The Lure of Objective Reporting

©Paul Hansen

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?

50 thoughts on “The Lure of Objective Reporting

  1. Nice point… photojournalism for me the reality of life. Especially these kind of photographs! If I were a photojournalist, I wouldn’t play with my photographs. Because every touch of mine will add something to the spirit of the photograph. Thank you dear Otto, love, nia

  2. Press Awards are the very real awards and a million miles away from the make believe world of the Oscars. Without good photo journalists the news would not be as meaningful to the rest of the world. As to enhancing….nothing wrong in that to increase the message, you draw the line at cheating to twist a story. We have to allow for the integrity of the photographer to shows us the world he/she has witnessed.

  3. I don’t know anything about photojournalism per se, but I (personally) think the winning image by Paul Hansen has been over processed to the point where it has lost its integrity.

    It appears as a mere poster and lacks the depth of emotion that a minimally processed, or untouched image would convey. It’s almost as though the mourners are actors on a stage and carry wooden puppets, instead of devastated mourners carrying their dead children. It’s like a 2 dimensional painting or mask, instead of a photo portraying living human beings at their most vulnerable and in great distress.

    That’s just my opinion as an amateur photographer and no doubt, photojournalists might well see the winning entry in a different light and with more artistic merit. The composition and angle of the shot is excellent – why spoilt the integrity by turning it into…….. almost……. a caricature.

    1. I also don’t know about the photojournalism but I agree with Victoria’s comment. 🙂

      It’s OK to enhancing the pictures but not to over process it.

  4. This is a superb shot which successfully captures one over-riding emothion – grief. Any digital enhancements do not detract from its objectivity nor its merit. On the basis of Murabayashi’s argument you could argue that McCullin’s gritty war photography is a distortion because we do not live in a black and white world but that would be to miss the point entirely.

  5. This is a very powerful image. I don’t think it looks like a movie poster. I don’t know what processing Paul Hanson has done but we all process our RAW images to a greater or lesser extent. The phrase ‘I’m not a fan of post-processing’ is a nonsense. It means nothing. All photographs are processed to a greater or lesser degree. It’d be a pretty bland world if we just posted RAW images and it would miss the point of having the modern sensors on cameras that we have. We are supposed to process the tons of information contained in that high resolution RAW file. If we shoot in jpeg, the camera has done the job and where’s the fun in that. Photojournalistic pictures are no different in my opinion. I grew up in a world where newspapers were all in black and white. That medium allowed for huge impact in the photography but these black and whites would have been processed in the darkroom..
    I think this all just gives people something to talk about, moan about and to infer a somewhat elevated superiority in the commentators and detractors.
    HDR is a dirty word it seems at the moment but it has its place along with a myriad of other techniques to allow you to create the photograph you want to. As for journalistic integrity, along as you’re not cropping out or adding things to an image to create a false impression of a situation then process away in my opinion.

  6. Since reading about this so called debate last week, I’ve come to the conclusion that Allen Murabayashi hasn’t a clue what he’s writing about …

    Why? because it’s an indisputable fact that RAW files do not give correct rendering of the true colour values as seen at the point of exposure. Images are cooled down and thus any warmth disappears.

    The whole raison det behind RAW files is merely to collect the data necessary for the photographer to reproduce the image in the way that he or she saw it. Since Murabayashi wasn’t there at the time, how can he possibly know if the photographer has enhanced the light more than actuality. He doesn’t.

    Perhaps it’s all because Photo-shelter needs a bit of PR!

  7. I’m not an expert on photojournalism, but when I initially saw the photograph, I was drawn to the expressions of the two men and the children they were carrying. I didn’t realize the photo was over processed until it was brought up. The more I look at it now, I see the over processing of the photograph and it does look like a movie poster. However; I still like the picture. Good article!

  8. i totally disagree with submitting original work alongside the finished one. if someone finds winning entries appalling because, in their eyes it’s way overdone, i wonder, would they think that if their own work was highlighted as the best? like, Java Girl, the winning photo moves emotions within me. love your thoughts about this contest…i learned something new today. 🙂

  9. The winning photo looked to me, as an artist, like one of the hyper-realistic paintings now in vogue. I had to look twice (or more) to determine that it was actually a photo; in particular the children looked more like dolls to me than actual children. I was wondering if this was a real scene or a photographer’s setup. The effect of this was to create a distance between me and the realism of the photo–the realism was “softened” somehow and lost its grittiness and emotional punch. The composition of the subject matter is superb. I just felt more detached from it emotionally than perhaps the photographer intended.

