The Moral Codes of Photojournalism

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Moses smashing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments
Gustave Dore, 1865

During busy times when it’s a real effort to carve out the time to sit down and write, one of the things that keeps me going are the discussions and commentaries which often follow a new post. As ever it was very interesting reading the many responses to my recent piece on Steve McCurry in which I attempted to argue as I often have done before that manipulation in the post-processing of photography is much less the problem with photojournalism than is inadequate transparency about every stage of the practice. Also problematic I believe is the rigid adherence to largely outdated ideas about what photojournalism is able to do in the face of profound changes in the social and material organisation of the world, changes which are rendering some of the tenets that were once core axioms of the practice less and less viable. Above all I sought to argue as I have before that binary views of complex things are rarely useful, and that for photojournalism to remain relevant it needs to be more willing to look into the grey zone that lies between the modernist ideas of absolute objectivity from which it sprang, and the strand of post-modern thinking which can sometimes seem intended to negate all values as equally worthless and subjective. Since that post accusations that McCurry also staged many of his images have also emerged in a post by Khitij Nagar (Teju Cole also suggested this might be the case but did so without evidence to support it.) These accusation I think can still be framed in much the same way as the issue with McCurry’s manipulation. Staging is less a problem than how apparent it is that this is taking place. Portraits are always staged, and often appear in photojournalistic contexts, but few would take issue with their ability to provide interesting and useful journalistic insights and most would recognise that a form of contract of understanding exists between viewers and photographers that these images are constructed.

The responses to my original piece on McCurry were broadly positive, although of course quite a few of the positive responses were less about the points I was trying to make than perhaps about people with an axe to grind with McCurry jumping on an excuse which allowed them to do so. That particular ‘scandal’ continues, with sites like Petapixel doing their best to fuel it often without providing the analysis which I would say is needed far more than examples of supposed wrongdoing (but then, they do have GIFs). There were inevitably also quite a few negative responses to my arguments, but these were in their own way interesting, useful and sometimes revealing. Some were nuanced and well argued, but others were shot through with uncritical, oft repeated assumptions, and adherence to the type of black and white moral attitudes which I think is a big part of the problem I was discussing. While much debate and discussion rightly centres on the question of manipulations, I want to take a step back here and examine in a far broader sense what underlines much of what I was arguing before. That is what I see as the problem with photojournalists adhering to strict and pre-fabricated moral codes.

Ask its proponents, let alone practitioners, and it becomes clear that photojournalism is widely conceived of as a basically moral enterprise, which is to say a practice driven at some level by a moral agenda. Its origins and subsequent evolution I would say reflect this, lying partly in the social reform and campaigning photography of late nineteenth and early twentieth century activist photographers like Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Alice Seeley-Harris. As I discussed last week, what is often called the golden age of photojournalism occurred at the same time as massive ideological conflicts between democratic states, which considered themselves often to be highly moral and socialist and fascist ones, which either had a very different sense of morality or in some cases regarded it as something to be discarded altogether. Photojournalism perhaps naturally flourished in the former environment, where its role could be as something of a social and moral conscience, and where it was largely unrestricted by the type of authoritarian censorship which regards even compliant photography as a potentially unpredictable challenge. It is perhaps wholly unsurprising that the photo essay was pioneered in the highly permissive media climate of Weimar Germany, and Susie Linfield draws interesting contrasts between the Spanish Civil War photography of Robert Capa and the images of photographers working on the pro-Franco side which also illustrates some of these points.

Despite the growing cynicism towards many of the ideas on which it has been founded, photojournalism is still often seen as possessing a basically moral character, its purpose still believed to be to reveal the world, contribute to public discourse, and in doing so perhaps also contribute to the mitigation or resolution of some of humanity’s problems. To accompany that moral agenda, photojournalism has evolved sets of moral codes, which in some contexts have been more or less informal, at other times more very strictly codified. One such set of moral guidelines which frequently come up for discussion in my writing and in the industry more generally are photojournalistic views on manipulation. These rules or guidelines are many and vary from one organisation to another, but across the industry they more or less correlate with general agreement on most key points. It is a code which stipulates that certain behaviours are inherently unacceptable and that others are broadly acceptable, in other words a moral framework rooted in practical photographic concerns. Digital ‘cloning’ of the type that Steve McCurry was accused of engaging in is widely considered to be unacceptable under any circumstances, whereas post-factum conversion of a colour image to black and white is broadly considered to be an acceptable act, in spite of the dramatic effect this can potentially have on the reading of an image. While in most arenas I would never argue that ends justify means, photographic technique might be an exception.

Saying that, I don’t like binaries or black and white arguments, for the obvious reason that they rarely take account for the complexities of the world, rarely illuminate the things to which they refer, and can often indeed complicate what they intended to make simple. Rigid moral codes are problematic for similar reasons, and can often end up handicapping the very people they are intended to empower. The problem of so strictly adhering to pre-set moral frameworks is they essentially prevent those who adhere to them from making their own decisions about the circumstances they face, resorting instead to a set of rules defined by other people who have not necessarily been faced by the same circumstances and moral quandaries. Mandating strict adherence to preformed moral codes in effect produces a caste of moral juveniles, who can’t trust their own judgement but must look to the approval of a higher power, whether spiritual or professional. It is equally true that rigid moral codes intended to be moral and ethical, can under certain circumstances become the very opposite of this, and can harm the very people they are intended to protect. As Ben Chesterton pointed out in an exchange on Twitter, there are circumstances where you might well argue that for a journalist not to manipulate a photograph would be far more unethical than if they left the image unchanged, for example in a situation where an identity might be revealed and in doing so a subject or source might be exposed to harm.

