How fabricated images ruin my work

Another controversy is erupting in the world of photojournalism. The image that won World Press Photo of the Year 2012 is starting to look like it was HIGHLY manipulated or an outright composite. Though I no longer work as a photojournalist, I have been following this (and other recent image manipulation) controversies closely because it directly impacts my own work.

You can read about the image, the controversy and the larger question of image manipulation in an interesting piece found at: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/growing-concern-that-news-photos-are-being-excessively-manipulated-a-898509.html The most chilling part of the piece is towards the end where they write: “James Nachtwey, for example, has been working with 10b for two years. Working with the legendary war photographer is especially time-consuming. Palmisano says that he can spend up to 12 hours on a Nachtwey photo. By the end of the process, he and Nachtwey may have exchanged up to 100 emails, addressing the most painstakingly detailed changes.”

As someone who has photographed a great deal in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, I have to say one thing about the controversy. One of the points raised as people question the image’s veracity is about the way the light is bouncing around the alley where the photo was made. I will say that the light in that region can be both magical and tricky. Having used (and struggled with) that kind of light, I would not be surprised if in fact the light in the image is “real” as it bounces around the walls. The original publication can be seen at: http://i.imgur.com/aKTAc7d.jpg Beyond that, a nice comparison of different versions of the published image vs the award winning image can be seen at: http://m.flickr.com/#/photos/gunthert/8485283411/sizes/o/

The photographer in question has something of a track record of debatable journalistic ethics, which are explored at: http://creightoninfoethics.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/can-a-photograph-lie/

Having looked at the image, particularly closely looking at the one at: http://www.imagebam.com/image/a03439254372168 I think that the way the image is (over) sharpened in certain spots and unfocused in other places, suggests image manipulation at best or flat out compositing at worst. Many of the figures in the background look unnatural as if they have been added after the fact.

Beyond my experience in the region and my background as a photojournalist, I have another stake in this controversy. During my recent exhibition of my Foreclosed Dreams work in Providence, I was asked over and over if I set up or manipulated the images that were on exhibition.

I certainly did not set up the Foreclosed Dreams images in either the capture phase nor manipulate them in the post-production phase. But the fact that many people who saw my work assumed each situation I photographed was contrived rather than as I found it, that undercuts my credibility. More importantly, it gives the viewer an excuse to look past the political issues the work is trying to raise.

I doubt that there is much of anything I can do to hold back the tidal wave of image manipulation / compositing. I can hope that blogs like this will remind some readers that certain imagery, like mine, is in fact, an accurate portrayal of what I found and photographed. This accuracy is at the heart of my work and anything that undercuts that worries me, doubly so when when a critic writes something about my work as evocative as this:

In the Providence photographer’s heartbreaking exhibit “Foreclosed Dreams….” Wells’s subject—this terrible sense of emptiness, of abandonment, of exodus—lasers into your soul…. By focusing on their things, by leaving it anonymous, he aims to draw us in personally, to get us thinking that could be my house, that could be my grandfather’s photo, that could be my child’s toy. …..the results are a diaspora of devastated families.

Greg Cook, writing on The ARTery the arts website of WBUR, Boston’s NPR station

6 responses to “How fabricated images ruin my work”

  1. I think that a whole generation now has no grasp of what constitutes an un-manipulated, “honest,” “true, “real,” minimally processed image.

    I primarily photograph and create composited, extensively post processed HDR images. I know my images do not correspond with the original reality and I do not claim they do. I am not a photojournalist and I am not bound to capture truth or reality.

    The reaction, by many, to my alarm at what is obvious (to me) extensive post processing of the “Gaza Funeral” photograph and the photographer’s own obtuse admission that multiple differently tonally adjusted versions of raw were composites is twofold:

    -Comparing apples and oranges: comparing compositing using layers of different versions of the image to “burning and dodging” or negative stacking during printing (to deal with overexposed images, “thin” density negative) Sorry those are not equivalent. It is quite possible to do the equivalent of “burning” and “dodging” or negative stacking (a “multiply blend layer”) without resorting to extensive post processing and compositing.

    -That’s what’s always been done: insisting that famous photojournalist throughout time have resorted to extensive work in the darkroom to result in a somewhat manipulated image and/or famous photojournalist in the past have “staged” what are now historic images. Usually then the photographers cited are W. Eugene Smith and Ansel Adams (does anyone not understand anymore that he we the equivalent of today’s “fine art photographer” he was not a photojournalist)

    What alarms me about Hansen (i’ll state the photograph’s name) is that he doesn’t seem averse at all to “crossing the line” of staging or photographing a staged subject or initially declaring that the little was done to a final image when its obvious (to anyone who practices extensive post processing) that the final image is the result of extensive post processing, not simple luck of the lighting and right place, right time.

    What also surprises and alarms me is supposed professionals, photojournalism awards organizations and hired gun experts who are adamant in their defense of an extensively post processed, not “real” image.

    Perhaps truthful and honest photojournalism is dead.

  2. Reuter’s standards for its photographers. Note, apparently they don’t let the photographer do any final post processing work, that is reserved for photographer/editors not in the field.

    http://handbook.reuters.com/?title=A_Brief_Guide_to_Standards,_Photoshop_and_Captions

    Photoshop

    Photoshop is a highly sophisticated image manipulation programme. We use only a tiny part of its potential capability to format our pictures, crop and size them and balance the tone and colour.

    Materially altering a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing software will lead to dismissal.

    Rules

    No additions or deletions to the subject matter of the original image. (thus changing the original content and journalistic integrity of an image)

    No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image. (thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image)

    No excessive colour manipulation. (thus dramatically changing the original lighting conditions of an image)

  3. I read your blog about people questioning whether a photograph was photo shopped these days. My first experience with that phenomenon came with my Saint Louis Arch airshow photograph in 2002. It was published in the Communication Arts Photo Annual and about six months after it appeared I got a call from an art director at a NYC ad agency. She loved the shot and wanted to know if I could do the same kind of trickery and compositing for some campaign they were doing ( I forget exactly what the subject matter was.) Anyway, she was quite taken aback when I told her that the event she was viewing actually did occur and that nothing was added or manipulated. I had the same feeling you expressed.

    Of course photography has always been on a sliding scale between what is and isn’t real. When it spills so forcefully into reportage, then even more doubt is raised in the public’s eye as to whether or not something really happened as portrayed. With the digital world making such enhancements quite easy to achieve, temptation becomes great for too many. And as Oscar Wilde said, “the one thing I can’t resist is temptation.” Not sure what the answer is except more diligent oversight in journalism and a thorough education and grounding in the profession as to what is and is not acceptable….. and the ensuing consequences.

  4. The Gaza photo controversy seems to be over for now: the raw file has been examined and the conclution is clear: no pixels were moved in development. He did change tone a lot – too much in my opinion – but then again: changing tone is part of any development process.
    When it comes to the “track record” link, just read the comments. I would say the myth is debunked. The blogger got it all wrong, it’s obvious the “before” and “after” shots should swap places.

  5. YOU WROTE:
    When it comes to the “track record” link, just read the comments. I would say the myth is debunked. The blogger got it all wrong, it’s obvious the “before” and “after” shots should swap places.

    I DISAGREE: Which image looks like chaotic reality vs rearranged reality?? A girl with an arm draped around something (TOO PERFECT) or a girl who collapsed on top of something and is obscuring the same (CHAOTIC REALITY.)

  6. I agree on the overall impression, but the details reveal something different. Look at the blood beneath the image of the flower that the girl is holding. It’s not yet there on the Hansen photo. It must have been captured earlier. The only other explenation would be Hansen wiped the ground while re-arranging the body.

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