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.