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May 14, 2013

Hansen’s World Press Winning Photo Not Fake… Just Unbelievable

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Based on detailed scientific analysis, it has finally been established that a photo doesn’t have to be fake to be incredible on its face. This wave of drama over Paul Hansen’s World Press winning photo would never have happened if the photo wasn’t processed to the extent to make almost anyone question — the second time in the past couple months — whether it might not be real.

The unfortunate thing is, forced into a position to defend the integrity of the photo award, World Press has effectively confused the ethical and aesthetic parameters by which to determine the integrity of a news photo. In the name of defending the technical accuracy of a photo — stunning as much for its dramatic post-processing as its dramatic content — the World Press has now given its “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” to a photo that a wide swath of the photo world was ready to believe, not just once, but several times now, could well have been altered. (For reference, the two copies above, from André Gunthert’s Flickr page, shows Paul Hansen’s photo as originally published by his Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, on November 11, 2012 as compared to the further post-processed World Press winning version.)

Writing in defense of his winning image against the accusation of splicing different photos together, Mr. Hansen wrote:

“In the post-process toning and balancing of the uneven light in the alleyway, I developed the raw file with different density to use the natural light instead of dodging and burning. In effect to recreate what the eye sees and get a larger dynamic range.”

What the eye sees in real life? the photo literally widening eyes at the same time raising a good many eyebrows? Or, is he talking about developing different densities to effect what the eye more familiarly sees, perhaps, on the movie or video screen? Instructive, also, are the words Guardian’s head of photography chose to describe the toning of Hansen’s photo. Roger Tooth cites “extreme post-production techniques” and talks about “super reality,” or “cinematic super-reality,” or a “another form of reality” that defies the eyes and brain.

Based on the uncertainty of this “brave new post-processing world” alone, the award organizations could have actually demonstrated the leadership to lay out some thoughtful words, and maybe even a few guideposts, for an industry crying out for it — especially as balanced on the bodies of grieving parents and dead Palestinian children. Given how quickly World Press responded over the past 36 hours or so to actually employ visual scientists in defense of their integrity, would it be too much to ask for a reasoned technical and editorially-informed analysis and position on photo processing based simply on the standards of Occam’s razor?

(photo: Paul Hansen/Dagens Nyheter/EPA caption: Mourners carry the bodies of a brother and sister, two year old Suhaib Hijazi and three year old Muhammad, who were killed when their house was destroyed by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City on 20 November 2012.)

  • BamaGuy1024

    As a professional photographer/videographer here is my stance on this issue: in digital photography the RAW image file that the digital sensor produces is not reality, and by that I mean the image sensor does not (without manipulation) show what the human eye sees. The adjustment of levels of highlight and black level = the dynamic range of the image, as well as the adjustments to the white balance and saturation of the image, all of these manipulations are really necessary to display the image as a human eye would have seen it without the camera. To me this is not cheating, and it is not altering the image to falsify. Using digital tools to delete or add content, now that is crossing the line. What you show in this example is not.

  • rkleeman

    I’d have to agree with @BamaGuy1024:disqus

    Just for fun I downloaded the image above and split it into two photos. Despite the fact that its not the raw file, it took me 20 seconds to duplicate the final in lightroom.

    I would call it digital developing not manipulation

    • BamaGuy1024

      Precisely! The RAW sensor image is like a negative in film photography. It is like getting an old FotoMat or One Hour Photo to develop the film and make a machine print which would be the first image. A photographer who knows this in the digital photography world takes that and uses the appropriate digital tools to make modifications equivalent to what was done in chemical film processing such as choosing the printing paper for its characteristics and correctly timing the exposure and dodging and burning

  • Dave McLane

    Agreed, only more so. Going back to black & white wet plates, the combination of various exposures, varied developers, varied paper have always been with us … but for people who only view but not create “The Camera doesn’t lie” has been the visual trope.

  • marie

    At first, I could not decide which one was the processed one, because sometimes photographers go toward the desaturated look to give a different mood. I might have given the top image a tad more contrast to bring out details, but either way, the composition packs an emotional punch.

  • Scarabus

    I’ve written before that I’m with those who say there’s no such thing as an “unprocessed” image. To put it in those terms frames the issue falsely. No image can reproduce the exact gamut of what the human eye can take in and human brain process (and all eyes and brains are different).

    Suppose I set my camera to bracket exposures automatically, and then I combine the exposures to create a single HDR image. Same subject, same light, same instant; but two or three different exposures combined into a single image. Has that photo been faked? (I use that example because when I saw the “after” image above, my immediate reaction was HDR. Compare the dynamic range in the before and after versions.)

  • PLHammond

    Ok, I’ve been shooting digital for 16 years, so has everyone else. When RAW became available the first thing you noticed is how bad RAW pics look out of the camera, and how much processing your camera had been doing to make nice looking JPEGS. Everyone knows this. How this is any kind of controversy is beyond me. A photo isn’t done until its out of the darkroom or these days Photoshop. Its always been that way. Do i really need to invoke A. Adams? If you aren’t changing the editorial content, there is no integrity issue. How can this even be a thing anymore?

    • aSouthernMan

      What is meant by the term ‘invoking A.Adams’ ? I knew of photos

      by Ansel Adams , but didn’t see the connection to editing.

  • Ivan Procházka

    In my opinion, quite too much retouching on the photograph for Spot News category.

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  • Dave McLane

    I take you haven’t read AA’s books where not only does various things on the way to an enlarged print, but burns and dodges as well. Another version is get “everything in the camera” with no post processing but the use of a zillion dollars worth of lighting that can be seen on Joe McNally’s Blog and Strobist’s. Nothing can duplicate what a human being sees as the iris in our eyes opens and closes as we scan across an original scene and the area we focus on has more vibrant colors than the rest.

  • HHankin

    “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” – Ansel Adams

  • Dave McLane

    Yes, yes. After all AA was originally going to be a concert pianist … after I learned that, I began to think that his “pure white, pure black, and one step above neutral gray” was a chord, C-G-C, which also happens to be the opening of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

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