    As a member of the media for many years, I can tell you that there is no objectivity because we are all human and can’t help but have our point of view on things. However, most of the journalists I’ve worked with have tried mightily to put out the information without revealing their personal take on it. I know what their opinion is because as we are working together they will often tell me. But that opinion very seldom comes out in the final product.

  10. I am writing this on the fly, and my initial reaction is that photojournalism should portray what the photographer sees as he snaps the photo. Period. Mr. Hansen’s photo is good, but does look like an over enhanced movie poster. It’s taken some of the reality out of the scene (to me). I guess I’m old school in thinking photo journalism should feel gritty and real.

  11. I see nothing wrong in enhancing a photo to deliver a stronger message. However, over processed ones sometimes tend to look artificial. I think retouching a photo is like adding makeup to an already beautiful face, to make it even more beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s subtle, but this is just my opinion, of course.

  12. I have mixed feelings about tinkering with photographs. I have participated in bitter debates on in the context. It a nutshell, i believe enhancing photographs in photojournalism is substituting for hard work. It should not be acceptable ethically either.

  13. Very thought provoking, Otto. I have to admit that as I started reading your piece my opinion was completely different from when I finished the piece. You make good points…no artist would hand over their sketches and no journalist would hand over their notebooks. I will go one further and say that no video reporter would hand over raw, unedited footage. It seems fair that a photographer should be able to enhance their images to tell the story. I think that “enhance” is the key. They shouldn’t be able to change the photo to something it is not.

  14. You’ve asked some really good questions, Otto! Apparently the dilemma of professional ethics in photojournalism isn’t a new problem, but there are certainly more ways today for a photographer to enhance and manipulate a photographic story. I recently read that Matthew Brady, notable American Civil War photographer, stands accused of staging many of his more famous battleground photos. According to many, he was more like a stage manager prior to using his camera!

    My thought is that a photographer has license to tell the story in their own way, but I wouldn’t want to think my emotions are simply being manipulated by a staged setting. The winning photo you shared is so emotionally compelling and literally brings tears to my eyes, so I don’t want to be distracted from the impact by wondering if I’m in some way looking at “actors.”

    I enjoy this debate. I hope you’ll continue to keep this particular conversation alive as you have more information and struggle with it yourself. This is very thought provoking!

  15. Paul Hansen’s photo is a strong and great photo – and is not at all objective. Which I do not think most photos are (certainly those of humans and the human world). Photos are human works of art that express something from the artist. Therefore, attitudes are underlying those. The artist’s use of tools must in a free society not be restricted if they just comply with the applicable legislation. This also applies manipulations of photos! However, I think, of course, the photographer should tell the audience about his manipulations as adding or subtracting of elements.
    And thank you, Otto, for another exciting post about an important topic!

  16. I feel it’s not possible to divorce photography or any art from the artists (or journalists) point of view. Journalism or not.

  17. Anything other than the bare minimum of post processing is considered unacceptable in press photography, witness to that being the case of Adnan Hajj who cloned in extra black smoke on his photos of an Israeli airstrike on Lebanon. This caused such a fuss, that his and his images were dropped by his agnecy, Reuters.

    As soon as you start tinkering, especially with content, the truth of the image is lost. To my mind, the image above has been cleansed, sanitised, and the edge has been taken off it. The lighting now almost looks artificial, and while the truth is still there, it’s been clouded. Press work isn’t about making nice looking photographs, they’re there to tell a story, or compliment the written word.

    Also don’t assume that raw is the default for press work!

  18. I must agree with you Otto. Some work in PS is expected, but to change the elements in a journalistic photo changes the definition of the category, much like the difference between a true memoir and an account of life that slips and slides into fiction. Changing the facts changes the definition.
    An excellent post!

  19. Great point about comparing handing over the untouched photo to handing over the draft of a piece of writing. It’s the final product that tells the story. I believe journalistic photos should be allowed to be refined to bring out the story, but not restructured or touched up composition- or otherwise.