When I talk to students about ethical standards in documentary photography, I try to make it very clear what these moral codes are from the perspective of industry organisations like World Press Photo, or commercial entities like Reuters, how they have come to exist, and what the consequences can be for flouting them. But what I try to also make clear is that relying on someone else’s code without scrutinising it is a bad idea, and that we all instead need to develop our own sense of what is ethically acceptable and not, our red lines across which we will not pass. These industry codes and frameworks can be a good starting point, but they can’t be an end point because for all the attempts to update them they remain cumbersome and rooted in notions about photography which appear stone aged compared to the way the technology and industry operates today. As many have rightly said before, what use is it characterising ethical post-processing practices in terms of traditional darkroom techniques, when ever more of today’s photojournalists have never even set foot in a darkroom? That these guidelines must be constantly updated goes without saying, but on top of that photographers must adapt them into their own moral codes. Doing this does not mean that a photojournalist will not come up against circumstances where those codes do not function, or where they advise behaviour which is clearly not right. The difference I would say is that where these codes are a photojournalists own they are perhaps in a better position to adjust them, evolving them to function better in responses to experiences in the world. This I would say is far more of an essential part of being a good journalist, and just a good person, than is adhering slavishly, if passionately, to someone else’s preset sense of what is right, and what is not.

Welcome to Panoptica

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table
at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Photographs are just abstract marks, distortions of tone and colour. But our ability to recognise things in these patterns is remarkable, as is the ability these recognitions have to mould and shape the ways we think about certain things, and act on them. I’ve never been fully convinced by the idea of image fatigue or the dearth of compassion which is sometimes said to result from such images. I remain unconvinced by the popular claim that exposure to photographs can’t change us, and in process perhaps also change the world in however slight a way. In the context of Europe’s recent refugee crisis it seems that regardless of how many thousands of images I see I still find these events distressing, exhaustingly so, but not yet to the extent of fatigue, and not yet to the point that these images instead of fueling my sense of anger instead extinguish it. Something always gets me, there always remains that capacity for some small detail to penetrate whatever emotional or intellectual armour I might have constructed, and manages to stop me dead. When that happens the moment and source is always unexpected as it was last week when I saw the photography above by Muhammed Muheisen from a wider series which can be seen here.

Muheisen’s photograph shows an asylum seeker named Reda Ehsan recumbent on a table in the middle of a cavernous space. His pose is one I’ve seen a thousand times before in western paintings, where it most often used with a nude female subject to transmits an air of exotic passivity and it seems apt that Ehsan is from Iran, source of many an orientalist fantasy. The tone here is quite a different one though, although related. Muheisen’s photograph has an air of exhausted lethargy, of inertia and uncertanity, the same feelings conveyed in many of the massive number of press photographs taken of the recent European refugee crisis. An air of profound exhaustion is evident for example in this year’s World Press Photo winning image by Warren Richardson even at the same time as being a dramatically dynamic image. The repetition of this set of emotional tropes in the context of the crisis and whether it is intended to speak to the physical exhaustion of refugees or the alleged psychic exhaustion of European audiences could be the subject of an article in its own right, but that is not my focus here (and I think it is important to note that other images in Muheisen’s series do not play to these tendencies). No, what hit me about this particular image though was less the subject and his pose and the messages those things are calculated to send but rather the distinctive space that Ehsan occupies. The tiered walkways and identical doorways behind him makes clear this is an institution, specifically a prison and by no means a modern one. The photograph it transpires is part of a series on asylum seekers housed in prisons which thanks to Holland’s falling crime rate are no longer needed for their original purpose. Twelve institutions in the country have reportedly been turned to this purpose, and according to the article which accompanies the photographs they are ‘so transformed that they are barely recognizable as former places of involuntary detention’.

But this is not just any prison. For anyone even moderately versed in the architecture of incarceration or theories of surveillance the gently curving walls behind Ehsan’s recumbent form speak deafeningly of an architectural technology which continues to loom large, two centuries after it’s rather stuttering entry into the world. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon or ‘Inspection House’ was a concieved as a radical new model of control, a building constructed with total surveillance in mind, and which employed the unique sensation of being surveiled to modify behaviour in ways which only violence and physical restraint had previously seemed able to. The Pantopticon didn’t see realisation in the English philosopher’s lifetime despite Bentham’s considerable efforts, and no true Panopticon was ever built in Britain, but in the two centuries since his death Bentham’s notion of an architectural technology which permits total observation of it’s occupants has come (usefully and not) to inform almost all conversations about surveillance and control. The prison pictured in Muheisen’s photographs is Koepel in Harlem, designed by the prison architect WC Metzelaar and constructed from 1899 to 1901, it was the final of three such Koepelgevangenis or ‘dome prisons’ built in Holland during the period and was clearly inspired by some of Bentham’s ideas. Today the prison is no longer a true Panopticon, if indeed it ever was by Bentham’s quite specific definition of the term. The inspection tower shown in early photographs standing in the centre of the space is gone, although the red inner circle of the sports court directly above Ehsan’s recumbent form mark the spot where it might well have stood, an unintended architectural fingerprint lingering in the present. In any case, and as many post-Panopticonism have argued, the moderating sight of the inspection tower is no longer needed by many of us in the societies and spaces for which it was originally conceived. It has been internalised and replaced as it has been by persistent and pervasive forms of social and electronic surveillance, forms of observation which far better meet Bentham’s original description of the Panopticon as way ‘of obtaining power of mind over mind’.

The act of housing asylum seekers in a disused Panopticon is undoubtedly a pragmatic one by the Dutch government, with different accommodations reportedly being made for anyone who might find it traumatic to have escaped one set of cells in their homeland only to find themselves housed in another set in Europe. But the unintended, unspoken message of employing such a building for such a purpose also seems inescapable, as much a gesture of European feeling towards refugees as the sight of Germans cheering their arrival. In so much recent discourse Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, and in some cases Muslim communities as a whole, are described in terms which characterise them as potential fifth columns of extremist ideology and violence. Even moderate commentators across the continent are buying into these troublesome notions of guilt by association, with the logic that however innocent most in these communities might be, hidden amongst their number might lurk infiltrators from ISIS or other groups, intent on carrying out attacks like those in Paris and Brussels (it is perhaps here worth reminding ourselves that both attacks were perpetrated in the most by EU citizens and long term residents of the continent, not newly arrived refugees). One of the many arguments in the British debate about whether to leave the EU stems from whether European rules on immigration make us vulnerable to such attacks, and in recent months the British government has also ramped up it’s ridiculous Prevent program, which asks teachers and others to report on students they suspect of harbouring radical sympathies in what which some academics have compared to the enforced collaborations between East German university lecturers and the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. Housing asylum seekers in a structure like this seems to me like a form of atmospheric acclimatisation or adjustment for these new arrivals, a setting of the tone for things to come. The message it seems so perfectly to send is that we think we know what you are, or what you might be. Know that you are suspected, that you are being watched, and should we allow you to stay here, and however well you integrate, so it will remain. Welcome to free Europe, welcome to Panoptica.

