Darkrooms are Irrelevant and The Truth Matters


On April 8, 2011, Senator Jon Kyl was quoted on the Senate floor as saying, “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”

This is not a post about abortion or Planned Parenthood. This is a discussion about veracity and why it matters in photojournalism. In fact, about 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortion-related. When Sen. Kyl was confronted with the facts, his office responded with “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement.”

The next two photos are the World Press Photo of the Year 2012. The top image is the submitted image that won, and the lower image is how it was first published.


I previously wrote that the top image looks like an illustration to me, and I called for transparency in the photojournalism awards process by suggesting that RAWs be submitted so that we had a baseline from which to judge the degree of transformation.

The typical argument for allowing such manipulation is that this is no different than what was done in the darkroom. But to me this is an irrelevant argument. We don’t use darkrooms, nor film anymore. The techniques we developed in the darkroom were specific to that medium, and the output devices of the time. The “hand of god” dodging technique was developed alongside low resolution, black and white newspaper presses.

We now view images on Retina displays. We use Wacom tablets and Photoshop, which allows us to manipulate images in a more sophisticated fashion while doing it faster than ever. Filters and push button applications have given rise to “recipes” that allow us to cook images into the hyperreal.

(Stop with the Ansel Adams comments. We’re talking about photojournalism.)

Ansel Adams was not a photojournalist

Ansel Adams was not a photojournalist

I think Paul Hansen’s winning image is fantastic. I personally like the “original” better than the award winning image. But the more salient question is whether or not the original would have won. If the answer is “yes,” then why did the photographer feel the need to manipulate it for the awards? If the answer is “no,” then the judges need to examine what they are actually responding to in the image. The fact is that he felt that retoning the image was necessary and/or justified for the specific purpose of entering the contest. The image is on PEDs, and we forgot to set up drug testing.

But why does it matter? He didn’t move elements around in the photo, nor burn elements out of existence.

It matters because we are essentially saying as a society that reality isn’t real enough to garner our attention. That the photo wasn’t intended as a factual statement.

Duckrabbit asks, "Where does the ‘real’ picture lie? Does it?"

Duckrabbit asks, “Where does the ‘real’ picture lie? Does it?”

This isn’t a mere case of photography evolving from black and white to color, and me responding as a Luddite. I know what the world looks like when I step out the door, and it doesn’t look like some of the news images I’m seeing nowadays. And I am arguing that this is having an insidious effect on how we perceive reality. We can argue to we’re blue in the face about whether the manipulation has crossed some arbitrary line of taste and/or ethics, but by looking at both images, we cannot argue that it has been manipulated. We need to ask ourselves why.

When my friend’s teenage daughter tells me she needs botox and she’s fat, she’s responding to a world filled with photos of women not intended as factual statements. When Jon Kyl makes up numbers to advance his position and that non-fact becomes a rallying cry, we are accepting that facts shouldn’t get in the way of governance.

When an award-winning photojournalism photo has been toned to look like a movie poster, you are signaling to next year’s entrants that the bar has moved. Find the best retoucher you can, and heighten the drama as much as possible. We don’t care about factual statements. We care about visceral reaction and entertainment value. Make us feel something! Truth be damned.


News has an ethical obligation to be truthful. Not truthy. Not in the spirit of the truth. Don’t give me the old tired line about photography just being an interpretation of reality and “what about flash photography?” This photo is manipulated to the point of being an illustration, and I’m asking us to find the fortitude to pull it back.

Create the guidelines that can inform a next generation of news photography that isn’t swayed by HDR and Photoshop – where the content, exposure and composition speak more about the efficacy of the photographer as a newsperson, rather than his/her ability to tone an image until we feel an emotion.

If photojournalists, their organizations, and their industry care about veracity, what is there to argue about when calling for the RAW when the truth is in question?

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen authors PhotoShelter’s free business guides for photographers and marketing professionals, including topics like email marketing, search engine optimization, and starting a photography business. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.

  • simon

    But the picture would depend on the camera. There’s no such thing as an original out opf the camera shot anymore

  • Jon

    You’re wrong, the author’s point is as stated, that the image when first published should be submitted as published, certainly being the winning image of the year.

    The fact that artistic license was used AFTER first publication, changes the nature of the image from ‘photojournalism’ to ‘art.’

  • Noel

    great story. I agree, I prefer the original myself.

