Competitions, Industry, Trust and Relationships

I have been pondering the news that nearly 20% of the images that made it to the penultimate round of judging in this year’s World Press Photo competition were disqualified for ethical problems. Think about that – one out of every five images that made it through the early rounds was found to violate the organization’s standards for image manipulation.

That’s a staggering number.

Said Michelle McNally, jury chairwoman and director of photography at The New York Times:

Once we saw the evidence, we were shocked. Many of the images we had to disqualify were pictures we all believed in and which we all might have published.

But what troubles me more is that those photojournalists willingly submitted their raw, unedited files for comparison. My interpretation: what the panel found to be ethically questionable the contest entrants’ did not. If they did, they wouldn’t have entered the image or submitted the original file.*

So where does this leave us? I’m concerned that so many contest-worthy images are in circulation, and probably being published, and we don’t know how accurate they are anymore.

Is this a digital problem? I don’t think so. The quickly-beocming-less-than-relevant “darkroom standard” wasn’t much of a standard. When I came of age in the 1980s, the “hand of god” burning technique was still in full force – we burned the daylight, literally, out of thousands of photos to get the effect we wanted. Ethically, is that different from what we’re seeing today?

And even before you get to the print darkroom, how you placed the exposure or how you developed the film could impact what was seen in shadows and highlights.

And even before you set your exposure the angle you chose or who you asked to move within the composition was an area wrought with problems.

Which leads me to think this isn’t a digital problem and it isn’t a software problem. Heck, it wasn’t even a darkroom problem 20 years ago.

It’s a photographer problem.

To co-opt a current phrase, Liars are gonna lie.

Are there more liars now than there were in the pre-digital era? I have no idea. It’s a little easier, sitting in the darkened hotel rooms to tweak a weak composition, to clean it up a little. That’s true. But I’d argue that the same photojournalist two decades ago would have found a way to tweak that composition, to clean it up a little, in camera as opposed to in Photoshop.

Liars are gonna lie, right?

My thought: we don’t have a digital problem, we don’t have a Photoshop problem, we may not even have a photographer problem.

We have a relationship problem.

When I started shooting for the Associated Press in 1993, it took a long time to get into the fold. The Boston market was brutal – there were a lot of great shooters there, all clamoring for work. Once I got in the door and started picking up assignments, I had to bring the film to the High Street bureau, process it there and have the regional photo editor, Dan Hansen, go through it frame by frame.

It was a conversation. What’s happening here? What did you see? Who was there? What’s this? How did this happen? Who did you talk to? What did they say?

Was he fact checking me? I don’t know if it was a formal thing, but he was getting to know me. He was figuring out who I was as a journalist, where were my boundaries, what would I do to get a photo on the wire.

After he made his edits, there was another round of the same thing with the desk editors in New York. Call, tell them what you had, they’d give you a direct line to dial in to, send the photos, call back. Your images didn’t bounce off the satellites until you answered more questions.

Those New York editors, at first, scared me. They didn’t know me, did’t know why Hansen was sending me out to shoot, didn’t know my educational background and they certainly didn’t know what my ethical stance was on anything. Their job was to vet those images, make sure there were no problems, make sure I hadn’t done anything that would jeopardize the reputation of the Associated Press.

If you read any of the biographies about the great photojournalists of the twentieth century, you’ll always come to one section where they talk about the relationships between the photojournalist and the editor. It doesn’t matter if it was Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration, John Morris or John Leongard at LIFE, Horst Faas at the AP or Robert Gilka at National Geographic – every editor had a relationship with the photojournalists. They knew each other, they built up a level of trust and understanding.

Do we have that now? I don’t think so. It’s too easy for an editor to grab an image off of a wire or agency web site and not know anything about who made it. We have far more options and far less information.

As a journalism industry, we have said for years that our audience needs to know and trust the source of information. We used that as an argument against the alleged evil bloggers in pajamas. Have we failed at the same thing? Have we failed to know and trust the source of the images we are now publishing?

Digital cameras commoditized photography, allowing more people to make more images. But we, as an industry, have allowed our relationships to weaken so we no longer know the source of our images. We have allowed them to weaken so much that photographers no longer have in depth discussions about what is allowed and what is not, about where the standards of the field are.

Cutting out staff photojournalists, contract photojournalists and editors eliminates the relationships needed to ensure high quality, ethically-sound images. Failure to do so will put us all back in our pajamas.

* I don’t know how many of the 20% refused to turn in the original files, it’s possible many of them didn’t and were disqualified for not submitting a reference file.

Mark E. Johnson

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