The World Press Photo Debate

21 Feb


An interesting debate has developed following on from the recent World Press Photo results, particularly with this blog posting on Photoshelter by Allen Murabayashi. He asks the question, why do photo contest winners look like movie Posters?

and continues here…

I think the winning image by Swedish Photographer Paul Hansen is a great image that has been enhanced. Is it on the edge of acceptability? I think it is, but it is a truly great image and worthy of the premier award. It has a similar finished ‘style’ to the work of the brilliant Yuri Kozyrev which in previous years has received many World Press Awards. That ethical standard has already been set by jury’s past.

The blog also uses two other images as examples. One from Micah Albert who’s image won 1st place, Contemporary Issues – Singles, appears to have an interesting ‘pastel cyan’ feel to it while the third example and the image I am most concerned with is the Synchronised Swimming image taken by Wei Zheng who took third place in Sport Action. The image appears to have been quite heavily dodged and burnt and has a halo effect around the main subject.

Here is a the same moment taken by another photographer Sascha Fromm which shows the actual lighting conditions.



As much as we are all entitled to our own opinions the debate will continue.  It must be pointed out that none of these photographers have done anything wrong. In fact, no photographer who won award categories in any competition have done anything wrong. They have presented their work as they feel fit within the competition guidelines, it is their eye, their vision and their interpretation of events both in shooting and at post production that has been presented before the judging panel, whatever work they have done in post production is there for all to see. The World Press appoints a group of judges who are leaders in their fields to oversee not only the image selection but also to maintain an ethical standard, they have the responsibility of maintaining a standard .

The earlier rounds of the sports category, for example, had three photographers who covered the Olympic games including Bill Frakes from Sports Illustrated who witnessed first hand, lighting and conditions at many of the venues and saw thousand upon thousands of images shot during the games both during the event and during the judging of the competition. The final rounds were then judged by a collective of great photographic minds from all fields of photo-journalism who also deemed there was nothing wrong with the photoshop work applied to any image that won. One can assume therefore that any image they thought was unacceptable was removed from the competition.

I recently had the incredible honor to judge the sports category in the POY competition in Missouri and we actually ‘outed’ a strong action image because it hadn’t been enhanced. The image was incorrectly exposed and washed out and would have taken less than a minute to ‘improve’ in photoshop. So where do we draw the line at both ends of the scale?

There is no doubt the ethics of what we do has come along way since the red filter on the lens and dodging and burning days in the black and white darkroom and I was as guilty as anyone of overworking images. So afraid, I now do next to nothing to enhance an image. So too has the practicing of ‘setting up’ images and falsifying moments which as young trainees, many of us were taught to do. But it isn’t 1993 anymore and we move forward with standards and ethics and that, to my mind, is a responsibility of World Press and other major competitions to set a standard that is deemed acceptable. We can assume the World Press jury have done this with this collection of award winners and the post production on these images they have deemed acceptable.

Sadly, a new standard has been set.

Is our industry any better than performance enhancing drug takers in sport? Surely we can work it out in seconds because it is beyond obvious and our ‘drug testing’ requirement is simply the original raw file.

In 2010 World Press disqualified a photographer for overworking an image and removing a foot. I think this year that ethical standard of overall acceptability has found a new level, viewed by many as unacceptable.  The judges have their names on this set of award winning acceptable image. This is the direction they consider we should emulate.

Perhaps the industry in general is moving towards fine art and away from strong ethical photo-journalistic values. Perhaps we are softening our approach to manipulated images which are in a style, pastel colors or de saturation comes to mind. We are now in an era where immediacy is more important than quality and images sell for $2.50 not $250, it is therefore not the responsibility of the photographers, but the responsibility of high standing judges appointed to decide direction and ethical acceptability, they are the custodians of the truth, ethics and direction. The rest of us simply follow scratching our heads.

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2 Responses to “The World Press Photo Debate”

  1. Jim Colton February 21, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    Tim, Thanks for continuing to ask the questions and keeping the dialog alive…and thank you also for your service as a juror at the recent POYi contest. Having these discussions is healthy and will hopefully shed some light on a troubling aspect of our industry. Cheers, Jim Colton

  2. Rick Stevens February 22, 2013 at 12:07 am #

    Hi Tim,
    I well remember the 1993 days and I had hoped we had moved on from those days.We need photographers like yourself to keep asking the question about the ethics of our photography.I agree with you, It is simple…..the original raw file…….Let us go forward not backwards.
    Rick Stevens

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