There is no such thing as a reliable anonymous image.


Thoughts on WPP’s new rules.

This week the World Press Photo organization announced strict new rules on digital manipulation of images. They had reasons for that – last year they disqualified a great percentage of the submissions because of digital manipulation or staging. They also rewarded photography they later had to disqualify after all.

When you read the new guidelines carefully they might have enormous consequences for the freedom of expression. For example: will black and white news photography be accepted in the future? (Manipulation of colours is not permitted, most digital camera’s record colour, so according to these guidelines black and white images are manipulated.) The rules published this week are so thorough that many prizes given to outstanding photographers in the past will become suspicious. By doing so the organization is harming respectable photojournalists – and itself.

It’s not the technical side of manipulation that is the problem. Heavily manipulated images can be as truthful as can be, think about the work of the great Erwin Olaf (completely manipulated) or the outstanding historic photojournalist W. Eugene Smith whose pictures were also dark in daytime. His work was metaphorically and extremely subjective but the photographic world adored it. Still today, many years after his death, mister Eugene Smith’s reputation is convincingly without question. We trust him in his subjectivity. We trust his attempts to manipulate us. He has always been open about his intentions.

We, the public, can only rely on images when it’s authors are open about their intentions.

We, the people working in the media know that we do make mistakes and also that there are liars among us. We can only deal with that by sharing our intentions and choices in the open.

World Press Photo is a proud representation of our profession to the public. By choosing one symbolic icon every year it’s has an immense strong marketing tool in its hands. The contest process on the other hand is a mysterious event: every year a meeting of specialists from the media are choosing anonymously the winning pictures from hundreds of thousands of images from all over the world. It all goes in closed sessions from where the public is banned. No camera’s there.

Dear board of World Press Photo. Please don’t be foolish: do not question the form in which visual journalists express themselves. Question their intentions. One can not prevent lies by banning them. Investigate the origins of lies, not the technical outcome. Your strict rules on manipulation will not help preventing bad journalism. Instead you better open your doors and admit your contest jury’s are human. Stop rewarding anonymous pictures, there is no such thing as a reliable anonymous image. Reward truthful photographers. Think of the poor Soviet Party Chairman Michail Gorbachev when he just came to power. He tried to fight alcoholism with a ban on alcohol. We know what happened.

Leo Erken, 28 November 2015.

Note: WWP managing director Lars Boering responded on Twitter that grayscale is permitted according to their new rules (read section 11).


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