How Far Is Too Far With Photoshop?

World Press Photo controversy exposes journalism double standard.

On Tuesday, Swedish photographer Paul Hansen, winner of the 2012 World Press Photo award for best picture, was vindicated of charges that his winning image was a “fraudulent forgery” following weeks of mudslinging by a handful of photo-purists who took issue with the way the picture was created.  The striking photograph, which depicts a group of Palestinians mourning two young victims of an Israeli missile strike, raised a stink due to its creative use of toning and Hansen’s reliance on post-production processing techniques to add an emotive quality to the work.

In a strongly worded rebuke published on the photography blog Petapixel just days after Hansen’s image was singled out by an international panel of jurists (including the director of photography for The Associated Press),  Allen Murabayashi—co-founder of PhotoShelter, which builds websites for photographers—criticized the illustrative quality of Hansen’s and other winners’ work, claiming that it is indicative of the declining standards of documentary photography.

“When an award-winning photojournalism photo has been toned to look like a movie poster, you are signaling to next year’s entrants that the bar has moved,” Murabayashi wrote. “Find the best retoucher you can, and heighten the drama as much as possible. We don’t care about factual statements. We care about visceral reaction and entertainment value. Make us feel something! Truth be damned.”

Debate over Hansen’s photo percolated for weeks following Murabayashi’s post—mostly confined to the photography community; but it was rekindled this past Sunday when forensic image analyst Neal Krawetz—who achieved semi-fame in 2007 for exposing doctored al-Qaeda propaganda videos—published the results of an analysis of Hansen’s award-winning photo on his blog that purports to show the photographer combined several images to make his picture.

“This year’s ‘World Press Photo Award’ wasn’t given for a photograph. It was awarded to a digital composite that was significantly reworked,” Krawetz wrote.

World Press Foundation organizers quickly came to Hansen’s defense and conducted an independent analysis that appears to prove the photo’s authenticity. In a statement issued on May 14 the foundation calls Krawetz’s findings “misleading” and “deeply flawed” and concludes that while the tone, color and contrast of Hansen’s image were manipulated through processing, it is not a composite and conforms to the “accepted practices of the profession.”

Case closed, but not really. The kerfuffle over “Gaza Burial”  has renewed an age-old argument over the use of post-processing in photojournalism that has intensified considerably since the advent of digital editing software. For some purists, even so much as cropping an image crosses the line; however, most news outlets—The Associated Press, for instance—provide more flexibility and draw the line at allowing any digital manipulation that would have been possible in a traditional darkroom (a threshold Hansen’s image would be unlikely to meet given the complexity of the adjustments). On the other side is a generation of photographers raised on Photoshop who recognize few boundaries in the making of a good picture.

As a documentary photographer I can sympathize with the position of purists like Murabayashi. There is no doubt that media and news outlets are increasingly obsessed with getting a visceral reaction from viewers/readers—mostly because there is so much more competition for eyeballs.  Plus, these days everyone with an Instagram account thinks they are a photographer (and unfortunately for those of us who really are, they have the tools to make pics that look pretty spectacular with the click of a button). So there is the issue of a lowering bar, and the risk that professional standards will decline with it.

However, as a writer I urge caution against implying that “emotionalizing” news with the devices at our disposal necessarily devalues it. More than any other news professional, photographers are forced to bear the burden of this unreasonable presumption.

Print journalists, on the other hand, regularly use literary devices—narrative, anecdote and/or emotionally engaging headlines—to make their stories “pop.”  We use catchy ledes to draw readers in (Murabayashi uses one of his own in his piece criticizing Hansen. Take a look.) We cut quotes from different parts of interviews and we decide which ones to spotlight as pull-quotes in magazine pieces. I wonder, would those who are opposed to cropping in editorial photography argue that the only truthful way to present an interview is to publish the full transcript?

The whole process of journalistic writing involves manipulating words and facts in a compelling way to tell a story. The threshold for print reporters is whether a story accurately represents the truth on the ground and that whatever dramatic effect he or she uses to tell the story is not gratuitous, but rather contributes to enlightening the reader to a reality of which they are not personally privy. For print journalists as least, drama is regularly a part of this process, and discerning readers are usually able to tell when the line has been crossed.

I don’t believe Hansen crossed that line with “Gaza Burial.” I’ve seen the RAW file depicting the original version. Is the edited one more dramatic? Definitely. Is it inauthentic? No. The problem with Murabayashi’s argument—and that advanced by other purists—is that it confuses facts with honesty. As any first-year J-school student can tell you, journalism is about more than simply throwing a bunch of facts on a page and seeing where they land; it’s about telling stories that matter.  That’s not to say there aren’t limits. But we place an immense amount of trust in writers to sift through the “facts” to bring us the “truth.” Do photojournalists deserve any less?