World Press Photo of the Year Was Manipulated — Does it Matter Anymore?

The World Press Photo is an Inter­na­tional non profit orga­ni­za­tion that runs a pres­ti­gious con­test that has been around since 1955. Every year they choose a win­ning pho­to­jour­nal­is­tic image from among thou­sands of entries from dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories and name a sin­gle image as World Press Photo of the Year.  Many of the past win­ning images are iconic photographs.

This year, the win­ning image called Gaza Bur­ial by Paul Hansen has under­gone a lot of con­tro­versy. Some are say­ing that the 2013 World Press photo of the year image is fake, that it is a com­pos­ite image and should be dis­qual­i­fied. Oth­ers are say­ing that the image is not a com­pos­ite image but is very manip­u­lated. Another ver­sion of the same image has been dis­cov­ered on Flickr which is only adding to this controversy.

World Press Photo denies that the image is a com­pos­ite but agrees that it was retouched with respect to both global and local color and tone.

Wel­come to the new pho­to­graphic world where real­ity is sub­jec­tively mas­saged by the pho­tog­ra­pher, even in pho­to­jour­nal­ism. If you think that this should not be the case, in the­ory I’ll tell you that I agree with you.

I’ll also tell you that cling­ing to these purist notions gets you nowhere and that the vast major­ity of qual­ity pho­tographs that I see today, in any and all pho­tog­ra­phy gen­res have been manip­u­lated in some way.

Even clas­sic pho­to­jour­nal­is­tic images have been manip­u­lated in the past. Tokomo Uemura in her Bath from the Min­i­mata series by Eugene Smith was bleached for exam­ple to make the whites whiter. But that was a black and white pho­to­graph. The aver­age per­son does not know how skin tones should ren­der in black and white so these images were more sub­tle in their manip­u­la­tion. Way eas­ier to spot unnat­ural look­ing colours in colour photojournalism.

Pho­tog­ra­phers them­selves are on the fence about what level of manip­u­la­tion they feel is accept­able in Pho­to­jour­nal­ism. Even for World Press Photo the line is grey. Accord­ing to one of the con­test rules which I could NOT find on their site (but is repeated on many other web­sites),  “con­tent of the image must not be altered. Only retouch­ing which con­forms to the cur­rently accepted stan­dards in the indus­try is allowed”.

And THAT my fel­low photo lovers is the prob­lem. “Accepted Indus­try stan­dards?” Are they for real?  There AREN’T any stan­dards any­more. They vary from news agency to news agency. Remem­ber manip­u­lated O.J. Simp­son pho­tos…That was nearly 20 years ago and it’s obvi­ously still going on daily.

In this case, the answer is very very very sim­ple. Clearly write out the stan­dards you expect for your par­tic­u­lar contest!!!!

Here are the two images in ques­tion. It’s likely obvi­ous to any­one that has been shoot­ing for a while that both of these images were mas­saged in pho­to­shop. I do not think the image is a com­pos­ite. But the colours of the faces in par­tic­u­lar do not look nat­ural. The light­ing does not look nat­ural. It has been mas­saged to draw atten­tion from one ele­ment in the image to another ele­ment. Doing this actively guides the viewer’s eye.

I do this type of active guid­ing all the time (lev­el­ling the image, selec­tive dodg­ing and burn­ing etc. ) in 99% of the images I make. I used to do it in the dark­room. It was part of my pho­tog­ra­phy edu­ca­tion — it was con­sid­ered an essen­tial part of cre­ative pho­tog­ra­phy. But I am not a photojournalist.

So what do you think? Was this photo (s) “too” manipulated?

Gaza City Burial by Paul Hansen - Nov 2012 from

Gaza City Bur­ial by Paul Hansen — Nov 2012 from


Gaza City Burial by Paul Hansen - Feb. 2013 from

Gaza City Bur­ial by Paul Hansen — Feb. 2013 from



  1. Jason says:

    Marko, you nailed it when you men­tioned clear rules being nec­es­sary for any photo contest.

    I think this holds true for pho­to­jour­nal­ism as well. I’ve got a few pho­to­jour­nal­ist friends here in Con­necti­cut and at least one of them said the paper he worked for did not even allow the pho­tog­ra­pher to crop the orig­i­nal photo. This may be extreme, I really don’t know. Regard­less, I think that there is a very slip­pery slope when it comes to pho­to­jour­nal­ism. Before the pho­tog­ra­pher even trips the shut­ter he has made a deci­sion about what to keep in the frame, what to leave out. These deci­sions may be aes­thetic, they may be polit­i­cal. Regard­less, they have to made to make a photo. When you get into dig­i­tal pro­cess­ing and manip­u­la­tion you are mak­ing those deci­sions again. I think of the Beirut pho­tog­ra­pher that did a (hor­ri­ble!) pho­to­shop job on some images that Reuters pub­lished. (…hs_controversy ) who knows why he did it, but pho­to­shop­ping more smoke into a “news” image isn’t cool. At what point does that news image become edi­to­r­ial or even propaganda?

    As far as the World Press Photo goes, I think it is fine as a piece of art, but that wasn’t the inten­tion. As a piece of pho­to­jour­nal­ism, I have a prob­lem with it. The changes that he made make it very cinematic–I think of Annie Liebovitz’s pho­tos of the Soprano’s cast. A mov­ing, dis­turb­ing photo, but not pho­to­jour­nal­ism. I really saw noth­ing wrong with the orig­i­nal, but the orig­i­nal prob­a­bly would not have been an award winner.

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