Awards, Photojournalism

World Press Photo head Lars Boering on introducing stringent new Ethics Code to ensure ‘truth’ of entries

World Press Photo judges at work in Amsterdam during last year's judging. Image courtesy World Press Photo

World Press Photo’s Lars Boering says a comprehensive new code of ethics helped the 2016 competition “stay on top” this year, after previous years were marred by accusations of image manipulation.

Lars Boering, managing director of the World Press Photo Foundation, has claimed this year’s World Press Photo awards will not be hamstrung by findings of image manipulation, after the introduction of a new Code of Ethics for all entrants.

Boering said of the 2016 awards, which were announced today: “We are delighted by the outcome this independent jury produced, and ready to present an exhibition of powerful imagery to an audience that can trust what they see.”

The new code of ethics ensured “a transparent and rigorous verification process,” he said, adding: “This resulted in many more entries being checked, but fewer problems than last year being found. In ten days, we will be releasing a detailed technical report reviewing the verification process, and we will then lead the public conversation on these issues.”

Last year was not one World Press Photo will remember with fondness, with news breaking – on the day the winners were announced – that more than 20 percent of the final-round entries had been disqualified. The images in question, the jury had decided, had been manipulated after the fact.

World Press Photo talked a good game, pointing out that all photographers who reach the penultimate round of the competition had to submit raw files and negatives – and that these are checked by a team of experts “who find everything”, as Lars Boering, managing director of WPP, told BJP last year. “It is about trust, about the basic ethics of journalism,” he continued. “These images should be genuine and real; we have to be able to trust the photographs they put in front of us.”

“There’s a type of post-processing that a photographer legitimately does to an industry standard,” added Michele McNally, assistant managing editor of The New York Times and chair of WPP’s 2015 jury. “And then there was the extreme – we saw some real manipulation, a lot of photographers who added or subtracted elements of the image. Then you realise: ‘They’re trying to deceive us here’.”

Then three weeks after these first revelations came to light another entry was disqualified, when it emerged that Italian photographer Giovanni Troilo had claimed that an image shot in Molenbeek, Brussels, was part of a study of Charleroi. His award – first prize in the Contemporary Issues – Story category, for the series La Ville Noire, The Dark Heart of Europe – was rescinded on 03 March.

“We now have a clear case of misleading information and this changes the way the story is perceived,” Boering said at the time. “A rule has now been broken and a line has been crossed.”

In their different ways, both revelations turned the spotlight on WPP’s judging procedures. How did they decide between “industry-standard post-processing” and manipulation? Could they rely on the photographers’ integrity? Or had this prize – and by extension photojournalism and documentary photography – become compromised? The debate simmered away, online and in the photography community, for weeks. A lauded, almost untouchable institution in photography, a great ambassador for authenticity in photojournalism, seemed tarnished, behind the times, unable to keep up with the slippery vagrancies of the viral image.

“In the past two years, 33 entries, out of a total of 240 in the second-last round, were excluded, and one story was disqualified after award,” Boering told BJP. “While the numbers surprised the industry, we learned that manipulation is an issue for the industry as a whole, and everyone has been grappling with how to handle it. In the contest, entries were excluded because of changes that were materially small, but ethically significant. If we want pictures to be documents and evidence, we cannot accept the addition or removal of content, even if it is just ‘tidying up the image’.

“As a foundation, we were not clear enough in our criteria and guidance to entrants, and our communications on this issue should have been much better,” he continued. “That is why we undertook a detailed review. We have worked hard through our consultations to improve the criteria and guidance for the next contest, and I believe when entrants read and see what we require now, they will understand how and why we are doing this. And I believe strongly that photographers are with us on this issue, especially as our entrants readily provide their original camera files for review, demonstrating they do not intend to mislead either us or the audience. In those very rare cases where someone might repeatedly mislead us, we now have the sanction of excluding them from future contests for five years.”