Mo’ photos, mo’ problems

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Above: The 2013 World Press Photo of the year shows two-year-old Suhaib Hijazi and her three-year-old brother Muhammad who were killed when their house was destroyed by an Israeli missile strike. AP Photo/Paul Hansen, Dagens Nyheter.

BitDepth#1096 for June 06, 2017.

The recent fuss about this year’s World Press Photo award for long term projects to Hossein Fatemi should come as no surprise to anyone monitoring the challenges of modern photojournalism.

Ramin Talaie called out the issues with clarity and depth. A subsequent investigation by the photo organisation did not find adequate grounds for withdrawing the award, but the challenge continues a run of problems arising with the World Press Awards (WPPA) and the documentation of cultures outside of mainstream first world norms in particular.

Souvid Datta, an upcoming photojournalist and documentarian fell upon his sword in early May  after his clumsy cloning of an image by the late Mary Ellen Mark into a photo shot in the red-light district of Kolkata was discovered.

Datta, who had been winning competitions, awards and grants found himself not just dishonoured, but stripped of the opportunities that are critical to beginning a career in the largely unrewarding world of social documentation.

The World Press Photo has faced significant challenges to its awards over the last decade and those issues haven’t only touched new photographers.

Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin was grilled over implications in captioning and contextualisation of an image from his series on gun culture in the US in 2013. The WPA allowed Pellegrin’s second place award to stand.

Just a few months later, Paul Hansen’s photo for Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter of an angry Gaza City burial cortege, provoked extended investigation by image analysts, both official and unofficial. The challenges to the medium continue to this day.

This year’s WPA news photo of the year, the gem of the award crown, was Burhan Ozbilici’s shocking image of the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov.

Stuart Franklin, chair of the jury that deliberated on the awards did not agree with the winning image, describing it as “a staged murder for the press in a press conference.”

But this is what happens when, as in 2017, 5,034 photojournalists from 125 countries submit more than eighty thousand images for consideration in what is considered to be the definitive competition in modern photojournalism.

The hubbub around these issues is definitely driven by digital.

Digital technologies have enabled the adoption of photography by anyone with the slightest inclination to take a picture.

Digital tools have also lubricated the picture making process, making possible a level of manipulation of images which is unprecedented in the history of the medium of photography.

In the class I teach on photography, there’s a module on workflow that examines the difference between creating a final image or print in the era of film and today.

In the darkrooms that I spent two decades sweating in, you had between two to five minutes to make a good black and white print. Your tools were various sized black dots on thin metal rods and holes in various sizes and shapes cut out of opaque paper.

To achieve your vision for the image you blocked light from the light sensitive paper with the wands (dodging), looking like a spastic Harry Potter, adding more exposure to selected areas through the holes (burning).

In serious darkrooms like Time Labs, famous photographs were marked up with a map of dodging and burning to ensure that later prints matched the originals.

Digital post-processing by 10b from their Ethics website page. Image by David Furst, AFP. Click to enlarge.

Even the best safelight, a filtered lamp that allowed some reddish-orange illumination in a black and white darkroom, would eventually fog photographic paper, giving it an overall dull gray cast, so time was of the essence once the paper was out of its light-tight box.

Today, digital dodging and burning can be done over days, be undone repeatedly and the selection of areas to be worked on can be pixel precise.

Without moving a single pixel, the old techniques of image manipulation can now be used to such an extreme that final images, unblemished by any retouching tool, bear little likeness to the originals.

Italy’s digital finishing house 10b, popular with photojournalists, now has an ethics page on its website that openly discusses the issues.

The issues are robust enough that World Press Photo commissioned a report into the challenges of evaluating the finishing processes available for modern journalistic photography in an “Integrity of the image report,” which sought to explore what happens to journalism between minor and extreme adjustments to images.

Digital’s other contribution to this rapid paced reevaluation of the nature of documentation and journalism is to provide accessible forums for the discussion and examination of these issues with hitherto unprecedented scale, depth and accessibility.

Here in T&T there is barely any buzz when enthusiastic front page artists seamlessly strip multiple images together with no declaration that they have produced an illustration that’s no longer representative of experienced reality.

Some of the most compelling discussions to arise from the last ten years of evaluation of the World Press annual review of photojournalism pivots around visual appropriation and cultural understanding, which can begin at the level of the original image making but can be further compounded by insensitivity and ignorance in both picture editing and editorial decision making of the nuances of very different geographies and mores.

The greater the contemplation and challenge to first world management of the visual narrative and the more aggressive and studied the resistance to imagemaking that satisfies a comfortably distant perspective on lived reality in the world, the better.

The arguments, outings, annoyance and backtracking that have accompanied the most recent challenges to photojournalism in an era of malleable pixels is not only healthy, it is absolutely necessary to bring a new level of understanding of the importance of documenting with honesty and adequate foreknowledge of “alien” cultures and lifestyles.