In the firing line since the recent World Press Photo controversy, digital post-processors are striking back, defending their work as well as their ethics. Olivier Laurent talks to 10b Photography and Addretouch
Paul Hansen’s World Press Photo winning image is eerie. Depicting a group of people carrying the dead bodies of two-year-old Suhaib Hijazi and her three-year-old brother Muhammad through Gaza city, it has a cinematic feel, with the light bouncing off the heads of the children’s relatives rushing towards the photographer and his audience.
“This picture just leapt off the screen for us – repeatedly,” explains Santiago Lyon, the Associated Press’ director of photography and chair of this year’s World Press Photo jury. Without doubt, the image had been toned before it was submitted to the world’s best-known photojournalism competition, but the judges felt it fell within the contest’s rules.
Not everyone agreed, however. In May – more than three months after the image was plastered across hundreds of newspapers and published in countless magazines around the world – Hansen’s work was called into question, with digital photography experts wrongfully accusing the photographer of faking this year’s World Press Photo winning image. While these accusations were quickly debunked by World Press Photo, the post-processing debate was reignited within the photojournalism community, forcing firms such as 10b Photography and Addretouch to speak out, defending their reputations and the ethics of their practices.
At 10b, we have always been open about what we do; we never made any mystery about our views on the matter,” say CEO Francesco Zizola and laboratory executive director Claudio Palmisano. “The ‘manifesto’ published on our website explains both our philosophy and our ethics, and can be read by anyone interested in working with us.
“Since we are coherent with our ethics and have a clear idea about the limits of our profession, we are totally immune to controversies such as the one ignited by Paul Hansen’s picture. The debate showed that it is fundamental to have a clear view about digital image post- processing, because that philosophy comes with a set of limits and rules that can be explained, agreed or defended, if criticised.” For Addretouch, a Barcelona- based post-processing company whose clients include Pep Bonet, Fernando Moleres and Fabio Bucciarelli, controversy over the issue of post-processing has always existed. “We’ve always noticed it,” says founder Joan Roig Artigues. “The problem, from our point of view, comes from a sector of press photography that demonises any selective adjustment of the image. There’s a generation of photojournalists that has not taken the digital revolution on board. They’re uncomfortable with anything related to Photoshop. But when used on its own, Photoshop doesn’t do anything.”
Addretouch’s work, he explains, consists of creating an aesthetic style for photographers. “They send us five references and we produce a fusion, creating the style that the photographer wishes to achieve in that particular report, or for a given client. We achieve these adjustments using tools that would equate to those we could use with a colour or black-and-white amplifier – changing contrasts and selective exposures and global colour adjustments. We don’t just adjust one single image but the whole body of work, ensuring there is a formal and aesthetic uniformity from the first to the last photo, giving the work coherence.”
As 10b reaffirmed in a previous interview with BJP, processing firms such as Addretouch never delete, replace or move pixels from an image. “We believe in honesty, not only for the photographer but also for Addretouch,” says Artigues. “We work closely with the reporting world and photojournalism, meaning that we also have to play our part by being responsible, transparent and coherent.” In fact, both post-processing firms have welcomed the latest controversy. “It didn’t affect the way we ‘tone’ images for our clients in any way,” say 10b’s founders. “On the contrary, it gave us the possibility to enter the debate as field pioneers and experts, and explain once more that what we do is just the natural continuation in the digital age of the old analogue darkroom processes.
“The real difference this time was that we were approached by some mainstream media outlets such as Al Jazeera English and Der Spiegel, which were interested in understanding our point of view on the debate. This means that, for the first time, an issue that had been confined within the limits of the photography industry was brought to the attention of the public – a breakthrough that tells us a lot about the status of the photographic image in our contemporary society.”
For Artigues, post-producers have been more than open about their role and activities, in contrast to organisations such as World Press Photo, whose guidelines have remained generic and open to interpretation. “In this field, we believe that the biggest problem is a lack of clear and strict standards to follow,” he says. “In terms of post-production, you can like Hansen’s photo or not, but it is completely within the World Press Photo contest’s guidelines. If we were to ask who is responsible for this matter, it would have to be World Press Photo’s evaluating committee for having ambiguous post-production standards.”
He adds: “Furthermore, having a digital post-production expert review the winning photos in their raw format would have solved many of the problems that have arisen to date. Contestants should be able to directly submit raw image files in the Spot News section, which is where most of the issues occur. Although many photographers use raw in the same way as they used to use film, in Pep Bonet’s case, for example, I’ve helped him understand histograms, and whether a certain camera recovers better in light or shade. Pep then exposes these raw files, obtaining the best possible final quality and making our work easier.
“On many occasions, the raw file does not resemble the image you have in front of you, meaning that the raw file could be useful for finding out whether an image has been altered, but not as a reference to the exact light and contrast at that moment.”
Despite the issues sparked by Hansen’s award-winning image, both 10b and Addretouch believe that retouching will thrive and eventually become accepted as standard practice within the photojournalism community. “Every day, there are more facilities to post-produce images, with better quality and less effort,” says Artigues. “This makes the technique accessible to everyone. Instead of closing doors, it gives us better control in fields that were once out of reach for photographers. In the end, we’re professionals rendering a service to other professionals, providing a personal style to the reports we receive.
“The market evolves, and we continue to improve every day, with every client or challenge we face. We look to go beyond just changing the contrast and saturation of images or reports, but add style that strengthens the message the photographer wishes to convey with his or her work.”
Zizola and Palmisano at 10b agree. “There’s a growing number of photographers who are learning to use Photoshop and other image- enhancing software in order to tone their own images. We hope to see other companies like ours emerge as it will be the sign of a growing acceptance of this kind of work.”