Steve McCurry and Photojournalism’s Burden of Truth

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Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl
On the cover of a National Geographic publication.

The intellectual milieu that gives rise to a technology or a practice leaves fingerprints on that thing which last for a long time, indeed which sometimes might even be impossible to completely remove from it. The technology of photography was born in a century fixated on empiricism and on the belief that witnessing was the path to knowledge. New technologies like the various permutations of the camera offered the means for better witnessing, untainted by the shortcomings of human physiology or bias, and led therefore to knowledge which was more objective, and closer to the ‘truth’. In its turn the practice of photojournalism developed and reached maturity in a century defined by enormous ideological battles, populist conflicts between socialisms, democracies and fascisms which sought to settle essential questions about the nature of man, and his future direction. While aspects of photojournalism were appropriated by all sides in these conflicts, photojournalism in its truest sense tended to come down on the side of democracy, humanism and a sort of universalized view of human experience. This was a view exemplified in certain cultural products, National Geographic magazine being one, Edward Steichen’s seminal 1955 exhibition Family of Man being another. ‘There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men’ wrote the poet Carl Sandburg in the commentary which accompanied the exhibition on it’s subsequent eight year global tour.

I refer back to these points in the history of photography and photojournalism because I think they are interesting and important for the way we continue to think about these things today. In photojournalism notions of objective truth and universal human experience remain very popular ones. They have perhaps been tempered by the growing number of voices who see these ideas as problematic, or at times even quite dangerous, but they continue to lurk, waiting to be released from their dormant state by the right circumstances and events, like fingerprints at a crime scene waiting to be illuminated by exposure to the right combination of chemicals and an investigators ultra-violet lamp. This I would say is what happened briefly when it was recently revealed that photographs by veteran photojournalist Steve McCurry had been photomanipulated to remove extraneous details. The discovery was initially made by Paolo Viglione, an Italian photographer who noted evidence of cloning in a McCurry prints at an exhibition in Italy. In the image in question the base of a street sign appears to have been accidentally cloned across the leg of a man passing in front of it. Subsequent analysis of other McCurry images available online revealed a number of other images had been subject to manipulation, including some much more clearly intentional removals of large parts of photographs, and one where parts might even have been added. Petapixel and other sites quickly picked up the story, and McCurry issued a statement blaming the mistake on an overzealous technician (blaming the retoucher seems to be becoming an ever more common strategy employed by those who instruct them).

Revelations of photomanipulation always draws the ire of photojournalists, despite the evident irony that this is only one of the many forms of manipulation which occur in photojournalism. The same people who rabidly condemn someone like McCurry are often the ones who fail to recognize the extent to which every other part of their own process is a form of manipulation. From early interactions with subjects through choices made in shooting and image selection, to the final editing tweaks made to maximize visual effect. Even the pre-eminent final form of photojournalism, the photo essay, is itself a form of manipulation, an entirely artificial narrative device design to produce certain effects which have little to do with the way events unfold in the real world or the ways we experience them as bystanders. The photo essay instead has everything to do with a particular conception of how stories are told, how time flows, and how these things can be twisted into a form convenient for the reproductional technology of the early twentieth century (which, lest we forget, is stone age compared to the possibilities of today). Every stage of the photojournalistic process then is a manipulation, each one capable of manipulating reality in a direction which facilitates the telling of stories in ways which are sometimes accurate and illuminating (even dare I say it, truthful?) but which can just as easily be regressive, misleading and unhelpful. What matters far less than the fact of whether manipulation takes place or not, is the extent to which the photographer is transparent about it, and the manipulation is made clear. The examples of photographers who have done just that are few, such are the severe strictures against breaking these sacred codes, but they do exist. From Frank Hurley’s exceptional composite images of First World War battles, to W. Eugene Smith’s numerous genre defining projects, the latter famously responded to questions about his use of unconventional techniques with the remark that ‘I didn’t write the rules, why should I follow them?’

The real problem with McCurry’s photography isn’t down to the use of the clone tool to create them, it’s a problem embedded even more profoundly in his way of making photographs, and goes right back to those latent fingerprints. McCurry is engaged in a type of photography born in the ideological battles of the Cold War and which seems to have barely evolved since. A universalized world view which often appears to be attempting to simplify the complex and sometimes uncomfortable differences between people and places rather than fully acknowledging those differences or the things that create them. It’s an approach to photography and to the world it depicts which is reductive and unreflective, not least on the process that gives rise to the images themselves. In the words of Teju Cole, it’s astonishingly boring photography, and in Paroma Mukherjee’s words just well marketed visual imperialism (I recommend reading both of these pieces for more on what’s wrong with this type of photography in general). I suspect the reason that people really object to the discovery that McCurry or someone close to him has been manipulating his photographs is mostly just that it calls into question the sacred notion of empirical photographic truth to which so many hold dear, and reveals once again that absolute rules rarely hold strong. In that sense at least perhaps we should actually thank McCurry for allowing himself his own ‘unguarded moment’ and in doing so revealing the artifice not only of his photographs but also the framework of beliefs that lie behind them.

From where I stand unquestioning faith in the idea of truth as something absolute and human experience as something universal and self-evident have become a terrible burden on photojournalism, and perhaps these rigid conventions partly explain why so many are deserting the practice and instead aligning themselves with disciplines like documentary and art. It is a burden of truth which rather than enabling important work often seems often to paralyze photojournalism’s most zealous adherents, leaving them unable to respond to many of the major problems which face the world today. As I wrote recently about the World Press Photo, journalists can no longer believe in the idea of objective photographic vision in an age when so many things that they need to reveal are constructed exactly to exploit or defy exactly such ways of thinking and seeing. Instead they need to embrace alternative forms of seeing and storytelling, ones where the potential for revelation lies in partly a readiness to embrace difference, subjectivity and in a rejection of simple ethical binaries and moral black and whites.

