No Fake News

“I feel sad that our profession has been tainted by award hunters who use lies to get recognition, but in reality are jeopardizing the essence of photojournalism.” Patrick Baz, AFP Middle East chief photographer and member of the 2015 World Press Photo jury.

Altering images has been with us ever since photography was invented. In fact in1840 Hippolyte Bayard, who had a rightful claim as one of the inventors of photography, produced the first staged image. Bayard, having been ignored by the French Academy of Sciences in favour of Louis Daguerre, set-up a photograph in which he pretended to have committed suicide by drowning.

While manipulation is not new to photography, the emergence in the 1980s of digital technology has made this much easier to achieve. But when you start adding and subtracting colours, shape, form, backgrounds and content, you no longer have a documentary/photojournalism photograph. What you have instead is an illustration. Again, when you re-enact situations or re-build a set piece it is not documentary photography or photojournalism, it is construction or, for want of a better label, art photography.

Unfortunately, such practices as these, along with the corresponding intent to deceive, have damaged the reputation of documentary/photojournalism. For photojournalists the image taken should be the best one possible; no alteration should be necessary.

Every year World Press Photo, the most prestigious international competition for photojournalists, rejects entrants for manipulating their images. In 2015 20% of the final-round entries were disqualified including Giovanni Troilo, winner of the Contemporary Issues – Story category. There was a slight improvement last year, (2016) with less than 16% of final entries being disqualified.

World Press Photo asked photographers to submit files as recorded by the camera. Independent experts said a number of the submitted images had been cleaned up and manipulated by removing objects, and by the use of excessive toning to hide backgrounds, which compromised the integrity of the image. Another disturbing fact relating to this event was that some of the biggest names in photography were amongst those involved in the alteration of their images.

Well known National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry has also been involved in an ongoing controversy about the alleged altering of his images. McCurry who has been a professional photographer for over thirty years, has created a number of iconic images. His image of the Afghan girl is recognized and celebrated world-wide.

At an exhibition by McCurry in Italy, the Italian photographer Paolo Viglione noticed some anomalies in an exhibited photograph of Cuba. The picture shows a pole that seems to be growing out of a man’s leg and there are bricks on the column of a wall that are strangely out of alignment. Viglione posted on his blog what he had seen at the exhibition, but he later took the post down after negative comments about the images and Steve McCurry surged across social media.

The altered Cuban picture was removed from McCurry’s website but in no time at all publications and individuals were finding more of his images that had been interfered with and manipulated. Before they were removed from McCurry’s personal website, there were two versions of an image of children playing soccer. In one copy of the photograph a child who was running in the background had been Photoshopped out of the picture. In another example, two copies of a South Asian rickshaw picture by McCurry were shown on Facebook. One copy had extensive cloning work done to it, including the removal of three people, rubbish, two tables and two lampposts as well as the recolouring and reshaping of a person’s clothes.

Some photographers including Magnum colleague Peter van Agtmael, defended McCurry but a lot of people reacted angrily through online articles and blogs questioning the veracity of McCurry’s work, asking how much of it was real and how much was fake news.

McCurry has described himself as a photojournalist and has been lauded as one who upholds journalistic traditions. He has won numerous awards for his journalistic work including World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International and the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for the Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad He once won a (National Press Photographers Association USA) NPPA’s Magazine Photographer of the Year award, an organization that has very strict guidelines for photojournalists. His answer to the critics after being accused of image manipulation was that much of his work today is, in his words, “visual storytelling”. Or, in other words, art photography. However, it’s important to note that the work he is showing to the world was produced under the guise of photojournalism.

In an article on the NPPA website, Ethics Committee chairman, Sean D. Elliot says that no matter what McCurry calls himself today, “He bears the responsibility to uphold the ethical standards of his peers and the public, who see him as a photojournalist.” Elliot says, “This means that, any alteration of the journalistic truth of his images, any manipulation of the facts, regardless of how relevant he or others might feel they are to the deeper ‘truth,’ constitutes an ethical lapse.”

Some years ago I was assigned by National Geographic Magazine to work alongside Steve McCurry in the Philippines. During that time, I was unaware of him altering, changing or manipulating his images. In fact, during our Philippines assignment I found him to be a straightforward, dedicated and hardworking photojournalist. We shared ideas, contacts and information. Following our joint venture, I left to continue with my work and he went on to complete his assignment in the Philippines.

Perhaps McCurry might be more favorably regarded if he drew a line under his past work and differentiated his photojournalism from his current creations which are illustrations. Unfortunately, though I don’t think this is possible because his entire reputation, career and income has been linked to the notion of him being an excellent photojournalist.

Regardless of the personalities involved the issue of authenticity in photography remains contentious. Lars Boering, managing director of World Press Photo recently spoke to the British Journal of Photography about manipulation, “It’s not about World Press Photo, it’s industry-wide and we need to debate it”. “It is something we feel very strongly about – there can be no fake news.”