About a week ago the winners of the annual World Press Photo were announced. This is one of the most important contests for professional press photographers and photojournalists in the world – in many ways it’s their Academy Award, just as an apropos to last night’s event. Any World Press Photo contest raises debate. Deciding who is supposedly the world’s best press photographer is basically an unattainable task, and thus debate has to be expected. Nothing wrong with airing different viewpoints, though, it can only create more awareness and understanding of what makes for a good photography. After last year’s contest I tried to clarify the foundations for the awarding in my post Best Photos in the World – as far as I see it, because it’s not only about finding the best photograph, but more importantly some journalistic preconditions has to be met, which are not necessarily obvious.
This year’s winner was the Swedish photographer Paul Hansen who won with a powerful image that shows a funeral procession in Gaza City. As expected his winning picture has raised a series of disputes. One of the more interesting are to be found on the blog PetaPixel where Allen Murabayashi, Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter, asks why the World Press Photo contest winners look like movie posters. By the question he implies that the winning pictures are too much enhanced and over-processed in Photoshop. For him the images cease to look real and instead become overly retouched. According to him this makes for a veracity problem. Allen Murabayashi questions the perceived credibility of the photographs, and argues that photojournalism should been held to a higher standard. He doesn’t use the word objective reporting, but for me that is clearly said between the lines. The solution for Murabayashi is for World Press Photo to require that contestants submit their original, unretouched photos along side their final entries.
For me Allen Murabayashi has a valid point because there is no doubt a fine line between enhancing a photograph to make a point and over-processing that same image. But I do not agree with his proposed solution. As I see it you cannot ask any creative person to hand over their sketches which has been taken or used to arrive to the final work. No writer in a newspaper would ever accept to hand over his or her notebooks from an interview for instance. And for me the original, unretouched photos of a photographer are of the same category.
I think this whole issue rests on the assumption that a journalist – be it writer or photographer – are objective observes of events taking place in front of them. For me that is an old notion. Journalists aren’t objective and have never been as far as I am concerned. Just by their mere omissions and choices in what and how to report, we – and yes, I am one of them – lose our «virginity» if I may use this expression. The reporter observes and then makes some judgements about the situation. He or she interprets the event and it’s this interpretation that is presented to the readers and the viewers in some way or form. For a story to be credible in the eyes of the viewers, it solely rests on the trust on the writer or the photographer. Just because both of them have the ability to lie in their reporting, doesn’t justify forcing them to become toothless.
I have no problem with a photograph that has been enhanced to bring out the point of the photographer in a way that makes the image stronger or creates interest among viewers (what is the point of reporting if nobody notices?) – of course as long as it’s not violating the credibility. Where then, is the line where this credibility has been broken? That is a whole discussion on its own but let me just add that for me this line goes with what has always been possible to do – and has been done – in the old darkroom. But certainly no adding or subtracting of elements for instance. (Mind you I am speaking about journalistic photography, not photography in general). For me Paul Hansen’s picture is within this line.
What do you think? Is objective reporting possible or even desirable? And should press photographers not be allowed to enhance their pictures? Where is the fine line?