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Image Manipulation in Photo Competitions: How Serious is the Problem?

Title Image: Valencia Old City, 2018. Left: Original Image; Right: Image after Post-Processing

By Dr. Thorsten S. Beck

13. September 2019


Note: Due to copyright restrictions the images in this article do not come from photo competitions, but show digitally enhanced images provided by the author. All of the post-processing shown here is in accordance with what photo competition guidelines suggest.

The credibility of images today is in crisis. Where images claim to document an event unadulterated, reliability plays a major role, as in journalistic or documentary practice, for example. But doubts about the reliability of images are growing. For years there have been cases of blatant photo manipulation at major photo competitions.

Prominent Cases Attract Public Attention

The winner of the World Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award 2016, Marcio Cabral, was disqualified because he was accused of staging the photo. To this day, the photographer claims his innocence. The winner of the African Photographer of the Year Award 2019, Bj├Ârn Persson, was also disqualified because he had "corrected" the ear of an elephant, the winner of the Nikon Small Award 2016, Chay Yu Wei, had to endure mockery on the Internet in addition to the disqualification. Also memorable is the debate about Paul Hansen's "Gaza Burial" of 2013, which brought the photographer the first prize in the World Press Photo Award as well as a debate about the integrity of the image that continues to this day. These are just a few examples, but the question arises as to how serious the problem of inappropriate image manipulation in journalistic photo contests actually is, how seriously it is taken by the organizers and what is being done to prevent such cases in the future?

Fig. 2. Soccer Field by Night, Spain, 2018. Left: Original Image; Right: Image after Post-Processing

Image Manipulations Shake World Press Photo Award

Since the public debate on Paul Hansen's "Gaza burial" in 2013, there has been a growing awareness that a certain number of images in the competition could be manipulated. In 2015 the World Press Photo Award (WPPA) published a press release and indicated that more than 20% of the entries in the last preliminary round were inappropriately manipulated and therefore had to be disqualified. In the Sports category no third price could be awarded due to the high number of disqualifications. There was basically no image left to win the third prize. The competition office then took steps to combat such forms of falsification. In addition, WPPA in 2018 provided a detailed documentation on how competition entries are analyzed and how inappropriate images are discovered in the competition. Transparency thus is regarded a means of combating the widespread loss of confidence.

Fig. 3. Musician, Spain, 2018. Left: Original Image; Right: Image after Post-Processing

Combating Inappropriate Manipulations

With the WPPA the rule (Entry Rule 11) applies that “the content of a picture can not be altered by adding, rearranging, reversing, distorting or removing people and/or objects from within the frame.” (Technical Report, p. 12). However, the cropping of images is permitted within certain limits and disturbing artifacts (such as dust) may also subsequently be removed from the image. All submissions will be reviewed by professional image analysts to determine any irregularities. In case of anomalies, photographers are obliged to submit the RAW file of the image so that the original and edited versions can be compared. For 2018, World Press Photo documents that 304 requests for the RAW files were made and that consequently 3 participants withdrew their submission. Apart from that, a thorough investigation led to further consequences: "From the 301 entries that were requested 159 were checked because they then remained in the later rounds, and of those 20 entries were excluded because they violated entry rule 11.“ (Technical Report, p. 13). In addition, it was determined for the 2018 competition that all forms of cloning should be disqualified. Another rule (Entry Rule 12) states that changes in contrast and color must not cause regions in the image to become obscured, or colors in the image to differ from the original colors. However, the competition committee is obviously aware that the boundary here is not easy to draw, especially since all images are basically processed to a certain degree: "All images are processed, but the line is drawn at those instances where there is darkening or lightening of area of an image so that material content is obscured and in effect removed.“ (Technical Report, p. 13). Four further entries were disqualified in 2018 due to a violation of these rules. 

Rules in Other Photo Awards

Other photo competitions have also formulated rules to protect against the inappropriate manipulation of images. The Pictures of the Year Competition of the Missouri School of Journalism, for example, gives the instruction: "Color images should replicate what the human eye experiences.  Flagrant pre- or post-production effects that use excessive tonal aberrations, textures, vignettes, or other artistic manipulations will be disqualified. Examples of prohibited techniques include the exaggerated use of color saturation, contrast or burning and dodging methods.“ At first glance this manual seems sufficiently clear, but at second sight it raises a number of questions. The spectrum of what the human eye can perceive is certainly not easy to generalize and it could be asked what exactly is meant by "excessive tonal aberrations", or "exaggerated color saturation"? People may most likely hold different views on what the terms „excessive“, and „exaggerated“ imply. However, where rules leave room for interpretation, no binding regulating effect can be expected. The Kuala Lumpur International Photo Award is similarly vague in its guidelines for image manipulation. It prescribes: "Commercial and advertising images, heavy digitally manipulated or post-processed, HDR (High Dynamic Range) or digitally montaged images are not permissible. eg. heavy vignetting, extreme darkening of skies, toning, filter effects. In-camera multiple exposures are allowed." Again, the question here is how the participants interpret terms like “minimal" or "heavy". In addition, however, it is demanded that "In all categories, minimal digital enhancement is advised, subject to basic darkroom techniques e.g. levels, curves, dodging, burning, minimal sharpening, colour correction. Photographs can be Black and White or Colour, in any format. Photographs must not have any borders, keyline or film edges, name, personal logos or watermarks. Scanned film images must be free of dust marks and borders." Here, too, there is plenty of room for interpretation and speculation. It is precisely this vagueness of the guidelines that opens the door to cross-border manipulation.

