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.

  • E.G.

    So, what if a news outlet picked up the color photograph but ran it in a BW section of their newspaper? Is that a problem?

    Or what if it gets printed in color by some print outlet, but their calibration is off?

    In either case, the main story is still the main story. Why? Because in this case, none of the vital points of the image were altered. No faces were added or subtracted. Nothing nefarious of that sort. The color/tone/etc. of the image has nothing to do with the message of the image here. It might in other cases, but not for this photograph.

    I see what you’re saying, but I don’t see the issue in this case.

  • Igor Ken


  • JJ Black

    Thank you! You’ve articulated some thoughts I’ve been trying to qualify… nice job, and I agree.

  • Rob S

    Agree completely. Doctoring the image in a journalism competition is no different than a reporter adding non-facts to a story to make it sound better. Think Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. They had perfectly good stories to tell but someone wanted more perfect than perfect. Manti Te’o was a great story. Manti with a girlfriend who died tragically was a better one.
    The as shot image is wonderful and the low angle sun reminds you that they are running out of time to bury their loved ones. The doctored one obliterates that visual cue while making the faces “browner,” more the “other” than someone like “us.” God forbid we see people like “us” suffering from war. The photographer changed the story when he changed the image.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    I agree, feels like a lot of images are now going for that HDR effect. I don’t think that’s photojournalism.

  • Ballookey Klugeypop

    As you pointed out, nothing was removed or added to the image in question. All that changed was the color processing of the image, which you yourself admit has been done practically since the advent of photography. The change is no more than would be accomplished with different film, photo paper, printing process, final display environment, etc… So what if it’s easier to do today? Ease has no bearing on whether or not it is acceptable.

    In other words, in this case, I do think you’re being a luddite; hating the new just because it is new. You keep saying it looks like an illustration, but it doesn’t look like an illustration to me. It looks like a photograph. This is how photographs look today.

    This is hardly equivalent to the complete body makeovers and skin resurfacing that goes on in commercial fashion photography.

  • Enough with this.

    Allen, you’ve got a degree in music — stick to that.

    Know the specific requirements on editing for each wire, then decide.

    A PJ’s number one responsibility is to show the scene how it was, not how the camera recorded it.

  • Rob S

    I disagree. See above. Remember the image of OJ that TIme used on its cover? OJ alone was not evil enough so they darkened it. Tone sets tone.

  • Matt

    I like the original photo. However, I don’t really agree with the author. Images are not a accurate representation of the world. They are and always will be an objective reflection at best. No matter how much we stamer that they should be accurate.
    Does that necessarily mean they are not truthful? As long as subjects were not added or removed that are significant, No.
    We can not abandon critical thinking of everything that we come across.

  • Goofball Jones

    In this particular case, mountain meets molehill.

    Come on…

  • lnoseda

    I believe there is no problem at all doing these small retouches if it helps to catch better the viewer’s eye and mind, as long as it doesn’t alter what the photograph is really about. It’s just like a journalist who writes in a certain way to catch the reader’s attwntion,.

  • Rob S

    Look at the man on the extreme right. In the “winning” photo he appears older and with a full beard. In the SOOC photo he is younger and the “beard” is actually short but against a dark jacket. The “winning” photo makes him look much more like the “Islamist” stereotype.
    The cloths the crowd are wearing, with the exception of the blue jacket in the front, are all a dull, oppressive/repressed color in the “winning” photo. In the SOOC we see they are actually brighter colors, “normal” colors. Even the blue jacket in the front has been turned to more of a grey removing the visual clue of the sports team it represents.
    The story was changed.

  • Cameron Knight

    I think you picked a poor example to write about. I don’t see anything wrong with the editing of either photo. And guess what, the photo you like more, the one that was originally published doesn’t look anything like what came out of the camera. If we can expose scenes differently for different effects, you have to give us photojournalists a break on post-production. He didn’t add or remove any information. To turn one of those photos into the other, you tweek the saturation and the contrast, burn in the sky, and move on.

    I don’t completely disagree with your points about honesty, but comparing that photo to a lie is unfair and overdramatic.

  • Tim Farrell

    Although I agree with the spirit of the argument, in this case I think it’s way off base. In the first place, the version that was published looks like it was improperly colour managed. If you assign it an sRGB profile, it looks much closer to the version submitted to the contest. Also, the version that was published is blown out in the highlights. If anything, it is the published version that has been manipulated, probably without artistic intention, and the photo submitted to the contest is far closer to the original exposure.


