Stepan Rudik's offending image was disqualified from World Press Photo when it was discovered that he had removed a foot. Copyright Stepan Rudik.
Photo manipulation has its place – but not in photojournalism, says Neil Burgess. The former head of Network Photographers and Magnum Photos London, discusses the ramifications of Stepan Rudik’s disqualification from World Press Photo, for which he was a former judge
World Press Photo is at the centre of another controversy. Soon after the announcement of this year’s winners, the Amsterdam-based foundation, in consultation with its jury, disqualified Stepan Rudik’s story on street fighting in the Ukraine.
The reason given was that the Poland-based photographer had retouched one of the images, removing a shoe that impinged on the main subject.
The foundation’s policy states that “only retouching that conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed”. The jury, this year chaired by Ayperi Karbuda Ecer, vice president of pictures for Reuters, decided that touching out the foot was not acceptable.
Rudik says that in retouching the foot, he hasn’t “made any significant alteration nor removed any important informative detail”. He feels that his reputation and good name as a reportage photographer is under attack, and it is worth noting that this was just one picture out of an 11-picture story.
Reading these reports, looking at the submitted image and the original raw file, I understood for the first time the notion of the elephant in the room. The foot is, as Rudik says, almost insignificant, but I was amazed by how little relation the finished, submitted image bore to the original raw file.
To my mind, removing a very small, random visual intrusion, which doesn’t alter the meaning of the photograph, could be allowed. A small crop or trim the same. But Rudik’s extreme tight crop and heavy finishing suggests a practice more akin to a designer than a reportage photographer. He “grabbed” the image off the screen rather than reporting and creating in the field. Whatever this is, it is not photojournalism and it should not be accepted by competitions, or editors.
The wonderful, magical thing about a camera is that it mediates our experience of the world to produce a likeness. This likeness is created by a causal process – photons bounce off things in the world, are focused onto a light-sensitive surface and are fixed.
We all understand that this happens and we accept such likenesses as evidence in our courts of law. We also celebrate journalists and documentary photographers who place these instruments in close relationship to a subject and release the shutter at the perfect time.
In documentary photography or photojournalism we expect the image thus captured to bear close comparison to the scene the photographer experienced. Rudik’s finished picture doesn’t do this. Dark and grainy, it is retouched with an almost black vignette that intimates night-time, and suggests a close intimate relationship between photographer and subject.
The original is shot in the daytime in a field full of people. The finished work is a crop that is about one tenth of the original image. I don’t want to disparage Rudik or World Press Photo, but this is not journalism or reportage. It is photo-illustration.
Before the digital revolution, when we looked at a simple photograph we generally knew the sort of thing we were looking at. That is no longer the case. The recent falling out between the New York Times Magazine and Edgar Martin over the publication of his Ruins of a Guilded Age project is another aspect of the confusion that has arisen out of the capabilities of the new technologies, the acceptance of photography into the canon of art and the practice of journalism.
For the New York Times, the issue appears to come down to the degree of manipulation – Martin’s duplication of elements to create symmetries was considered unacceptable; by contrast, when Nadav Kander added shadows to his portraits of President Obama’s team for the same publication, it allowed them to stay, and the work went on to be lauded.
But actually there is no difference in kind between Kander and Martin’s work – both projects manipulate the viewer into believing that the subject’s relationship to the world was different to how it actually was. I like both sets of photographs, but neither are what I’d describe as reportage or strict journalism. Journalists are expected to use the camera as a scientific recording instrument. The results can be shaded, the edges trimmed and the anomalies corrected, as long as they can be judged to be just that.
Artists use cameras however they want and the result is judged by completely different criteria. Unfortunately, we are getting to a stage where it seems all photographers want to be artists and that is causing all kinds of mess.
With newspaper writers there is a clear separation between news reporters and columnists – they might both report on the same event but while the latter’s prose will be splattered with “I” and opinions, the reporter attempts to minimise the ego.
Maybe we need to make a similar delineation in photojournalism between the reporter and the commentator or illustrator. Digital cameras and post-production software give an almost infinite palette of possibilities. Take a picture in whatever light then change it later to imitate tungsten or daylight, black-and-white, Kodachrome, cross-processing or de-saturated C41, switch between soft light and hard light, flip, mask, burn and dodge, liquefy to make that tummy flatter, or the look in the eye more sinister.
None of these things removes or adds anything material to the picture and if you are an artist or illustrator, no one will care. However, if you call yourself a reporter or a documentary photographer, then I for one will care. When we are talking about reportage, the working methodology must have a bearing. Photojournalists must use “straight” photography. I know what I mean by this, does anyone else?
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