At the Gates of Photography

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A U.S. Army soldier hangs up a Liberty Bond poster on a sentry box
during the Occupation of the Rhineland, c. 1919 (NY Times archive)

It’s notoriously difficult to ever speak of a ‘photography industry’ because when we do so we are lumping together so many disparate professions and practices within that broad phrase. Even breaking it down to the many industries within an industry, when we speak of a practice like photojournalism we are still talking about a very distributed, diffused and international activity, in the very opposite of many other professions which even today remain top down in organisation and much more clearly regulated by specific bodies like unions and guilds. Instead photography has a much more nodal, networked structure, with a great number of different organisations all presiding over their own fiefdoms, sometimes intersecting like venn diagrams, butwith the interactions between them often disjointed and scattered.

A diffused industry has some clear benefits, this plurality is a large part of what makes photography an exciting and diverse field, but it also has some very significant disadvantages. In photojournalism for example talk of ‘industry standards’ with respect to issues like ethics or photo manipulation is hollow precisely because there is no single body which defines what these standards might be and which can speak with any authority for the entire industry. Part of the mounting frustration aimed at World Press Photo prior to it’s recent rule changes stemmed I suspect from the feeling that the organisation was starting to look like exactly that sort of industry arbiter, and photographers didn’t much like it (even as much as many of the same photographers dislike the wide ranging inconsistencies over manipulation and the disputes which can result). At the same time recent scandals over sexual harassment in photography highlight the fact that without any overarching body which moderates and speaks for photographers and photography professionals it is difficult to adequately judge or bring action against people suspected of breaking rules or laws, informal or otherwise. Once the online storm dies down they potentially remain free to practice and in such a large and disconnected industry I fear there will always remain corners where they can continue to exploit their profile and ply their trade to people who might be unaware of their past transgressions.

The latter example is important because I believe this diffusion of power throughout the photography industry contributes to an environment where people can more readily abuse their power and get away with it, whether in ways which are subtle or extreme. In contrast to a traditional hierarchical industry where those who hold power are very clearly defined and often subject to codified rules and systems whereby that power can be moderated, censured or removed, the highly networked and distributed nature of the photography industry leads to a diffuse and informal distribution of power without oversight. The result is a system dotted with a great many gatekeepers who are often unmoderated and self-appointed. The maddening thing is that many of these gatekeepers refuse or fail to recognise their own power or to acknowledge the influence they can bring to bear on their corner of the industry. I sometimes wonder if this is a product of wishful thinking as much as anything. By and large the photography world tends to be left leaning, and the natural inclination of those in it is often to associate with those they see as being at the bottom of the heap rather than those at the top. That may partly explain the lack of willingness by many of the industry’s gatekeepers to acknowledge the power they hold because to do so involves recognising that they are part of the same groups that they might have spent much of their career imagining themselves arrayed against. I can say from my own experience that this dissonance is a challenging one to process.

A related issue which I identified in a recent piece on anti-intellectual undercurrents in photography, is the reality that not all gatekeepers are the same. They come in all shapes and sizes, as do the gates they guard and the rewards which await on the other side for those granted passage. While writing, it occurred to me that while I am still very much a new arrival in this field, I have already come to stand guard over numerous gates, whether as a writer about photography deciding which work to discuss and promote (or savage) next, or as someone selecting prospective students for any one of the courses I teach on. Hence why as I have become more and more involved in photography the more important it has become for me to find my own mechanisms for being accountable, whether those be the small critical disclaimers I often include at the end of reviews on this blog to reveal any connections I might have with work I am writing about, or in declining or donating payment for participating in things like portfolio reviews which I have serious professional objections to. From what I’ve seen these minor mechanisms of mine are fairly novel in the industry and to my knowledge are rarely employed by peers at the same level as me or higher. I’d like to see them instead become the norm.

I’ve argued before that privilege and power are less of a problem than what you choose to do with these things, and I would say much the same is true here. Gatekeepers are a problem but they are also a reality of a diffuse ‘industry’ like photography, and I think that in practice few of us would prefer the alternative of an industry which is highly hierarchical and has more formalised power brokers. At the same time, I really believe it is important to find ways to moderate and scrutinise gatekeepers of whatever size, and to my mind the most effective way to do this is to call on them very directly to self-moderate and practice accountability and transparency in their actions. Many of course will decline, but that should tell you plenty about these people. The role of the press has been said to be to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and I think we could do with practicing some of that within our industry, calling these gatekeepers out when they engage in dubious practices or when they refuse to be transparent about their motivations for promoting or demoting work they encounter. This has long been the role of the informal photography press, primarily blogs and websites including this one, but photographers themselves need to actively participate in this process if the voices that call these figures to account are to have any real weight and are to really push for greater openess.

The Bailiff and the Bodycam

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Detail from Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away

A particularly memorable episode from the British comedy series Peep Show includes a scene where two characters discuss their conflicting visions of the ideal public house, rather in the manner of a schizophrenic version of George Orwell’s essay The Moon Under the Water. After some discussion and debate about the name one of the pair suggests The Swan and Paedo as a compromise between their competing priorities that the establishment’s title be both traditional and contemporary. That episode was made in 2005 at the height of the Blair government. Today, one year in to the second term of David Cameron’s premiership, the same conversation might propose The Bailiff and the Bodycam as a pub name which similarly encapsulates the history and traditions of Britain with a darkly contemporary slant. The bailiff is a medieval figure in British society experiencing a contemporary resurgence in a landscape of growing underemployment, personal debt and economic precarity, where even a search for the term results in a flurry of desperate websites advising you of your meager rights should they come calling in pursuit of an outstanding debt.

