Just How Manipulated Was the World Press Photo Winner?

Sebastian Anthony over at ExtremeTech (a site I'd never heard of until moments ago) has a post up claiming the already-questionable World Press Photo winner may have been faked. Several questions have already been raised about Paul Hansen's winning image from Gaza, but most have been about the amount of toning involved.


Mark E. Johnson

7 Responses

  1. Hey Mark, this is also featured on A Photo Editor


    and one of the comments there was very interesting to me:

    Paul Hansen has put out a statement that as I undertstand it basically confirms the image is HDR: http://mobile.news.com.au/technology/photographer-says-his-2013-world-press-photo-of-the-year-is-not-a-fake/story-e6frfro0-1226642304141

    “In the post-process toning and balancing of the uneven light in the alleyway, I developed the raw file with different density to use the natural light instead of dodging and burning. In effect to recreate what the eye sees and get a larger dynamic range.

    “To put it simply, it’s the same file – developed over itself – the same thing you did with negatives when you scanned them.”‘

    So that might explain why the metadata suggested that the photo might be a composite. But is it a composite if the same image – the same moment in time – is processed in a way to extract the maximum dynamic range from a difficult lighting situation? In my opinion, it is not.

    However, Hanson didn’t stop there. He continued processing the image beyond dynamic range – playing with the color, saturation, local contrast, etc. – in order to achieve a more stylish, cinematic look.

    That crosses a line, for me. That’s artistic license and a level of interpretation that interferes with the connection between subject and audience.

    Just my personal opinion, but I think I’m probably not alone.

  2. I think the issue is not whether he made a great image but whether he made an accurate one – one that, someone who was there, would recall in the same way he has presented this.

    There’s a difference between accuracy and truth. A story – in words or images – must be both an accurate representation of what happened and a true to the overall story, beyond that moment in time, for it to be journalism. This is an odd situation, I think, where the photo is (to me) not accurate, but may be truthful.

    I think the over-toning of images we have seen in the last few years is harkening us back to the hand-of-God burning techniques of the 1980s – we are adding a level of drama that the journalist may have felt but did not witness. And that, to me, as an academic purist, is a really big problem.

    • From PDN this morning:

      Reasonable people can—and do—debate how much post-production is too much post-production in news photography. But accusing a journalist whose work depends on public trust of “faking” reportage threatens his livelihood. Hansen’s image was not faked—or staged. Those mourners did carry those dead children through that alleyway, in Gaza, in the field, where Paul Hansen has worked repeatedly in his career.

      But 25,000-plus people saw a headline that accused Paul Hansen of “faking” his image. Have all of those people seen World Press Photo’s statement? Or Hansen’s? Have the members of the photo community so eager to share that headline been as eager to share the statements supporting Hansen? Have we seen an apology from the blogger or website that persists with its accusing headline?


      • (I added some blockquoting to make it clear that came from the story.)

        It comes down to credibility here at several levels. The moment appears to be true, but there are other elements that are not – the way the image was toned is not reflective of the lighting as someone there would have perceived it. The way it was blended has given it a surreal, Hollywood-esque feel to it that isn’t an accurate representation of this moment in these people’s lives. He’s glamorized this horrifying moment, he’s playing with people’s emotions through color and light.

        And I have a really big problem with the photographer or editor makes editing/toning decisions to elicit an emotional response from a viewer. Perhaps that’s the roll of an advocacy or documentary photographer (however you want to define that last term), but it is not the roll – in my opinion – of a photojournalist.

        I will full admit to being a purist here. And I’m okay with that. Accuracy matters. Not our interpretation of a moment, but being accurate in its portrayal.

        And, for the record, I posted the second story from World Press Photo, as well.

  3. I think there’s a lesson in this.

    If Hansen was so concerned with the public trust, then he might have been a little less aggressive in the amount of image processing he applied to his contest submission. Had he applied a lighter hand, this simply would have never been an issue. We would ALL be saying “What a great picture!” and that would be that.

    The fact is, it’s a tremendously powerful image, and that’s why it won. The moment speaks for itself. Which makes the decision to “stylize” the image all the more curious.

    By trying to add another level of drama with all the post-processing, Hansen shifted the focus of the image to himself and not the subjects depicted in his photograph.

    And perhaps that’s the lesson here – as a photojournalist, it’s not about YOU, the photographer. It’s about your subjects and your audience. Yes, the best photojournalists are masters of their medium and craftsmanship is extremely important in conveying stories in a compelling way. But the most memorable and powerful photographs, in my opinion, are usually those when the master storyteller becomes transparent in the process, and the audience feels a direct connection to what’s being depicted, as if the viewer is right there in the photographer’s place.

    By choosing “style” to make his photo stand out (which really wasn’t necessary because, like I said, the moment speaks for itself), Hansen brought this on himself, in my opinion.

    Other photojournalists should take note, if they are concerned about the public trust and their reputations. This issue is not going to go away in an environment where the authenticity of EVERY photograph can be questioned. It’s not 1955, or 1975, or 1985. The very definition of what makes a photograph credible is changing. Why throw fuel on the fire?

  4. Sidenote:

    W. Eugene Smith is one of my heroes. His photographs are were one of my chief inspirations in pursuing a career in photojournalism, even though he had died before I became interested in photography. He was exactly the kind of disaffected, unapologetic, genius-yet-flawed, real-human-being kind of artists that I am still drawn to, to this day.

    I studied his work. I read every article, interview, and book I could by him and about him.

    I tried to emulate him in the darkroom, even in high school, where I first learned to bleach out details from the shadows with Potassium ferricyanide. I pulled all-nighters trying to perfect black-and-white prints for my portfolio in college, and then I still went back and reprinted them if I was not happy after living with them after a few days.

    The difference between a true master like Gene Smith and Paul Hansen is that you never saw Smith’s hand in his work. Smith sometimes worked for weeks to perfect certain prints, but there were never controversies about the final product in the public. He maximized the visual drama with with a heavy hand in the darkroom, but you never noticed it in the final presentation. That hand was transparent, and you just don’t hear about fellow photographers or the public discussing his efforts to synthesize the drama. Those efforts only came to light after the fact, in interviews, and Smith was unapologetic. And while Smith, were he alive today, might remain unapologetic, folks like Hansen should rethink their position.

    One thing I did NOT emulate was Smith’s penchant for staging photos, at times. This issue has come to light recently:


    Even in Smith’s time, the practice of staging photos was controversial. Today, it’s simply a no-no. Period. For any serious photojournalist, that is – either shooting stills or moving images. (I still don’t buy ANY justifications for television photojournalists staging shoots. It’s just plain lazy.)

    Through the lens of time, perhaps Smith was more of a documentary film-maker whose medium happened to be still photography, rather than a photojournalist.

    Smith might be just as unapologetic today as he was then. But that still doesn’t change the fact that the perception of photographs, by their very definition, seems to be changing in society, today, in their ability to convey “Truth” or reality. “Photoshop” has become a verb in society. And I think that most people, especially the young, have come to expect a certain amount of manipulation with every photograph they see. And that’s significant. And it’s a very important reason to approach photojournalism with a light artistic hand, these days. Folks simply need to have some expectation that what they are seeing is an accurate and fair representation of what the photographer him or herself witnessed, first-hand.

    Times, they are a-changin’.

    BTW, my favorite quote from the Smith interview in Lens?

    Why are you a photographer?

    I discovered that saturated hypo was good for my poison ivy.

    Snarky genius!

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