  20. Writers will say that a work of fiction, or creative non-fiction, can tell more about the truth than straight reporting. I think this photo exemplifies that for photography. It may be manipulated, but the raw material is so overpowering, what else could a photographer do with it? It is the essence of anguish and heartbreak. Thanks for posting this, and thanks for starting this conversation between differing views.
    On my Way…

  21. Thanks for posting this interesting piece Otto – it’s good to see like-minded people who are passionate about photography sharing their views on a subject like this!

  22. I think we all need to say ‘thank you’ to Otto for posting such a thought provoking topic that has resulted in some excellent contributions to the debate…… doubt a topic that will be revisited, many times, over the years ahead and poses a question that may never be resolved!

    1. On second thought – for me this image is over processed. It has lost the nitty gritty of the situation. The impact of horror has lessened for me because my mind gets caught up in thinking about the process of editing the picture.

  23. Obviously from the comments this is a widely discussed topic .Photos have been enhanced since film and I don’t know enough to always know but have suggested not processing or cropping in our photo club for one topic and the question was how can you tell, that it would have to be left to the honour system..and the suggestion was dropped. I see more and more photos that have me questioning if it looked anything like the real scene.Sometimes I think I would prefer to see the original photo. But to have to send in an original in a contest? No, unless that is the rule for the contest..A sign of our times, what is real and what is false. Good discussion.

  24. You raise an interesting question. We have reached a point in the evolution of photography when images can be shot and the JPEGs sent to the news desk within a few seconds for almost instantaneous upload to the Internet. Under that scenario it has to be the unadulterated image that is sent, although the editor on the news desk might have delegated powers to ‘enhance’ the image I suppose. Sports images are the classic type of image treated in this way. But true reportage photography – and I’m thinking of Don McCullin, the war photographer – must have worked on his images to increase the contrast and grittyness of his work in the film era. And I guess that was commonplace – those enhancements (if you want to call them that) – helped emphasize the story behind the image and made them all too real. I think the issue really should be: does the processing assist the getting across of the story behind the image? If it does, then it’s critical to the success of the image. If it’s just to pretty-up the image for no very obvious reason then it is serves no purpose.

  25. I an going on instinct here – I thought this was an amazing photograph when I first looked at it, the kind of which should be on the front page of our papers and news sites. Now I have seen the comments, but I still think it is very powerful. I think photographs like this should be ‘of their time’ and if it has a certain look to it then fine. More people will have a cultural reference point in their mind to be able to tune in to what the photo has to say. I am not sure movie posters would tackle this. Other ‘classic’ images are of their time, of their place and of the person who took the photo. This one is too.

  26. There is a fine line that one walks when reporting, no matter how factual one wants to be. Words can be nuanced to slant information a certain way. Look at Fox TV vs. CNN vs. NBC vs. ABC, etc. Look at NPR vs. non-public radio.

    I believe it’s the same with photos. I can see when a photographer wants to highlight the pain and suffering an event has caused, as in the above photo. The background is gray and fits the somber mood. The facial expressions are clearly a combination of grief, anger, indignation, frustration. If that is a message for an actual tragic event, I can accept that. I think the photo is quite powerful. What I don’t like is when photographers take liberties and manufacture lies, say for example, a photo of Bush chatting with a famous athlete as Katrina was raging forward. Something like that. The event never happened but photographic manipulations made it possible on a screen.

  27. Before reading your article I had made up my mind that the picture above is unacceptable! But then you really make some valid points and in particular this part:
    “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.”

    So I changed my mind and I think you’re right… as long as they don’t add or remove elements than its acceptable. Great article otto, very thought provoking 🙂

  28. You guys have given me a fantastic response to the questions I asked in this post. I feel tempted to answer each and everyone as part of the debate, but think it would be unfair for me to always have the last word. So for the time being I will just let it roll by itself. Eventually I will get back to each comment. Thanks again, this has been really fun.

  29. I think this is a mighty powerful photo enhanced in Photoshop or not. A photojournalist is still a creative artist, it is what makes them see the image and the power of it in the first place and later the possibilities when processing. I don’t think the photo loses anything in the processing. Now if he placed those children from a separate photo that would be different. But we are talking, color, contrast, grain, cropping, filters- so what, it is still an amazing photo. If I had noticed the technique first rather than the content I would say they went too far. Great food for thought as always Otto, and I remember your blog from last year on this award. I think it was the first time I had read your blog and I SO very much agreed with your honest perspective, which of course hooked me forever!