Recently I turned on the television to find myself confronted by a program called Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away! This is austerity entertainment at its worst, where repossessions and evictions are turned into amusement under the guise of a fly on the wall documentary following the professional activities of bailiffs and high court enforcement officers, some of them working for a company called Direct Collection Bailiffs Limited (who unabashedly feature the series on their website). The childish rhyme and exclamation mark in the program’s title reflects the barely concealed glee that one senses on the part of the program makers each time they find a particularly tragic or awkward story to exploit. Normally I would have immediately switched off, but a combination of having just returned from teaching at the School of Punktum, where the theme was austerity, and the strange nature of the program’s production kept me watching for longer than I otherwise might.

What I found particularly fascinating about Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away! was that almost all the footage used had been filmed using body cameras or ‘bodycams’, with the exception of short post-factum studio interviews with some of the bailiffs recounting the events which had just been shown. As austerity television goes this is a stroke of genius, a case of not only turning the camera on the grim landscape of twenty-first century Britain but relating event the method of the program’s production a part of that same landscape of reduction by eliminates the need for actual cameramen, directors and other expensive professionals. In this sort of television the medium very much equals the message. At the same time the nature of the filming still gives the grainy, shaky and generally compromised aesthetics that most of us think we can recognise as a shorthand for documentary veracity. The sense that these body cameras provide some sort of unmediated witnessing of these events, much like the camera of a citizen journalist, is also underlined by the fact that these cameras are primarily employed by bailiffs to gather evidence of repossession proceedings for later use in court. The television program is an unintended spin off.

And yet the nature of their use and even the very name of these cameras implies a form of witnessing which is deeply one sided, presenting one view of events filmed very much from the perspective of the wearer or bearer or the camera. That horrible neologism, bodycam, implies a closeness of the camera to the operator almost to the degree of inseparability and it is apt perhaps that word bailiff, traced beyond its origins in old French, appropriately roots itself in the latin word bajulus meaning ‘carrier’. Body cameras potentially have a vital part to play in offering citizens accountability and redress over the misapplication of power, but as the employment of body cameras in law enforcement has shown, the body camera often remains a hand-servant to arbitrary state or private power rather than a check and balance on it. As attempts to use body camera footage in court cases has sometimes shown, what is often as important as what is shown, is how it is shown, and from what perspective. As I argued here recently in discussing the perspective that many of the World Press Photo winners gave on the refugee crisis in Europe, the visual angles employed in reporting, whether conscious journalism or dumb technologies like bodycameras are not simply questions of aesthetics. They define in very real ways the political readings of the people and things which we are trying to represent.

Europe’s Vicarious Victimhood: World Press Photo 2015

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A Syrian man carries the body of a child, killed in an air strike by government forces in Douma, Syria
© Abd Doumany

It takes time to change old edifices, whether that change be a restoration to a former glory or a gradual crumbling to dust. World Press Photo currently seems to currently be undergoing something of a transformation, but it is yet unclear how far this change will go, and to what extent it will either rejuvenate or reduce the organisation’s relevance to photojournalism. Many of the old problems which have tended to rear their heads each year seem to being gradually dealt with, but others remain, including I would say the very obvious issue of the prize’s Eurocentrism. Coverage of the refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe featured prominently this year, a fact which is not surprising in itself since there is a tendency with all such prizes and competitions to reward work which feels timely, and which engages with a topic resting heavy on the minds of both audiences and jurors. This year however it has occurred on a scale I’m not sure I have seen previously in the (short) time I have been engaged with photojournalism. Beyond Warren Richardson’s winning photograph already discussed here in depth, other photographers focusing on the crisis rewarded with recognition included Sergey Ponomarev, General News, first prize stories, Paul Hansen, General News, second prize singles, Matic Zorman, People, first prize singles, Bulent Kilic, Spot News, third prize stories, Francesco Zizola, Contemporary Issues, second prize stories and Dario Mitidieri, People, third prize singles.

Yet what seemed noticeably absent among the winners were photographs of the conflict in Syria, which is often articulated (rightly or not) as the driving force behind these current waves of forced migration. As far as I could tell there were only two exceptions, Abd Doumany’s photograph of a man carrying a child’s body from the remains of a building after a government airstrike on the city of Douma, which won General News, second prize stories, and Mauricio Lima’s photograph of a badly wounded ISIS fighter being treated by a doctor at a Kurdish hospital in northern Syria, which won General News, first prize singles. (You well also might argue that Dario Mitidieri’s photograph, taken in a Lebanese refugee camp, is the real exception amongst all of these in being from the limbo between Europe and Syria). In a brief exchange we had on Facebook, photographer Robert Stothard pointed out that the emphasis on certain aspects of a crisis and not on others is problematic, and I am want to agree. He wrote that ‘in a year where the big stories have been taking place on the doorstep of those with editorial power isn’t it a tad sad that the winner is a photograph of an unidentified family (no name let alone nationality) shot by a white bloke. Photojournalists working on the issue of immigration to Europe have a great opportunity to work towards preventing the othering of their subjects.’

In photographing the refugee crisis there are many questions to be negotiated and considered, not least about what ‘side’ we photograph from, in both senses of that word. As I noted in my original analysis of Richardson’s winning image, there is a subtext of voyeurism which is hard to escape, partly created by the compromised aesthetics of the photograph which brings to mind the smartphone photographs of the bystander or eyewitness, but also to a significant degree by the framing of the photograph from the far side of the razor wire from its subject. Aesthetic decisions are always in fact political decisions, whether the photographer intends them to be or not, because they always have the potential to be read as such. A similar issues of aesthetics and in particular perspective might be levied at many of the other photographs on the refugee crisis featured in World Press Photo, and something which is notable in many is the way they often seem to take the position of a European insider or witness, watching the arrival or transit of these people, viewing them through barriers, and so on. In relatively few is there a sense of the photographer’s perspective being the same as that of the refugees, a distinction which might seem subtle but which I think is enormously important. In photography perspectival angles help to define journalistic angles, and again these choices are almost always readable as ideological ones, whether the photographer intends them to be or not. Mid-way through last year this blog was amongst several publications which unmasked a widely reported Instagram account, which apparently belonged to a Senegalese migrant named Abou Diouf, as a fake. Whatever the many problems represented by the that account, the way those photographs gave us very much the same perspective as ‘Diouf’ was nothing if not powerful.

