acceptable” cropping and toning. We often see terms like “traditionally applied darkroom techniques” or “industry accepted cropping and toning,” but the fact of the matter is that this language is insufficient. And as we saw from Paul Hansen’s winning image last year, there is a wide range of opinion of acceptability between US and European counterparts. At the end of the day, manipulation is the act of taking a pixel and changing its originally recorded value. We should theoretically be able to get to a point where we can mathematically define what is acceptable, so that we are not reliant on the imprecision of language.

The challenges of digital manipulation won’t ever be fully eradicated, but major contests like WPP can help define the tone for this generation of photographer by continuing to lead with clear and decisive rules and enforcement.



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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 14 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: This Contest Winner Looks Like a Movie Poster (And That’s Good)
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  3. Todd L'Herrou at 2:04 pm

    While I agree conceptually on the latter two points, the fact of the matter is that the first point, “Release specifics on the methodology used by the forensic expert,” would likely lead to deliberate attempts to circumvent the methodology. In some cases, it’s better that the specifics NOT be known.

  4. Robert Paulson at 7:05 pm

    I, R. Paulson, REALLY think this is nitpicking and in a situation such as this, it angers me. Indeed we must not (without full disclosure) tell “lies” about a photographic/life situation via the use of photo manipulation, but I think the example used in this article (not the first photo below) is way WAY overboard. The change in this photo (man with bandaged hand) makes NO significant change in content, “truth,” meaning, or anything. And it will take a reader/viewer quite awhile to find the change. To those who say such a change is wrong, I say it’s as if a person cannot have/use brakes on a car, because the very earliest of horse buggies did not have brakes. Or, that photographers should still be required to use glass-plate negatives and 40# cameras if they want to be considered a photographer.
    The photographer who took the photo in question did not change heads, sky, season, coat logo, or eliminate all the people from the background. Should we not be allowed to increase color saturation? Ninety percent of the time, digital photos DO NOT have the brilliance that good slide film photos did (and some films had way more color saturation than others — Velvia, anyone?), and an un-enhanced raw digital photo is frequently NOT LIKE THE ORIGINAL SCENE in color, feeling, or look. Are we as photographers not allowed to reproduce the scene? I thought that is what good photographers were trying to do — reproduce the beauty of nature. If a photographer blocks out — or even crops out — a gum wrapper that some idiot threw on the ground in a wilderness area, is the photographer the one destroying the wilderness or the photo?

  5. Robert Paulson at 8:03 pm

    What follows is my 2nd posting re this article on the Internet, and I sent the same to a select few photographers I know and suggested they read the online article.
    Please allow me to expand on my earlier comment. For once, it isn’t water pollution or some other environmental degradation that has gotten my dander up, but rather this article about photography.
    In the article, my objection does not apply to the first (beautiful) photo you see, but to the one shown later, which is the center of controversy regarding a photo contest.
    I added an earlier comment to the bottom of the article (I think #2). You can see it. I’m interested in knowing what other people think of the photographer’s (Stepan Rudik) “change” to the photo. As the article’s author says, people running the contest weren’t concerned with the fact that he changed it to black and white, etc., but that he removed a “tiny” piece of the toe of a shoe.
    Photography and “truth” related to it has been important to me for over 50 years. How do we know/decide what truth is? After all, it is effected by lens choice, filters, sun position, shutter speed, F-stop, camera location, and more. All of these “alter” how the scene/object looks to most people who see or have seen the scene. And usually no one else is with the photographer to experience the scene. Many of my photos “look” contrived and sometimes therefore extra beautiful (I’m told). But they are real.
    If a photographer were to remove some idiot’s thoughtlessly discarded gum wrapper from the scene (either by picking it up before taking the photo OR blotting it out with photo software), is the photographer lying about Mother Nature and somehow destroying a wilderness experience for the viewer?
    Give a photographer (and Nature) a break. We would be irresponsible if we didn’t actually pick up the gum wrapper.
    I’d love to know your reaction to the article… and my tirade.
    Maybe it is finally time for me to get my blog up and running again. There are important issues that need thought.

  6. Craig Myers at 8:03 pm

    As to the example you offer, I would think that the removal of what amounts to an unidentifiable white spot from the photo after the crop does much less to “alter the veracity of the photo” than does the extreme crop itself. If veracity is the issue, in this case I don’t see how you can allow the crop, but not the burn.

  7. Timothy D. Sturm at 8:57 pm

    Geeze…..gimme a break! The photographer zoomed in on the “focus shot” is all, and removed the color and concentrated on the GIST of the main object…the man being wrapped which looks FINE by me. Mr. Paulson…..I highly suggest that you get away from this NITPICKING photo site as the folks here with magnifying glasses would more than likely find a damn RIVET missing ( or photo shopped out ) of The Eiffel Tower! I don’t plan to visit here again. This photo site would find dandruff on a squirrel’s back and suggest Head and Shoulders™ be used before the picture was taken. Have a nice day everyone!

  8. Peter at 10:19 pm

    I agree with R.Paulson previously. If the manipulation doesn’t alter the INFORMATION in the photo, the message, the point, then it’s irrelevant. Removing the toe of that shoe protruding into the scene is not LYING, it’s just removing a distracting feature that has no bearing whatsoever on the point of the image. If you had a photo of someone shooting someone, and you removed the weapon, then you’re altering the message and point of the photo. That’s out and should be punished. Apart from being dumb.
    What always gets me in this debate (and it happens often) is that certain people (probably struggling anxiety-ridden photographers for the most part) LOVE to jump on another photographer for crossing some pedantic line in their apparently successful work. But what they’re pretending they don’t see, is that EVERY single step of the way, from deciding to become a photographer, to deciding to pick up the camera to shoot something, to choosing the zoom and angle so as to include and exclude elements, to deciding the moment of pressing the shutter button, and when not to, to deciding which images go through to be seen by others and which don’t, and so on and so on. EVERY single one of these steps is about manipulating the situation and camera to create an image that tells the story in a particular way. That amounts to subjectivity, every step of the way. So when you consider that elephant in the darkroom, and then you look at the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing that goes on over removing a few pixels of some irrelevant dude’s shoe in the background of a scene, there’s something amiss in the argument.

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  10. Shane Reid at 9:39 am

    The phone shot is gorgeous and the bandage pic is just an everyday boring snap.
    Sorry to offend but if you have to crop that much then there was not really any thought in the image ‘making of it’ in the first place..

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