The hidden scandal in photojournalism’s award season

The award season for photojournalism is upon us, like the Oscars or the Grammies. Unlike in the cases of those televised awards, the commentary will not likely focus on who attended which awards ceremony with who as their date. Nor will their be much commentary on the costumes worn, since nearly all the competitors will be dressed in black, the artist’s de rigueur clothing. If the last few year’s post-award scandals are any indication, the commentary will likely focus on digital manipulation, a topic certainly of importance. But, I am guessing the scandal-of-the-month club will again miss the real scandal in the world of photojournalism.

The globalization and democratization of photography and by extension, photojournalism, has ostensibly been better for our collective journalistic culture. We are told that hiring local photojournalists brings more voices (and visions) into our common media culture. That is the line that corporate media has been selling us, but I have never bought into that.

A note of disclosure here: I am one of those veteran photojournalists on the losing end of this democratization of photojournalism. I used to get paid to go to places like the Middle East to do my reporting/ photographing. Now the publications hire “locals” who know the area, the local culture and speak the language. Those same locals also work much cheaper, don’t push back against rights grabbing contracts and often cover their own day to day expenses.

As one of the old folks, I am more expensive, more ornery when it comes to how much I expect to be paid as well as how I expect my image are used. But I also have more experience, insight and wisdom. I also have a huge amount of what I think of “institutional” memory when it comes to the collective institution of photojournalism.

Another disclosure here. I did not study photojournalism formally. Everything I know I learned, occasionally the hard way, while working at a series of small, medium and large newspapers in different parts of the U.S. Formal journalistic training would not guarantee my ethical behavior any more than my lack of such training argues for my lack that kind of ethical grounding.

Which leads us to the photojournalism scandal that corporate media prefers not to discuss. The fact is that in many (but not all) cases, those same “locals” have little or no grounding in democracy or journalistic ethics. I saw this most prominently while working in the Middle East. While Israel is a democracy, a large portion of the population there came of age in other Middle Eastern countries or in the former Eastern bloc countries, none of which have extensive experience with democracy. So, yes, Israelis live in a democracy but not all Israelis have life long experience with democracy, not all have it “in their bones.” That will change with time, as younger generations experience democracy from birth, growing up with it first hand.

The Palestinians have even less experience, less grounding in democracy or journalistic ethics. This is not a slur, but rather a historical fact. Having lived under Egyptian or Jordanian autocracies for years, followed by decades under occupation, as refugees, only very recently have Palestinians been living in anything resembling a democracy.

So how does this tie in with the recent news that 8% of the finalists in the World Press Photo competition were disqualified due to photo manipulation? As the people at the World Press Photo competition report, their original raw images were compared with their final results for evidence of “manipulation.” This verification was performed by people trained in digital image forensics.

This becomes important because this year, over 100,000 images were submitted by approximately 5,000 photographers. If we assume that the same 8% of the overall submissions were likely to be “disqualified due to photo manipulation,” that roughly means that over 8,000 images are journalistically, ethically questionable.

I am not sure we will ever know, but I would love to know the backgrounds of those photojournalists whose work was disqualified. I do not care about their names, but I would love to know what if any grounding they have in democracy or journalistic ethics. My guess is that they are disproportionately from countries and cultures where they did not grow up with any grounding in democracy or journalistic ethics. Without that democratic experience and with years of experience under what can be generously described as propaganda driven regimes, it is not a surprise that journalistic ethical lapses are becoming the norm.

The problem is that many of the major events that are keeping local photojournalists busy these days are in regions where the populace are lacking in grounding in democracy or journalistic ethics. The most obvious examples. being the former Soviet Union countries like Ukraine and the emerging Arab democracies.

Don’t expect corporate media to investigate this question. The recent mass firing of newspaper photojournalists tells you how much those institutions value photojournalistic insight at home. They will barely pay for good photojournalism domestically and so you know they won’t pay for it overseas. And because of that, our common media culture is indeed larger, but it also offers less insight than ever.

One response to “The hidden scandal in photojournalism’s award season”

  1. David, you make a lot of excellent points. Most of the photos are from regions of war. Most regions warring currently have limited democratic history. You only have to look to some of the videos on the various sides staging war “footage”. If they’ll go to those lengths a little time in photoshop is nothing.

    I don’t know why technology can’t solve this. Camera manufacturers could make it so their jpg engine or raw conversion software would embed and “original” code in the jpg or the converted jpg. From this point forth if the image were edited in photoshop or other editing software the “original” code would somehow reflect that. News orgs would then only accept photos for print with unaltered “original” codes.

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