Trust in the Age of Digital Manipulation

Ethics in photography happens not only in the field, but also in post production.
As we enter a new year of photo competitions, we asked iLCP Affiliate David Griffin to share his thoughts on image manipulation in his capacity as Secretary of the General Jury of the World Press Photo competition which opened for new entries on December 1.

There has been increased scrutiny of the integrity of all images being entered in major photo contests recently. But since the subjects of natural history photography are so difficult to capture in the wild, photographers do not have to adhere to these stricter guidelines. Right?

Wrong. There is no situation which ever justifies the manipulation of an image that is being presented as a real depiction of a scene. Unless you are using photography for self-expression (“art”), photographers are held to the highest standards of integrity expected for images that purport to accurately depict reality. There is no wiggle room here. As a natural history photographer, you are in the knowledge business, and any bending or distortion of the truth is simply untenable. Trustworthy photography is a promise made to the viewers.

And this need to be trustworthy is even more critical as the public has become acutely aware of the means by which photography can be photoshopped (a verb), and becomes understandably suspect of all images made by both amateurs and professionals. As professionals, we can not feed this monster.

I am the Secretary of the General Jury of the annual World Press Photo competition. The role is primarily herding photo cats: explaining the rules and keeping things moving apace. The Secretary does not vote and does not contribute opinions about individual photographs in the judging process.

In my playbook, the photographer should always be given the benefit of the doubt until the facts prove otherwise. And this is where the forensic stage of the World Press Photo contest comes into play.

Once the entries (the starting photo count in 2016 numbered over 83,000) are narrowed down to those being considered for the final judging rounds, the original files are requested. A team of photographic forensic experts then begins a highly detailed comparison of the submitted entries and the unprocessed files. Once their analysis is complete, a presentation is made to the full jury on every image about which concerns were raised.

The review presents the submitted and original image side-by-side or overlaid and toggled, to highlight where an image has a questionable change. These alterations include removal, cloning, addition, or shifting of any part—no matter how seemingly insignificant—of an image. These changes might be physically minute, but for the integrity of the competition, the implications considerable.

World Press Photo publishes clear guidelines, including videos with examples, on its web site. They show that the only alterations to content that are permitted are retouching of sensor dust or hot pixels (parts of a sensor that have malfunctioned), both of which can be verified by reviewing near frames of the same situation shot with the same camera.
Keep in mind, at this stage in the judging, all of these images are still potential award winners—most have been vigorously debated and deeply considered for inclusion. So to see any of them excluded at this point is disheartening. But a line is a line.

Photographic styles change over time, due to the intertwined dance of technology and style. As digital sensors replaced film, the very basis of a long-developed aesthetic built around the tonal limitations of film was shattered. As sensors improved and went beyond the dynamic range of film, Photoshop masters learned how to create final images that had detail across a previously un-seen tonal range. Early on, these images seemed amazing when compared to their predecessors—and as happens, many were given awards.

But now there is a growing backlash, and what was acceptable only a few years ago (because it seemed so innovative) has now come under fire for pushing the tonal ranges too far and for creating images that do not accurately reflect reality.

In truth, if photographers are looking for one universal standard on toning, they won’t find it. Next year the tools and techniques will have evolved; as will the jury’s sense of what is and isn’t acceptable (within the guidelines of the competition). As such, each year’s images should reflect the toning zeitgeist of their time. As a point, when assessing photographs from the 1860s U.S. Civil War, we apply a standard for image quality that is very different than when judging images shot in Syria in today.

The best that photographers can do then is look for trends. In the foreseeable future, I suspect that the criteria will continue to evolve to favor images in which the sense of reality feels more and more natural.

So while I hope most of this makes sense, particualry for news photography, are there different standards for nature photography? The images entered into the Nature category of World Press Photo are often of scenes that are hard to control (this is often true of action sports photography). In nature, species behavior can too often occur when the light is harsh (as anyone who has shot in a jungle knows too well); water can be obscured by particulates, backgrounds can be overly messy (think jungles again); etc.

While I have not been Secretary of World Press Photo long enough to see if these catagories have a clear trend, when I was Director of Photography at National Geographic, we were overly cautious when reviewing nature images which were submitted for consideration. It may be that nature photographers simply feel that due to their lack of control over the situations, they should be permitted a greater degree of latitude than what is acceptable for more traditional genres. But this rationale would be unfortunate.

One of the reasons nature and environmental subjects are growing in stature in traditionally news and people-oriented competitions, such as World Press Photo, is the increasing recognition of the critical importance the natural world plays in the lives of so many around the globe. The interest in global climate change, endangered species, habitat destruction, etc. have helped to move natural history images out of the realm of “cute animals” and onto the reporting frontlines of major news organizations.
And with this new and heightened interest also comes greater scrutiny of the integrity of the images which often are the visual proof of these issues. And as such, nature photographers should be using exactly the same standards as their more news-oriented brethren, so they do not undermine the public’s trust in their coverages of the critical environmental and natural history issues of our day.

Plus, who knows, by maintaining the integrity of your images you might just win a major award! Good luck.