I used the objectionable phrase ‘engulfing Europe’ in the introduction to this piece quite intentionally, because many of the descriptions and narratives focused on the people seeking safety in Europe characterises them in a way which very clearly serves to other, and to alienate us from them. To speak only of oceanic adjectives, refugees are often described as a tide, wave or flood of humanity which is relentless and sea like, with the efforts of European governments to stem the flow as vain as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the incoming tide. In the context of this sort of language it is very easy to unintentionally dehumanise, or equally problematically to misplace victim-hood, with even sympathetic Europeans sometimes starting to talk in terms which seem to suggest that we are the true victims of a disaster, and the disaster is actually constituted in the flood of refugees themselves (a use of language which I think ties in interesting ways into our current fears about climate change). The Syrian Civil War is of course the true cataclysm, and one which European states have had no small part in fostering, whether that be in the longue durée sense of our collusion with and support of middle eastern strong men like the al-Assad’s, or in the more recent sense of our dysfunctional entry and exit from Iraq. The fallout from these misadventures are so complex and confusing even to its primary actors that we have now reached the bizarre stage of witnessing the United States effectively fight a proxy war against itself in Syria, as groups backed variously by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon face off against each other across these most indistinct of front lines.

Perhaps Syria prompts us in Europe to think of our own failings and inertia, and perhaps that, alongside the increasingly dangerous situation there for journalists, explains part of why we prefer not to be reminded of it. The attacks committed by Islamic State in Paris last autumn seemed to me to represent a brief but enormously significant moment when the war in Syria spilled out very directly into the streets of Europe. Yet rather than resulting in a wider feeling amongst Europeans that ‘Je suis Suryien’ (which of course we are not) it far more evidently led instead to a new suspicion of refugees as potential ISIS fifth columnists, another reason to deny them entry alongside the old long standing fears of migrants as cultural saboteurs and economic parasites. These fears were renewed again in the wake of the attacks on women in Cologne on New Years Eve 2015, attributed to men of North Africa or Middle Eastern descent, an event which has been not doubt hastened the gradual souring of German attitudes towards refugees, whcih was hitherto remarkably open (and still remains so, certainly compared to many other countries). The same narrative is now also rearing its ugly head in the context of the debate over a British withdrawal from the European Union where refugees and migration in general are being presented as a direct physical threat to the state, as well as an existential one. Viewpoint then shapes standpoint, and aesthetics are politics. In the context of European fragmentation, closing borders, and souring attitudes towards refugees the responsibilities and burdens of representation weigh more heavily than ever on journalists and in particular visual journalists. This is not to say that it is a prerequisite for journalists to approve of immigration or demand the protection of refugees, while many do feel this way clearly some don’t share these views. But it is to say that for those for whom this does matter, the narratives of the refugee crisis need to be rethought, and the question of where we stand and what we stand for needs to be most carefully considered.

(Critical transparency: The title of this post is adapted with permission from that of a work by Josephine Sun.)

Journalism at the Limits of Visibility: World Press Photo 2015

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Exposure, Kazuma Obara

It has been observed that some photography critics seem to actually rather dislike the medium, but it might equally be said that many of those who work directly with photography are prone to operating almost totally without criticism of it. One group is perceived to search for weaknesses, where sometimes there are no weaknesses to be found, and the other often seems to prop an ailing medium up, and often refuses to recognise that it has some quite glaring shortcomings. There is a gulf which is often evident between what photography is, and what people want photography to be. It is a gulf evidenced in words and deeds, and a gulf which I myself endlessly fascinated by. Much of my own work has focused on the role of photographs in what might be called systems of power, that is to say the role of photography in generating, supporting, reflecting and hiding the unequal distribution of martial, political, and economic authority in our world. I appreciate that this is a description which is in some ways both overly precise and ridiculously broad, but after several years of trying to trace the thread that ties what I do together this seems to be one explanation which I find consistently remains when all the others have been brushed away. In making this sort of work I have found that photography’s weaknesses can sometimes be as interesting as its strengths, not least in the way that these might under certain circumstances be embraced and twisted into powerful tools.

At the same time though I am increasingly conscious of what sometimes feel like the insurmountable limitations of photography in helping to bring to light and discuss some of the things in the world which seem most vital and urgent. This became particularly apparent to me in working on a recent project which investigates the very different but deeply linked intelligence gathering practices of covert shortwave radio broadcasts and optical reconnaissance satellites. These two practices are inherently non-visual, partly by nature but also to a far greater degree by construction. To turn the camera towards them and find a way to make them visible was an interesting intellectual challenge, but I have also been acutely aware that it is also very tokenistic, and the act of revelation in itself means very little to either my audiences or to the subjects of my photography. This is a problem I have noted in the work of other photographers who focus on nebulous worlds that by intent or accident defy straightforward visualisation. I think for example of the work of Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s photographs of tax havens, or Trevor Paglen’s work on intelligence gathering. One might ask what purpose is served by a series like Paglen’s Limit Telephotography, which uses extremely long lenses to photograph restricted areas like Groom Lake, when high resolution imagery of these sites is readily available on Google Maps. This isn’t to underplay the importance of these works, or to overplay the impartiality of a platform like Google Maps, but rather to suggest that investigating these types of issues with photography is sometimes rather like trying to hammer a nail with a banana, it’s briefly dramatic, eye catching and bizarre, but that’s about it.

Bringing the camera to bear on such issues might expand awareness of their existence, but photography (and I use that term both in terms of the technology and a wider industry) is very bad at exploring or explaining the precise circumstances of this existence, or the circumstances that give rise to them. I wrote most of this post several weeks before the announcement of the 2015 World Press Photo awards, but given some of the issues represented by Warren Richardson’s winning photograph, the timing of this post might feel more intentional than it is. On Saturday I examined Richardson’s photograph in some depth , and in particular complained that the image represented one of the huge problems with traditional journalistic photography, and with photography more broadly. That same inability of the medium to do much more than show the consequences of things, its inability to get the heart of things, and in the process not only missing the point, but also helping to obscure it. To quote Bertolt Brecht writing in AIZ a good eighty years ago, perhaps ‘photography… has become a terrible weapon against the truth’ one which while frequently intending to do good in the world all too often obscures the guilty behind images of their victims. I don’t mean this in the literal sense that photographers should routinely target those responsible for the world’s problems rather than those suffering from them, but I do mean that the informational trail that photography creates should not end at the victims.

