Another controversy is erupting in the world of photojournalism. The image that won World Press Photo of the Year 2012 is starting to look like it was HIGHLY manipulated or an outright composite. Though I no longer work as a photojournalist, I have been following this (and other recent image manipulation) controversies closely because it directly impacts my own work.
You can read about the image, the controversy and the larger question of image manipulation in an interesting piece found at: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/growing-concern-that-news-photos-are-being-excessively-manipulated-a-898509.html The most chilling part of the piece is towards the end where they write: “James Nachtwey, for example, has been working with 10b for two years. Working with the legendary war photographer is especially time-consuming. Palmisano says that he can spend up to 12 hours on a Nachtwey photo. By the end of the process, he and Nachtwey may have exchanged up to 100 emails, addressing the most painstakingly detailed changes.”
As someone who has photographed a great deal in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, I have to say one thing about the controversy. One of the points raised as people question the image’s veracity is about the way the light is bouncing around the alley where the photo was made. I will say that the light in that region can be both magical and tricky. Having used (and struggled with) that kind of light, I would not be surprised if in fact the light in the image is “real” as it bounces around the walls. The original publication can be seen at: http://i.imgur.com/aKTAc7d.jpg Beyond that, a nice comparison of different versions of the published image vs the award winning image can be seen at: http://m.flickr.com/#/photos/gunthert/8485283411/sizes/o/
The photographer in question has something of a track record of debatable journalistic ethics, which are explored at: http://creightoninfoethics.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/can-a-photograph-lie/
Having looked at the image, particularly closely looking at the one at: http://www.imagebam.com/image/a03439254372168 I think that the way the image is (over) sharpened in certain spots and unfocused in other places, suggests image manipulation at best or flat out compositing at worst. Many of the figures in the background look unnatural as if they have been added after the fact.
Beyond my experience in the region and my background as a photojournalist, I have another stake in this controversy. During my recent exhibition of my Foreclosed Dreams work in Providence, I was asked over and over if I set up or manipulated the images that were on exhibition.
I certainly did not set up the Foreclosed Dreams images in either the capture phase nor manipulate them in the post-production phase. But the fact that many people who saw my work assumed each situation I photographed was contrived rather than as I found it, that undercuts my credibility. More importantly, it gives the viewer an excuse to look past the political issues the work is trying to raise.
I doubt that there is much of anything I can do to hold back the tidal wave of image manipulation / compositing. I can hope that blogs like this will remind some readers that certain imagery, like mine, is in fact, an accurate portrayal of what I found and photographed. This accuracy is at the heart of my work and anything that undercuts that worries me, doubly so when when a critic writes something about my work as evocative as this:
In the Providence photographer’s heartbreaking exhibit “Foreclosed Dreams….” Wells’s subject—this terrible sense of emptiness, of abandonment, of exodus—lasers into your soul…. By focusing on their things, by leaving it anonymous, he aims to draw us in personally, to get us thinking that could be my house, that could be my grandfather’s photo, that could be my child’s toy. …..the results are a diaspora of devastated families.
Greg Cook, writing on The ARTery the arts website of WBUR, Boston’s NPR station