Photojournalists Push Boundaries With Apps And Computers

- - Contests, Photojournalism

Fantastic debate going on in the world of photojournalism right now as two of the top contests have awarded images that stretch the definition of photojournalism. Wait, there’s a definition of photojournalism!? No, and that’s the reason for the debate. If contest organizers, newspapers and magazines would simply define what’s acceptable and what’s not, there would be no debate. It’s pointless for an all encompassing definition to exist because purists want facsimile’s and populists want aesthetics. What’s important is that contests and publications communicate to their followers the rules they’ve laid out and the purpose for them. If factual information is imperative to your mission then you must fact-check your photography (magazines) or hire photographers who follow your carefully defined rules (newspapers) just like you do with your writing. Asking photographers to police themselves is silly and lame.

The first debate erupted when Damon Winter was awarded 3rd place at POYi for a series of images taken for the NY Times with his iphone and processed in the phone with the Hipstamatic app. The very vague rules for POYi and the NY Times are as follows:

Assistant Managing Editor for Photography Michele McNally (here):

We do allow basic contrast/tonal adjustments as well as some sharpening and noise reduction.

POYi Rules (here):

No masks, borders, backgrounds or other artistic effects are allowed.

WOW. You people are really laying it out for everyone. Good job. Now that cameras are basically mini computers you sound like you’re stuck in 1984.

The second debate bubbled up when Michael Wolf was awarded honorable mention in the Contemporary Issues category at the World Press Photo contest (here) for a series of images taken of his computer screen while looking at google street view. In this case there seems to be not much debate about rules but rather a collective huh from photographers wondering if this really qualifies as picture taking.

FYI these are the equally lame World Press Rules (here):

11. The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide.

12. Only single-frame images will be accepted. Composite and multiple exposure images will not be accepted. Images with added borders, backgrounds or other effects will not be accepted. Images must not show the name of a photographer, agency, or publication.

So, while the debate about it is great for photography, personally I have no problem with the tools photojournalists choose to tell their story. I do have a problem with contests and publications that claim to uphold the ideals of photojournalism but leave photographers flapping in the wind when it comes to defining what that means.

I highly recommend reading though the different threads on the debate.

More on the Damon Winter controversy:

Chip Litherland – there’s an app for photojournalism

Birds To Find Fish – Drawing the Line

dvafoto – Some thoughts on iPhone pictures and POYi

Gizmodo – Hipstamatic and the Death of Photojournalism

NY Times Lens Blog – Damon Winter Discusses the Use of an App

More on the Michael Wolf controversy:

greg.org – Michael Wolf Wins World Press Photo Honorable Mention For Google Street View Photos

BJP- Is Google Street View photojournalism?

dvafoto – Some thoughts on Google Street View and World Press Photo

Overall Discussion:

Conscientious – It is that time of the year again

Self-Guided Tour – On Technology and Photography: Damon Winter in POY, Michael Wolf in World Press

There Are 21 Comments On This Article.

  1. And…What about a frame grab from a video clip – choosing the “decisive moment” from “time in motion”?
    In my mind – it is as legit as clicking the shutter – it is still a recognition of the moment.

  2. I left earlier comments on the original Poynter post and won’t waste time but do invite you to read an interesting paper by Jim Hubbard.

    “Everyone is a Photographer”. Link to the PDF is below
    http://oneheartonemind.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/the-camera-a-tool-for-truth/

    Also if your not familiar with Winter’s work check it out.
    http://www.damonwinter.com/

    He used the tools available today.

    From experience having a photographer/reporter team working in Iraq early during the war, journalist don’t work in a vacuum. I spoke to the team 2-3 times each day by SAT phone and communication is much better now.
    I can only guess that any choice he made in coverage was signed off on by a New York Times photo editor.

  3. This again. I was around in the early 90′s with the NPPA. The topic of the
    day was establishing digital standards and what was acceptable. If you where
    to click on the link to Michele McNally and read the entire section, edited by
    Rob, you’d get what was decided twenty years ago, by consensus, of all leading
    Photo Directors with NPPA. I’m not getting into the old “Pyramids” discussion
    or any of it, don’t have the time.