What all this increasingly begs me to ask is what part can photography play in a world where a growing number of the problems and processes that define it are either becoming accidentally abstract and anti-visual, or are being intentionally designed out of visibility for reasons that suit the people who make and control them. The arrival of an information age means the world is changing more dramatically than it has in at least two centuries, and yet visual journalism has innovated relatively little. Are we approaching a point where photography is going to really start seeming as inadequate for responding to the essential issues of our day as painting seemed inappropriate for attempting to represent the fast moving new technologies of the industrial revolution in anything but an utterly individual and expressionistic way? As photography reaches more and more of its terminal velocities, i.e. as it reaches the boundaries imposed by the technical and physical nature of it’s processes, will it more and more obviously struggle to still make a useful contribution? In a datafied world perhaps the medium will be relieved of the burden of objectivity and literal revelation by the ‘new photography’ of data, algorithm, and network visualisations and analysis, leaving the ‘old photography’ free to celebrate it’s potential for quirks and individualism. This is an approach perhaps encapsulated in Exposure, Kazuma Obara’s WPP prize winning series on Chernobyl an unconventional and welcome winner in a prize which has always tended to treat so-called ‘conceptual’ photography with concern and caution. Perhaps as early nineteenth century artists like J.M.W. Turner began the process of reinvigorating painting with the tentative first steps towards what would later be recognised as impressionism, a similar approach and a growing acceptance of ‘conceptual’ photography in the fields of journalism will reinvigorate photography as a tool for helping us to understand the world’s problems with the nuance that they so desperately need.

(Critical transparency: Kazuma Obara is a former student of mine.)

Crystallisation or Simplification: World Press Photo 2015

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A man passes a baby through the fence at the Hungarian-Serbian border
in Röszke, Hungary, 28 August 2015. © Warren Richardson, Australia

Warren Richardson has won the World Press Photo of the year for his photograph depicting refugees crossing a razor wire border fence as they travel deeper into Europe. This grainy, blurred image shows a man, his face drawn from apparent exhaustion, passing an equally limp child under a stretch of razor wire to hands outstretched from the gloom beyond. Describing the making of photograph Richardson writes that: ‘They sent women and children, then fathers and elderly men first. I must have been with this crew for about five hours and we played cat and mouse with the police the whole night. I was exhausted by the time I took the picture. It was around three o’clock in the morning and you can’t use a flash while the police are trying to find these people, because I would just give them away. So I had to use the moonlight alone.’

Immediately noticeable is the blurring and camera noise evident in the photograph, which to sideline as being simply the consequences of a technical restrictions created by the environment is to overlook it’s significance in shaping how this image might be read (particularly in the light of recent World Press rule changes). The technical ‘imperfection’ of this image brings with it the idea that it’s selection might be an intentional rupture with the past, a contrast to previous winners which have often stood accused of being over polished, even the extent of willful and dishonest manipulation. Richardson’s picture is shown warts and all, with the high ISO camera noise imprinted on to every part of the photograph like a digital fingerprint. Of course that’s not to preclude the potential for manipulation even in this sort of photograph, only to observe that the technical nature of this image brings with it the subtext that nothing here is hidden or contrived. To paraphrase and adapt Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, within the grain is imprinted the messagethat photographic beauty has been sacrificed in the name of veracity.

As soon as I saw Richardson’s winning image it strongly called to mind two other photographs. Most immediately it reminded me of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press winning photo of an exhausted soldier at a US army outpost in Afghanistan. Part of that similarity is again in the compromised aesthetics of both images (I used the word compromised loosely here since blur and grain have an aesthetic beauty of their own which isn’t often enough acknowledged). It’s also the pose and expressions of the two men in these two photographs. Both are caught in a moment of thought numbing exhaustion, and both also caught in the fine but irresistible strands that link us as individuals to the geopolitics which shape our world, processes beyond what an individual might hope to understand, let alone influence. The exhaustion they exhibit might just as easily be read an exhaustion with the implacability of the huge events that shape our lives, as much as simple physical exhaustion.

There is a weird sense of circularity between the two images for me, a powerful sense of the way news events are far more connected than is often acknowledged (a sentiment which also appears in the Broomberg and Chanarin essay referenced earlier). It speaks to me of how the misadventures of one war far away in Afghanistan might be connected to wider regional instability and the flight of thousands of people across European borders lined with razor wire. This interconnectedness is something which feels increasingly vital to bring to the fore in the way we discuss any important issue in the world today. However it is also one that traditional news reporting, and photojournalism in particularly, feels to me to be ever more ill equipped to probe and explain. Apart from those rare and brilliant projects (I think for example of Allan Sekula’s still unrivalled Fish Story) how often can photography be said to think so globally?

The second photograph that Richardson’s image made me think of is Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, the toddler drowned and washed ashore on a Turkish beach while fleeing with his family from the conflict in Syria. Part of the resonance is obviously in the shared focus on the humanitarian disaster breaking on the shores of Europe, and which European governments seem unwilling to respond to in a way which is either coherent or which reflects the supposedly shared values of the continent. The similarity also lies to an extent the pose again of the man in Richardson’s photograph as he carries the limp body of a child. But above all the resonance for me lies in a recognition that there is an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism in both images, something heightened in the case of the Kurdi photograph by the unspeakable awfulness of what is being seen, and in Richardson’s photograph I would say by the aesthetics of the photograph. His viewpoint on the other side of the wire, and particularly the grain and blur which might once have spoken much more to the idea of compromised visuals in the quest for truth, now speaks to me much more of the voyeuristic public production of photographs.

