(Image links were correct at time of writing)
This year’s World Press Photographer of the Year has been named as John Stanmeyer for his image of African migrant workers. Taken in Djibouti the workers are illuminated by moonlight as they stretch their arms into the air in an attempt to capture cheaper cell signal from neighbouring Somalia.
Controversy swirling around the image for once doesn’t relate to the actual capture of the image and its post-production - of which there is reportedly none. Rather, it revolves around Stanmeyer’s close association with one of the jury members of the awards, Gary Knight, both of whom are founding members of the VII Photo Agency.
Personally, I don’t think that the conflict of interest that is being claimed is really that important. The rules of WPP disallowed Knight from recusing himself, and the image itself is a very powerful image (shot for the National Geographic feature following journalist Paul Salopek as he retraces on foot the route that early humans would have taken in their original migration, or diaspora, from Africa). Still, this is not the first time that the WPP awards have been rocked with scandal. More worrying are some of the other pronouncements that were made.
Last year’s WPP winner, Paul Hansen , also came under public scrutiny when his image was criticised for being over-processed. The technique he used is sometimes referred to as a ‘pseudo HDR’ where a single RAW file is processed multiple times with each of these renderings layered on top of one another and then masked to show a greater tonal range within the image. At any rate the furore that resulted caused the competition to strengthen its rules of submission.
The result of the strengthened rules was that a number of finalists were disqualified on technical grounds. In an interview with the Times, Knight expressed concern with the fact that 10 (making up 8%) of this year’s WPP finalists were disqualified for excessive post-production, or in the competition’s words, images that were, “materially and substantially changed”. For Knight, this is concerning as the changes were often ‘materially trivial but they were ethically significant (link)’. This is coming from the world’s leading photo journalists!
The WPP awards comes after the Associated Press (AP) cut ties with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Narciso Contreras, after he admitted to digitally altering a photo of a combatant in Syria in September 2013. A video camera that is visible in the lower left corner of the original image is removed from the final via some very good cloning work in post-production (see images). On reviewing the entire body of his work, this was the only single instance of manipulation that AP could find. Nevertheless, he was still removed from their staff roll.
Truth in imagery has long been debated. Photographers are quick to point out the changes in perception of an image that equipment alone can create. The camera is not so much a translator of reality of the scene unfolding before it, but more an interlocutor of that reality (to borrow a term from the methodology of cultural anthropology). An interlocutor comes burdened with past prejudices, and a world view that is different to those he/she is interpreting for. We should be more aware of the fact that the image is an interpretation, not ‘THE TRUTH’ in broad capital letters.
Yet, in a world where we are inundated on an hourly basis with a smorgasbord of images from the mundane to the erotic to the shocking to the tranquil, we seem oblivious to the fact that there is a photographer behind the camera who is not an automaton such as a street security camera. Their sensibilities and experiences shape the way that they craft the image. It seems ironic that at the very same time that we applaud and venerate the few photographers who make it into the rarefied air of public acclaim, that we instantly forget that they are people who actually create the images. It’s almost as if there is a disconnect between the image and the photographer in the mind of the viewer. The image is all truth, the photographer as artist. But, art and truth are not synonymous.
Yes, it is concerning that increasingly there are images that are published that have been changed from their original rendering. It is also concerning that the vast majority of viewers naively accept the image as truth. In considering Contreras’ image of the Syrian combatant - if the angle had been slightly different and the video camera not included, or the image had simply been cropped, rather than cloned, then there wouldn’t have been a problem in the eyes of AP nor of the public. Is this the way it should be?
To put this into a basic philosophical conundrum; if the video camera is not depicted in the image, did it exist at all? We have become almost too reliant on the image as a vehicle of information (see ‘The Last Word’ below). The phrase, ‘don’t believe everything you read’ can be equally applied to the images we ‘read’. Apparently our 5000+ year history of written information lends us cynicism towards the written word. Perhaps our fledgling 200 year history of the photographic image hasn’t given us enough time to question images in the same way.