    The problem or argument rather is that as time goes on the boundaries continue
    to be stretched, pushed, changed. If it’s Journalism then the rules are really
    pretty simple. The image you shot and the rendition of light must be controlled
    at the time the shutter was clicked in such a manner as to wholly represent
    what you saw. “The purist” point of view. The feature point of view is also
    mentioned by Ms. McNally in that the image can be altered but must be noted
    as such so the viewer knows what they see isn’t reality. The rest is art.

    Art is what I call the shot of a screen of screen grab. The reason is the viewer
    is attracted to likes the image they see created by the artist that was copied by
    screen grab. I’m going to break a personal rule and mention my own site at
    this point. In the people section I have a photo of two homeless men on the
    screen of my laptop in a dirty alley with a rat (live) next to the laptop. I shot
    the homeless men on the screen, it’s my laptop, I set it in the location where
    rats where running around and I then shot the whole scene. The only retouch
    was to bring the detail of the original screen image back by pasting the
    original into the screen again after the entire scene was shot. That is
    editorial story telling not art. When someone shoots a photo of graffiti
    done by someone else or a painting, photo etc. and the primary subject/vision
    is of someone else’s work you’ve created art, credit the original creator of the
    art by name or at least their work. IF someone screen grabbed my photo
    and called it their own because well, they created the grab, shame on them
    and talk to my lawyer.

    The rules need to be clear and as Rob pointed out the rules,
    “Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the
    industry is allowed” couldn’t be more vague. Whose standards?

    I’ve got work to do so enjoy the blog and comment away.

  4. Cameras are computers now and, even if you have a basic DSLR or shoot manual in RAW or even scan slides, ultimately the post processing on a computer makes the camera an extension of the computer and the software.

    Don’t get me wrong, I hate over processed or noticeably over processed images. But the reality is that, the war is over. The digital image processing process won and it has many tricks in its bag.

    Keeping all of that in mind, it is ESSENTIAL that all photographers record any excess changes (beyond the usual contrast, tone, sharpening, noise, spot removal) they make to a photo they enter in a competition and; that competitions display what digital alterations happened to any winning images.

    In other words, photographers need to keep track of heavy manipulation (obvious or not) and mention it when they show work.

    • @J, Good points.
      It might be best in the future to change the name of the contest to the “POYi-exif”.

      All image data would be reviewed by judges for the level of manipulation prior to entry.
      Since the level of quality digital manipulation can not be detected with the eye all we have to believe in is the integrity of the photographer.

      • @Gary Miller, “we have to believe in is the integrity of the photographer” is the bit I forgot to add and what I was really getting at. Thanks.

  5. I agree, using whatever tools you have to tell a story of a still moment you’ve capture is ok. What you do with it and how you use it makes the photojournalist that much more diversitive.

  6. interesting screen shots…
    if Wolf had initially set the Google Street View cameras for the actual scenes, then fine, but after all, they are called Google Street View/s and the group of images that received Honorable Mention are actually second-hand products. The Google Street View images are a unique view, maybe some recognition for finding them, a World Press Photo contest ranking seems rather odd for now.

  7. like any photojournalist ever had to justify the camera/lens/film/developer/enlarger/paper he used. plus all the myriads of settings to choose from. are some people really that desperate to get attention that they have to focus on such “problems”?? or have they been living in dreamworld for the last hundred-whatever-years since the invention of photography?

  8. I’m really suprised about the rage over the hipstamatic photographs. They only really adjust the color to make the camera phone images much less sterile, to emulate film. There would have been no issue if he’d shot this with a hassy, in fact people would be patting him on the back. I think it’s silly to think that using color to help recreate a moment and tell a story is seen as a bad thing, and the images that I saw don’t really go any further than what you could do easily in Lightroom in about 10 seconds to a RAW file. The demise of photo-j isn’t people using new tools an innovating, but the desperation in everyone’s voice involved in the genre. All that’s going on is a bunch of people scaring other photographers for innovating and finding new ways to tell stories. In these times a fresh point of view is needed more than fear-mongering about digital devices and their ability to help photographers do their job.

