OJ Simpson and World Press Photo

OJ Simpson and World Press Photo

Photojournalism contests are arguably the most self-scrutinized on the photo contest continuum. This is because most photojournalists take the notion of producing work with integrity very seriously. It’s passé to talk about “truth” in photojournalism because most photojournalists acknowledge that they are not omniscient – they capture what they can see, but do so without staging scenes, without asking people to re-enact events, and most importantly, process the images in such a way that it doesn’t violate their understanding of the ethics of photojournalism.

This year, World Press Photo announced that 20 out of the 92 entries in the penultimate round were disqualified for manipulation. This is a staggering number, and The New York Times reported “The jurors were shocked when the doctored photos were presented to them by experts, according to [Patrick] Baz. ‘There was silence,” he said. ‘I couldn’t believe that some of the biggest names in photography did this – people who are in the pantheon.'”

It’s unclear whether the “experts” disqualified the images, or whether the jury made the final call. Confusion reigns!

As the conversation around the disqualifications intensified (particularly on James Estrin’s take on the LENS blog and Melissa Lyttle’s Facebook conversations), David Campbell, secretary to the World Press Photo contest general jury, responded here and here, and through a series a tweets.

  1. Manipulation is not synonymous with processing.
  2. No significant material may be added or removed by either cloning or substantial toning.
  3. Levels of processing that do not add or remove content a matter for aesthetic judgement, and do not break contest rules.

#1 and #3 are clear to me. #2 is murky because it uses language similar to the WPP-commissioned Integrity of the Image. In that report, qualitative words like “excessive” or “minor” form a feeling of global consensus without more succinct definition and visual examples. The WPP contest rules similarly decree rules like “the content of an image must not be altered,” without showing examples of what that means and how that definition might change over time. 

Let me illustrate the complexity of the issue. Remember the OJ Simpson covers?



The manipulation of the TIME cover is a classic example of what was previously called “manipulation,” but is now arguably “processing.” Although the fidelity of the embedded image is poor, I would guess that even with the skin toning and burning of some parts of the face, that none of the tone went to black (i.e. no significant material was removed). In other words, the TIME cover, from my understanding of the WPP statement, would not be disqualified in the 2015 World Press Photo contest. (I’m happy to be wrong)

Assuming that the TIME cover would pass the litmus test, it’s hard for me to reconcile my understanding of what is permissible and ethical nowadays. This isn’t an indictment of World Press Photo or of contests. The discussion is necessary because technology continues to move faster than our ability to understand all its myriad implications and consequences.

A few more observations:

  • Did the WPP experts disqualify the entries, or did they make a recommendation to the jury, who then DQd the entries? This is important because it suggests that only a forensic expert has the tools/ability to understand manipulation.
  • Photographers need real life examples. David Campbell provided some images with different types of manipulation, but I believe these examples are too far removed situationally and from a content perspective to be of real educational value. Photographers who were disqualified should strongly consider showing their images.
  • The major photojournalism contests should work towards consensus on the issue of manipulation. It’s akin to having different regulations for international and NBA basketball. Why should an image that could win an NPPA award be disqualified in WPP (or vice versa) – or why should the photographer need to create different versions of the same image to satisfy individual contest requirements?
  • The conversation needs to continue. We went from 8% disqualified to 20% disqualified. This means that despite all the previous discussion and all the declarations about the clarity of the rules, there is a growing misunderstanding.



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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: OJ Simpson and World Press Photo | PhotoShelter Blog | The Click
  2. David Campbell at 3:46 pm

    Allen, thanks for the continuing contributions to the debate. It should go on, and no doubt will, but one final comment as Secretary:

    1. The Integrity of the Image report I produced as a research consultant for World Press Photo (my other occasional role) last year provides a global view of accepted standards and practices in the media organisations who responded to our survey. It is background and context on the issue, but does not set any of the contest rules.

    2. The rules say images cannot be altered, and I have outlined how the last two juries have specified that in my Storify from the last week, that you link to above. They rules also say the jury is the final arbiter. That means they receive a technical report and presentation from two independent digital experts, and then the jury makes the decision on which images proceed to the final round.

    3. I have had numerous requests this week to say whether this or that image would pass muster, including two from you including this post. A Secretary does not make those determinations, and no WPP jury considers anything other than images in the contest for that year after receiving a technical report based on reviewing raw or original files.

    4. More and better examples are needed so we can turn this issue into a significant educational moment, and the managing director of WPP has indicated his desire for widespread consultation and discussion.

    5. I don’t think your claim about a growing misunderstanding is necessarily valid. I’ve seen lots of naive correlations this week, including the misleading claim that the contest results must mean that 20% of news images everywhere, everyday are manipulated. We’ve had two years of these reviews. They involve only images entered to the contest. We will have to see the trend over five years I think otherwise we could all be misled by annual aberrations. And even then we will only be able to talk about contest images.

  3. Valerio at 4:31 am

    Nice piece Allen,

    As I said in other occasions, I see only one solution that can save this situation.

    From next year WPP (and all photojournalism competitions) should add a rule that says, in case of disqualified photos, the photographers agree that examples of the photo can be used to illustrate why the jury took such a decision.
    So the photographer is aware and can also be more responsible.

    What is missing here, and I am talking from a photographer perspective who took part at the last 3 WPP (but not disqualified!), is evidences of what is accepted and what it is not.
    The ethic to which I work it is simple. “Retouch an image to the point you’re not ashamed to confess and show what you did to it”

    For the public and the photoeditors it must be disheartening to know that the works of “the biggest names in photography” have been manipulated to the point of being disqualified. Because very likely they have been printed in big magazines and we have believed stories that are not completely real. I understand these are now printed and paid and there could be serious consequences for both magazines and photographers if disclosed, but equality means that there cannot be a Contreras that is fired and some professionals that are published without the world knowing.

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