  • Christopher Moraff

    As a photographer I can sympathize with both sides of this argument. There is no doubt that journalism has become more about “visceral reaction and entertainment value” than ever before – mostly because there is so much more competition for eyeballs — and these days everyone with an instagram account thinks they are a photojournalist (and unfortunately for those of us who really are, they have the tools to make pics that look spectacular with the click of a button). However, as a writer I urge caution against implying that “emotionalizing” news with the devices at our disposal always devalues it. Print journalists regularly use literary devices — narrative, anecdote, etc. – and/or emotionally engaging headlines to make their stories “pop”. We decide what quotes to pull out as pull-quotes in a magazine piece. And as this writer himself has demonstrated, we use catchy ledes (that in this case has nothing to do with the story that follows) to draw readers in. Does starting a story about immigration policy with an emotionally charged anecdote about a man crossing the border at night with his five year old son somehow undermine the seriousness of the topic? I think not. It adds drama, yes, but drama has always been a part of news. I think the issue here — and the writer’s concern, given the fact that he gives dodging a pass — is not necessarily that reporters and photographers add a dramatic patina to their work, but how easy it has become to do so, and how much more consumers demand that in our work these days.

  • Marc Lucas

    Purists are going crazy here and it seems to me it raises questions about their intent. (The ladies just DO protest too much!) Would three people who watched this scene have seen it the same? Some people are near-sighted, others wear glasses that brighten a subject, and what about camera lenses… do they not already alter “reality”?

    In the end, the photographer has a story to tell, just like a journalist. And just like a journalist there is a constant search for the truth. Whose truth? I do not think anyone in the funeral procession is complaining that the picture was not bright and sunny enough! The picture in the newspaper did its job, now the competition photo must inspire the public to take up the hobby, the career, and buy a lot of equipment from the real-as-can-be sponsors once the exhibition travels around the globe! Isn’t that what the competition is about? The @#$% holier-than-thou arguments I read here are much more sensation seeking than the picture… so much for the truth! The ultra-righteousness of some, made me delete their websites and blogs from my bookmarks! True colours…

  • flightofbooks

    ” I know what the world looks like when I step out the door, and it doesn’t look like some of the news images I’m seeing nowadays.”

    And this is the cue to stop taking what you have to say seriously.

    By this logic, black and white should be hence forth prohibited from news photography since surely you never stepped outside and saw the world in monochrome. It really is troubling to see someone who presumably has some expertise stamping their foot about “the truth” as if that’s something so incontrovertible as to be obvious to everyone. As if we all experience the same thing in the same way, at the same time.

    Neither of those images looks particularly “natural” to me, although the first published version looks less so to my eyes, since the skin tones seem skewed quite orange. Neither copy reflects what I see when I walk outside my front door, but then I don’t step outside into a war zone either.

    This entire diatribe is absurd, your faith in some sort of objective’ truth that we all have the same access to is deeply flawed, and your opening paragraph should be offensive to people on both sides of the abortion issue.

    No wonder photojournalism is in trouble when this is the caliber of discourse it generates.

  • flightofbooks

    The white balance on the original image seems wayyyyy off to me, but maybe my monitor is out of tune.

  • flightofbooks

    but the first version was just as ‘arty’ but in a slightly different way, so what’s your/his point?

  • flightofbooks

    It would be nice if people who want to talk about this could illustrate that they know what an “HDR effect” looks like. The image in question here does not look HDR in the least.

  • flightofbooks

    How would less subtle processing reassure you of the scene’s ‘authenticity’? How exactly is straight out of camera or minimal processing a guarantee of anything other than what the photographer did or did not do once they uploaded their card.

    Do you keep up with advertising photography? There is a whole stable of photographers who’s specialty is making staged scenes look as natural and unedited as possible.

    Relying on processing or the lack there of to reassure you of the reality of a image’s content is about the most bizarre and arbitrary criteria you could use.

  • flightofbooks

    agreed. I was actually a little surprised after I saw the images to read the article and see which image he felt was inappropriately ‘touched up’.

    Which really underscores the whole problem with the argument the author is making (and he’s not the first PJ professional to throw this ridiculous tantrum): there’s simply no way for anyone who wasn’t there when the image was captured to reliably judge what looks more ‘real’. Digital photography technology simply isn’t reliable enough: two different cameras in the hands of two different shooters could produce completely different-looking SOOC images in terms of color, exposure, etc. Film isn’t much better, but I guess guys like him have an easier time with it since the way in which a given film stock affects a scene is far more predictable than digital processing/post-processing in which a lot of decisions are made arbitrarily on an image-by-image basis.

    The only point I agree with the author on is that RAW files should be submitted for any type of contest, but if he thinks RAW format is a guarantee of “truth” he really does not understand the technology in a fundamental way.

  • flightofbooks

    “neutral” journalism? lol ok.

    “A news report should simply report the facts”

    And what if the “facts” aren’t “neutral”?

    I don’t think you really have the first clue what these things mean.

  • Tiktian C

    How is using “different film, photo paper, printing process, final display environment, etc” and changing the white balance (you can’t shoot with whitebalance balanced to nothing) “disgusting and immoral”?

  • Tiktian C

    this is an old post but,

    why does a photo of a horrible event HAVE TO NOT look ‘beautiful’ ,is this not applying a bias to begin with? that the photo doesn’t look the way you believe it should look?