    • @caleb condit, WRONG. Not at all like a Hassy. Hipstamtic makes the sky YELLOW or GREEN for christsakes. How is that even accurate? That is is photography NOT photojournalism which exists to record the accurate truth about how something looks.

  9. @ J and Gary Miller I concur. I don’t like over cooked images. It seems like that is what you see more of these days in contests no matter the organization or genre.

    @Grubernd thats the point, back in the days when we used analog means to create or capture an image it was for the most part pure. The manipulation in the dark room was to improve an imperfect exposure, to reveal what was seen instead of being over or under so the story is by passed for another object contained within the frame.

    The rules seem arbitrary at best because the is no unity in the processes. It seems that the consideration should be what could you do in the beginning (early days) and use it today without adulteration. It’s not a bad standard. And so what if the photo was sterile looking when taken by an iPhone it would have been the same with a film camera.

    • @Ed,

      “it was for the most part pure”

      No,never,pure. Always the opinion/observation of the taker and skewed by every decision before and after the image is made.

      I understand what you are saying though, and agree with your intent, I just don’t believe that it is possible to be pure unless it was taken by an automaton.

      I don’t own an iPhone but I do like the look of these images although if someone wanted me to make an image that looked “hipstamatic” I would not.

      Why is there a contest for reportage anyways?

      • @Victor John Penner,

        Everyone loves awards; it gives you a sense of self-worth when you’re searching for some. Years ago it could lead to a job now it leads to folks looking for reasons why you should not have one.

        I think I can speak for Ed in that when we came up these were the elements that we were taught to use when developing the “look” of a photograph. They still hold true.

        1. Rule of thirds
        2. Linear perspective
        3. Framing
        4. Silhouette
        5. The decisive moment
        6. Selective focus
        7. Dominant foreground/contributing background
        8. Controlled depth of field
        9. Introducing disorder into a controlled situation
        10. Texture
        11. Juxtaposition
        12. Reflection
        13. Panning
        14. Perspective/context
        15. Lighting as a creative device

      • @Victor John Penner, Gary spoke well, the purity of an image was in the components of it’s creation. Yes we all have emotions and life experiences that influence our supposed objectivity.

        Even when I have shot images of wild fires and such I find I am influenced by my background. Yet When I develop the image in Lightroom or PS, the work performed is for exposure, clarity and color if it is to remain that way. No special effects. I think that is as pure as it can get these days.

        It sound like we do agree though, the more enjoyable images are those created with purity in mind.

    • @Ed, you dont like overcooked images. fine. thats a personal choice of TASTE, not an absolut measurable entity.
      to stick with my reference to the analog world.. what if Nik Ut had shot the famous napalm girl on slide film, developed it in C41 chemistry and printed it on the most colourful paper there is? “cross processing” it is called. would it still be a journalistic image? by your definition not. which tells me that you are wrong. simple as that.

      • @grubernd, I have to chuckle at your response. I don’t think cross processing is over cooking an image. I don’t think altering the developing process is wrong either. What I think is wrong in the digital world is the use of processes that alter an image to the point non-reality. Even though this post is directly about photojournalism and the contest, my point is most contests the entries way too manipulated.

        Ive watched Ansel Adams create a print, there are some that would say his techniques alter the original image too much. I don’t think so.

        So you are wrong about my opinion.

  10. So, for some folks camera app filters are not ok, but deleting the color from a digital capture and making it look like a traditional gutsy TriX print is? That’s good for a laugh I guess, but then so is inbred contest system in general.

  11. Ted, a digital image capture never had colour to begin with. You may want to read up on how digital cameras actually work. In essence, the capture begins as monochrome (I’m not talking about the scene, but at the sensor level).