This might be a photograph from a bystander’s smartphone, a comment which is somewhat obvious and prosaic at a time when in fact that’s exactly what so many news photographs are. But in the process of us all becoming photographers or potential photojournalists I wonder if we’ve also bought into the photojournalist’s mistake of believing that witnessing is resolving, and that photographing these events is anything more than a form voyeurism if it isn’t followed up by a proactive use of those photographs to drive some sort of meaningful response. The possibility of publishing images and getting them seen is open to more people than ever before, but the act of publishing a photograph which offers to reveal the world’s misfortunes seems less able than ever to catalyse change. To be clear this isn’t intended as a judgment of Richardson, but a thought about professional and amateur image production more broadly, nor is it to accept the tired argument that photographs are incapable of changing the world, as the Alan Kurdi photograph shows, they still do.

Lastly, and at the risk of sounding cold after a discussion of child drownings and mass exodus, it does seem odd to me to be talking about awarding the photograph of the year in the age of image overload. Does the superabundance of photography that we face today make singling out specific images an ever more important activity or one which is increasingly anachronistic? Do these massive events like the refugee crisis tangibly benefit from this sort of reduction to single images, or does it make them feel understandable, and perhaps therefore manageable in a way which is unhelpfully reassuring, which defuses our responsibility as citizens to get angry that our governments are allowing people to drown in their thousands in our seas. With ever more urgency I think we need to consider careful when this sort of photography is crystallisation, and when it is just simplification.

(Critical transparency: In 2015 I participated in a focus group on revisions to the WPP rules.)

RAW Logic: On Reuters Change of Format

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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.

World Press Photo and the Integrity of the Photographer

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Newsreel and press photographers, Queen’s Park, 1911
William James/City of Toronto Archives

A few months back, along with about a dozen others from the photography industry, I took part in one of a series of focus groups on the World Press Photo’s (WPP) plans to revise the rules and guidelines for its annual competition. The impetus to review the competition’s rules came from some of the controversies that have emerged in recent competitions, which have ranged from debates about acceptable levels of toning and manipulation, to more complex and less easily demonstrable ethical issues of photographer transparency and accuracy. David Campbell’s report on the Integrity of the Image covers the former issue in depth. Of the photographs that made it through to the final round of WPP last year around twenty percent were eventually disqualified for unacceptable levels of manipulation. Many of these were relatively innocent, even inane alterations which fell afoul of the WPP’s increasingly stringent rules and technical checks, but that’s still a pretty staggering number.

WPP’s newly revised rules and guidelines are designed to make what is acceptable much clearer, and come with a series of visual examples designed to sidestep some of the ambiguities of explaining in words what is allowed in images. In terms of actual changes to the rules there aren’t any huge suprises and the type of imagery which WPP is about remains broadly the same, something which will be of annoyance to some. The real change seems to lie in the way the revised rules and the separate ethical guidelines reposition WPP as an organisation within the photography industry. It’s been my experience in that past that many photographers perceive the organisation (via it’s prize) as an industry arbiter, rewarding best practice as much as the best photography. Some respond by taking the prize’s rules as a sacred code (and in doing so often fail to consider that like any set of rules, these have been developed by a relatively small group of people to operate in the relatively narrow context of a prize). In the past I’ve sensed a degree of resentment from some photographers at the (incorrect) idea that one organisation has unilaterally appointed itself as the moral authority for the industry, rules which they feel a certain pressure to follow whether they agree with them or not.

Judging from the discussion that was had it was never really the aim of the WPP to occupy this position, and there seems to be recognition within the organisation of the problems that this perception has unintentionally caused. There seems to be an attempt underway to more clearly define the competition as just that, a competition, with rules and objectives which are unique to it and not directly intended to set a benchmark for the rest of the industry to follow. This shift gives the WPP leeway to be much clearer about its rules, giving the competition firmer ground to stand on, and hopefully meaning there will be fewer of these arguments and debates every year about the winners. At the same as firming up the list of entry rules and looking for ways to validate that they have been met by photographers, WPP’s wider and not exactly mandatory code of ethics promotes values like respect, accuracy and integrity, but without putting the onus on the organisation to do the impossible and objectively test photographers on these things (at the same time I hope that doesn’t mean the organisation will resist acting when participating photographers have clearly broken these guidelines). Before some of the ambiguities and ethical references in the competition rules seemed to do exactly this. This separation of essential rules and guiding principles seems like a sensible move and perhaps with WPP making an effort not to appear as the self-appointed arbiter of the industry, it seems more likely that people will independently and less grudgingly get behind a code of this sort, which consists of tenets which most would agree are simply good journalistic practice.

The impression I got was that also that this is not an attempt to write rules which will remain set in stone for decades. A related problem to the issue of ethics and acceptable extent of manipulation is that so many competitions and organisations still rely on rules which, while often well intended, are formulated in utterly archaic terms. It seems crazy to still be talking about photography in terms of darkroom practices two decades into the 21st century, when fewer and fewer of the visual journalists submitting to prizes have no experience of the techniques that are used to try and explain acceptable manipulation. Changes in photography technology and practice are drastic and ongoing and any set of rules will have to be prepared to adjust to reflect innovations we can’t yet anticipate, and the organisation behind them will have to be open to ongoing change rather than just periodically exchanging one set of stone tablets for another. An example that struck me is that the proposed rules include restrictions on any form of composited image, the principle of a ‘single image from a single exposure’ being one which remains a fundamental quality of the photographs WPP wants. That’s fine for now, but I imagine will become an increasingly difficult rule to hold on to in the future as the many forms of composite photography, from satellite imagery to panoramas like those created for Google Street View, are accepted as part of the journalistic toolkit. At the same time the revised rules launch alongside a new online channel which will feature work of this sort, even if they still can’t be entered for the competition. It’s not quite the change in attitude I’d really like to see, but it’s maybe a first step on the road to these sorts of techniques becoming acceptable enough to be featured in the main competition.

In short these revisions don’t radically change what World Press Photo is about, and anyone who expected them to do this was probably being rather naïve. They do however do much more clarify WPP’s position as simply a subjective prize amongst many in the photography industry, one with a particular notion of photojournalism which again is just one of many. Much more interestingly to me these revisions they set the groundwork and precedent for future changes which might allow the competition to more effectively represent the rapidly changing nature of journalistic photography. What might remain a problem is the far more difficult question not of how to judge the integrity of images, but the integrity of the photographers who produce them.