Enhanced Reality: Exploring the Boundaries of Photo Editing
Even top news photographers have their work digitally enhanced these days. Mounting competition in the market for news images is forcing photo-journalists to make their output as dramatic as possible. But where are the limits of cosmetic improvement?
The photo looks like a still from a movie. A funeral procession is passing through a narrow street in Gaza. There are gray walls on both sides, and between them, looking almost choreographed, are the mourners, a crowd of angry men stretching into the distance. They are carrying the bodies of two children, Suhaib and Mohammed, and, further back, the body of their father, Fuad Hijazi. They were killed when an Israeli bomb struck their apartment building.
The image conveys a beauty that seems almost inappropriate. The way the despairing faces of the men and the innocent faces of the dead children reflect the light -- it seems almost too perfect to be true.
So is it?
A week ago Paul Hansen, who took the photo for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, received the World Press Photo Award 2013 for the image. At the awards ceremony in Amsterdam, he talked about how the photo came about. He was fighting back tears as he described what it was like to visit the surviving family members once again, months after the funeral.
But one thing Hansen didn't want to talk about is how much the power of this image is the result of skillful editing. He had intended to bring along the RAW file, which is essentially the photo's digital original, for comparison purposes -- but he claims that he forgot to bring it. Hansen does not want to participate in the discussion, which he feels is unseemly, but that doesn't stop the discussion from taking place.
Pro-Israeli bloggers and journalists, in particular, had accused him of manipulation and embellishment. Other photographers have also been critical of the photo's selection for the World Press Award. Some fear that the boundaries are becoming blurred between journalistic photography, on the one hand, and artistic and commercial image design, on the other. Industry publications like Freelens Magazin have also voiced criticism of the trend.
Starting this Thursday, Hansen's photo and many other World Press Photo Award winners will be on display at the Gruner+Jahr publishing house headquarters in Hamburg. The exhibition will give the general public the chance to decide whether modern photography is indeed aestheticizing horror.
Hansen himself says that the magical light in that Gaza alley, which so effectively frames the mourners in his photo, was simply there, and that it was the kind of light that a photographer only captures once every few years -- and not something that was created after the fact on a computer.
A Digital Darkroom Revolution
Nowadays programs like Photoshop make it easier than ever to edit photos once they have been taken. In addition to making it possible to clearly manipulate a photo, they provide the tools to almost effortlessly remove, add or modify content. The computer perfects and expands the possibilities of what was once done in the darkroom to enhance the effectiveness of a photo during development and printing.
The procedure is called "post-processing," and Claudio Palmisano is a master at it. He works with two colleagues in a garage-sized space on a quiet street in Rome. His company is called 10b Photography, named after the street address of the studio. The old Kodak slogan, "You press the button. We do the rest" is on the door, but one word has been added: "better." It isn't just an advertising pitch, but can also be interpreted as a suggestion that what photos show has always been more than "reality." "It used to be a chemical process, and now it's a mathematical one," says Palmisano. Today people can use their computers to adjust contrast and saturation, elements that were once determined by the film and its development.
Photographers upload 50 to 100 images a day onto 10b's server. Palmisano begins by making automatic corrections to the photos on his computer, a process in which he hardly pays any attention to the image itself.
Then the detailed work begins. He darkens areas along the upper edge of one image to draw the viewer's eye toward the lower part. In a photo depicting a soldier in the foreground, he carefully and manually enhances the gun. In another photo, he makes the shocking and luminous red of a bleeding wound seem less glaring. The supposed original, he says, would simply not have corresponded to our expectations of what blood looks like.
Moving Pixels Oversteps the Mark
What distinguishes Palmisano is not just the virtuosity with which he uses the software, but also perhaps the fact that he is aware of how sensitive his work is.
Francesco Zizola, a photographer who co-founded 10b with Palmisano six years ago, says: "The difference between photojournalism and photography is ethics. We are good at trying out possibilities without overstepping limits."
For 10b, there is a clear definition of what constitutes impermissible manipulation of a journalistic photo. It includes, for example, moving around pixels within a photo. But the choice of development techniques, as well as modifying contrast, saturation and density, are all allowed in principle.
"There are no 'correct' colors," says Palmisano. "It's all relative." In 2008, his partner Zizola won a World Press Photo prize with a photo of a Colombian refugee camp with a double rainbow overhead. The colors were so intensified through editing that the scene looks almost surreal. This is allowed, says Palmisano. What isn't permitted, he adds, is to change the relationship among the colors and to turn, for example, the green house in the photo into a red one.
News agencies, in particular, place significantly narrower limits on what is permissible, but they too do not completely prohibit post-processing. The Associated Press (AP), for example, essentially allows only the kinds of enhancements that were once commonplace in the darkroom, and that "restore the authentic nature of the photograph," as the agency states a little enigmatically.
"Changing the sky excessively can be problematic," says AP Vice President Santiago Lyon, who chaired the World Press jury this year. On the other hand, "there is no absolute rule in terms of enhancement," Lyon notes. "The jury is made up of industry leaders and their decisions can be right even if they don't exactly conform to AP's standards," he adds.
Photos Retain Mystique of Being Original Documents
"You can compare the possibilities of using modern photo enhancement with the use of adjectives in a written article," says Lyon. "Some reporters exaggerate in their descriptions of events." Photos, on the other hand, still have the mystique of being objective documents, which can depict reality in genuine form and without any subjective interpretation. Paradoxically, this is only heightened through digitization.
Suddenly the unlimited possibilities for changing an image are offset by the faith in the existence of an unadulterated original. A digital photo can be stored as a raw file, one that makes do without all the interpretations, changes and compromises that are necessary when a camera stored an image in a standard small file format. The World Press Photo Award reserves the right to check this raw file if the jury suspects that a submitted photo was excessively post-processed. But it did not avail itself of this option in the case of the award-winning Gaza photo, or in that of another winner, American photographer Micah Albert, with his photo of a garbage collector in Kenya.
"The discussion on enhancement in photojournalism is overdue," says Albert. "As a communicator, I want to know the boundaries."
But a raw file could also be manipulated. Besides, is the image it depicts reality? Or does it have to be interpreted first, like an undeveloped roll of film? The answer is clear for the image processers at 10b. "It isn't a question of whether this information is post-processed," says Palmisano, "but merely of how and why."
- Part 1: Exploring the Boundaries of Photo Editing
- Part 2: 'There Is Much More Competition Today'
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