The RAW file format, no longer the litmus test of truth in the era of digital photojournalism?
Many of the organisations that seek to uphold our faith in photographic truthfulness have come to view the RAW file format as something of a gold standard in determining the veracity or integrity of an image. RAW files are frequently touted as the closest thing we have to a photographic negative in the digital age (even if that analogy is more than a little suspect). Despite this, the Reuters news agency raised a few eyebrows in mid-November by banning the submission of images derived them. Freelancers working for the agency will now only be able to submit files which were originally saved to their cameras as JPEGs, as opposed to being later derived from RAW files during post processing. It seems like a slightly ironic move, coming about a week before World Press Photo announced their revised guidelines on manipulation, perhaps even more so because the World Press focus group I attended to discuss these changes was actually held in the Reuter’s boardroom (a slightly surreal place I could probably write an entire post on, perhaps another time).
Justifying this rather dramatic change in policy Reuters have cited reasons of speed and ethics. While it’s easy to see justification for the former reason, since this move cuts out the need to post-process images before submission to the agency, the latter reason is perplexing since narrowing submissions to JPEGs only would seem more likely to increase ethical problems rather than diminishing them. As a recent piece on PDN argues, manipulations made to RAW files are harder to disguise than those made to JPEGs. On top of that in camera processing adds sharpening, saturation and other effects to images as they are shot, and these things can be manipulated with third party hacks like Magic Lantern, while by contrast RAW files show the image pre-proccessing and consequently are able to offer a much better sense of how the scene might have really appeared to the camera.
I find myself wondering if the real reason for the policy change might not be so much about defending and strengthening photographic ethics, but whether it might actually be a case of Reuters washing their hands of the responsibility to do so. Requesting only JPEGs seems judged to remove the onus on Reuters picture editors to judge whether the images they are receiving have been excessively manipulated. By only requiring JPEGs from freelancers, if any image should later become wrapped up in some form of controversy Reuters might now be in much a better position to plead ignorance and in doing so might be better able to avoid the embarrassment that often ensues, embarassment of the sort that occurred with the 2006 Reutersgate Scandal, when Adnan Hajj’s manipulated imagery brought the agency (and wider industry) some rather unwanted attention.
With an apparently ever growing number of sagas over image manipulation embroiling organisations like World Press Photo I rather wonder if Reuters has simply made the decision not expend resources searching for ways to uncover ethical breaches, effectively entering into an arms race with dishonest journalists looking to outwit existing methods for detection, but have decided instead to try insulate themselves from future scandals with a form of deniability. As the PDN piece linked to above continues ‘When asked how Reuters would ensure the integrity of JPEG images, the spokesperson declined further comment.’ To me this rather suggests that Reuters no longer really considers it part their role to validate the truthfulness of images, in other words to be an ethical go-between between photographer and client. If true this would pose interesting questions about the changing role of news agencies, and hints that perhaps that the need to turn a profit, maintain reputations and avoid controversy might again be having a damaging effect on parts of the industry.
It seems apt to be writing this post a few days after an exhibition of mine has opened which makes extensive use of manipulations, specifically in camera double exposures, to document a current story. As has often been discussed on this blog the real issue is not with manipulation as such, but with journalistic transparency about its use, and with unrealistic expectations about what photographs are, and what they are able, or not able to do. These unrealistic expectations, and this lack of transparency, have as often been perpetuated by an industry which would gain much by coming to terms with both. This move by Reuters seems to me like a step in the wrong direction. Last week at a talk at the Photographer’s Gallery on networked images, discussion turned to the Blockchain technology which makes crypto-currencies like Bitcoin possible by making public and accessible information on all transactions and interactions. Imagine a world of journalistic open-ness where something similar occurred with images, where for every professional photograph there existed an accessible database of all the processes and uses that had taken place or involved it since the moment of its production. This is almost unimaginable, and that says much less about what is technologically possible, and much more about what is culturally palatable to an industry which is meant to deal in information and openness but is itself often highly opaque.