  30. First of all, every single digital photo ever taken has already been subjectively enhanced/altered through the in-camera processing engine designed by manufacturers. This affects color balance, sharpening, exposure and several other parameters.

    Secondly, choice of camera, exposure, depth-of-field, focal length and other related choices, also skew objectivity.

    Thirdly, if the main objective with post-processing is to manipulate an image so it can tell the story more effectively – at the cost of objectiveness – I think it is definitely something worth sacrificing.

    My point being, there is no objective reporting. Everybody has an agenda – political, emotional or financial – from camera makers all the way to photo editors.

    I believe (hope) the general public is savvy enough to differentiate between slightly manipulated images seen in mainstream news photography and the often comically over-saturated, extremely scripted scenery that photographers deliver to glossy travel mags.

  31. Looking at the picture, I felt the grief and pain of the loss. You captured the pureness of the moment. Pictures are suppose to convey not just the exterior but more of what in inside and unspoken which you showed in all its brilliance.

  32. I have read your post several times. I know little about the annual World Press Photos – only that I have seen them from time to time. I am not a professional photographer and barely an amateur one. I am conflicted on this subject. Regardless of how the photo was changed, altered, or enhanced, it was still a funeral procession. It still is and will always be sad. The photo will have an impact regardless of how it was changed. So, I don’t know. I just don’t know on this one.

  33. Changing the original capture to make it look perfect is like too much plastic surgery to get the looks one wants. A bit of makeup is ok. It cannot be compared to editing an article, I feel.

  34. Thank you for sharing Paul Hansen’s winning photo Otto. I’ve followed the World Press Photo competition for about a decade now and am always astonished at the powerful images that the journalists are able to capture with their cameras. I cannot imagine anyone staging the above scene.
    Personally I don’t see anything wrong with enhancing and improving a photo in whatever way your skill allows you.

  35. I find the “I don’t post process pictures” thing is very vague. The camera already does it for you if you just shoot JPG with a nice image style. But even RAW files are cooked depending of different proprietary algorithms for each camera manufacturer. So, what exactly does this have to do with the objectivity of the picture? Even if the photographer decides to change the framing, just pointing a bit to the left, for example, that can change the entire message of the picture. And that is not cropping in “post process”, but just a decision taken in the very first moment of the capture. So just blaming the high local contrast and shadows enhancement of the picture for that loss of objectivity, I think is very simplistic. Is like saying that maybe, in black and white, the picture was going to be more “credible”… I don’t know. Another thing is moving actual pixels, image manipulation, say removing the face of someone, or getting rid of elements not needed for the “message” of the picture. I thing that’s much more bigger issue for photojournalism.

  36. I think every good journalist debates this on some level. Whether it’s to dramatize a story on one medium or another, there’s a fine line between inputting passion to a story and becoming a little too addicted to the attention that we’re hoping our hard work will attain.

    Great article. Thanks for following. I’ll be looking forward to more good stuff!

  37. This has been a wonderful discussion about the ethics of editing and post-processing. Many different views have been displayed here, and I think that is just great. I don’t agree with all of you, and that’s just how it should be. I believe in a dialectic process, but we don’t all have to fall down on the same conclusion. In many ways I feel compelled to comment each and everyone of you, but I think it would be unfair. I have stated my point of view in the post itself, and I will let every other comment stand on its own feet. Thank you so much for participating in the discussion.

  38. In my own opinion I think that in photo journalism, as long as the basic event has not been manipulated… people or things added or subtracted to change the event, the photo stands. In this photo, for example, it appears the photographer was trying emphasize the faces and the grief and it has huge impact. I looked at the children’s faces and thought they could wake up until I saw the grief on the men’s faces and realized they must be dead. My third thought was where are the mothers, the sisters, the women? This photograph told a story and left me with questions. That, to me, is good photojournalism.

  39. God bless photographers, I say, for how else would I be able to see, sitting here quite comfortably, in Australia.

  40. You raise an interesting question. Where exactly is the line. I agree with you that this photo doesn’t cross that line but at the same time the way the photographer has processed the image has killed some of its impact. It looks almost staged and quite plastic. I would love to see the original image so I compare, my instinct tells me that a B&W version without heavy processing would have a much greater sense of immediacy and impact. But that is just my opinion

    1. This has in many ways been two discussions. One is the ethical part – what can be allowed or not. And the other is the aesthetic part – what makes the picture more powerful or not. As to the latter, I think you have a good point.

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