The National Geographic Travel Photo Contest formulates it more clearly: "Elements of the picture cannot be altered in any manner, including the following prohibited changes: adding, removing, rearranging, inversing, or distorting or removing subjects and/or objects from the image. Additionally, the following alterations, but not limited to, are not allowed: removal of dirt, bubbles, debris. Cloning or altering pixels, in any manner, is not permitted. Composite imagery is not acceptable." However, participants cannot not learn on the competition page how the examination of the pictures is carried out in detail. Instead, the unedited RAW/JPG files must be submitted for the images selected for the prize. Apart from the mentioned set of instructions and the policy of submitting an unaltered source file, it would be interesting to find out if and how many pictures were disqualified in the past due to inappropriate manipulations. But numbers are rarely available and transparency about internal workflows and statistics are rarely made visible for the wider public.

Fig. 4. German Unification Day, 2018. Left: Original Image; Right: Image after Post-Processing

Room for Interpretation

The rules for the Travel Photographer of the Year Award are also kind of vague. Here it reads: "You may use digital manipulation to optimise an image, and you may crop an image, but you are not permitted to add or remove key elements of the composition. Brightness, contrast, colour balance can all be adjusted. Dust spots and smaller elements etc. can be retouched. Images can be sharpened before printing. Manipulations which could realistically be achieved in a darkroom will be accepted, but the judges have the discretion to reject any image which has been, in their opinion, over- manipulated, removing the integrity of the original image." The problem with these rules is that they basically motivate the author to optimize the image. A clear definition of where the line between reasonable and inappropriate manipulation runs looks different.

The British Wildlife Photography Award sets out in its rules, which manipulations are allowed and which are inappropriate. Contestants may remove disruptive artifacts, adjust contrasts and tonal values, change shadows, colors and saturation, but „physical changes to the scene e.g. adding or removing objects, trees, animals, plants, people, items of civilization or stripping in sky from another image etc.", as well as "digital collages, sandwich shots and composites" are prohibited.

Fig. 5. Platform in Pottenstein, Germany, 2019. Left: Original Image; Right: Image after Post-Processing

In order to verify the authenticity of what the photograph shows, the organizers of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award require participants to supply a range of 'before' and 'after' original files for any image that requires further authentication. A number of digital manipulations are simultaneously considered permissible as long as they do not violate the fundamental principle that "they do not deceive the viewer or misrepresent the reality of nature". The actual problem that the scope of permissible manipulation is left to the judgement of the individual photographer cannot be solved in such manner. Digital manipulation is thus at least partially transformed into an ethical question, and a clear definition of the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate manipulation is left to the discretion of the rules. The uncertainty as to whether the authenticity of the images can be ensured at all by rules already resonates in the formulations: "The following digital adjustments – but not limited to these – are not allowed: adding, moving or removing objects, animals or parts of animals, plants, people etc; the removal of dirt, highlights, backscatter, bubbles, debris and similar; composites, painting the foreground / painting out the background.“ The addition "but not limited to these" makes a dilemma visible. The rules may set a framework, but may not be complete under all circumstances. 

Against this background and with the aim of strengthening the credibility of photography as a whole, it would make sense for the organizers of photo competitions not only to be concerned about legitimizing the authenticity of the submitted images, but also to take further steps towards transparency. This would include publicly documenting the proportion of inappropriate manipulations disqualified by the competition (see World Press Photo Award) and detailing the decisions made by a jury in individual cases. Developing a new, critical approach to the medium of photography also means - as David Campell has said - being even more aware of its artificial character than before and avoiding dimensions such as 'truth,' 'objectivity' and 'reality'. It is basically not bad that mistrust of digital images is growing - as long as it strengthens vigilance and a critical view of visual information. The open question, however, is how far mistrust can grow before a critical perspective turns into an expression of resignation. A world in which images seem more and more dramatic and astonishing, but in which the trustworthiness of the images becomes more and more uncertain, runs the risk of becoming cynical.

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