  • Jonathan Maniago

    Beyond being truthful, I expect proper (photo)journalists to be neutral.

    A news report should simply report the facts, but the tabloids may opt to use more sensational headlines and more emotionally charged synonyms in order to maximize impact without explicitly lying.

    Excessive photo manipulation isn’t that different. If your priority is to present news rather than a work of art, there’s no need for adding such a thick layer of subjectivity to maximize or change the impressions of other people.

  • yes

    I would even take that a step further, the original image makes them look too Caucasian, wearing too common clothing and it’s a sunny day. The “winning” photo, more foreign, more gloomy, less western. The “winning” photo allows a western viewer to remove themselves from the situation, it’s foreign, poor, drab, movie-like, not really happening and not “us” NIMBY. The other image, the children’s faces pop out making the viewer have to acknowledge what it is these people are carrying. The men look more “white” and are wearing clothing that you can identify as something you could almost find/buy in Target. “We” don’t want that idea in our heads now do we….

  • hugh crawford

    Allen ,
    Don’t take this personally but I think you are wrong on this.

    Yesterday you said that Wei Zheng’s photo had a vignetting effect applied in post processing, but I see no evidence of that at all. In fact judging by the image of the aperture seen in the out of focus highlight in the upper right it doesn’t even look like the image was cropped off axis ( IE the center of the image is the center of the in camera exposure ) The swimmer is spot lighted the stadium is not, and a straight out of the camera exposure should have the corners underexposed even in flat lighting by at least a stop unless it is removed in post processing. A lighting designer got paid good money to make reality look like that, but apparently you want the photographer to open up the shadows , remove the natural vignetting ( looks like he removed some already but apparently not enough) and desaturate it to suit your aesthetic preferences.

    You say you prefer the lower of the two versions of the World Press Photo of the Year, but it looks to me like the lower on is much more manipulated than the first.

    The lower image seems way over-saturated and the skin tones might be natural on sunburned Scotsmen, but only maybe, there is a LOT of tone mapping going on, lots of local contrast, yet detail that is lost in the shadows of the low contrast version is quite visible in the lower version. Both of the photos have strong directional backlighting

    “It’s almost as if there was a huge fill flash set -1 1/2 stops under to give this perfect exposure. There is a high light source from camera right, but the front light is very diffuse compared to the contrast that one might expect.”

    Yes the very same sun that is backlighting the crowd and rendering it in a nice chiaroscuro , or at least the guy on the left’s ear and most of the crowd is in the shadow of the right side of the street and backlit by the sky, is also shining on the the wall to the camera’s left and what do you know , it’s a big bright diffuse light source that is a little too bright to be called “fill” because it’s a stop or two brighter than the sky and a lot “warmer” too. Old farts like me that had to shoot Ektachrome know that if you find a spot with good light and wait for the subject to walk into it you have pretty much done half your work when you press the shutter.

    “I know what the world looks like when I step out the door”

    I am sure you are a nice person, but a lot of the world’s unpleasantness over the last century started out like that.

    Leaving that aside, are you saying that all photographs should be shot at same exposure no matter what the lighting conditions, that people standing in the shade outdoors should look sort of blue, that all indoor photography should be a dull orange in parts of the world with electric lights and simply pitch black in the unilluminated world?

    Maybe all photos should be video shot with wide angle lenses since cropping is an artificial imposition on reality and any editing is changing context and is a little less truthful.

    I’ll admit that there are some pretty ugly HDR photographs and bizarrely darkened skies out there but I don’t see it in these photos.

  • John Kantor

    This article is a great example of how clueless, ignorant, and manipulative people who call themselves “journalists” are. A better question to ask would be why journalism – especially prize-winning – is uniformly anti-Western and anti-Israeli when the vast majority of death and suffering in he world is caused by the groups we are fighting. “Journalism” is the caterwauling of cowards.

  • Eli

    Honestly, this image doesn’t impress me in either version.

  • John Kantor

    This article is a great example of how clueless, ignorant, and manipulative people who call themselves “journalists” are. A better question to ask would be why journalism – especially prize-winning – is uniformly anti-Western and anti-Israeli when the vast majority of death and suffering in he world is caused by the groups we are fighting. “Journalism” is the caterwauling of cowards.

  • JonT

    So many things to say. First I’m actually amazed that the image was
    kind of “de-saturated.” The original looks like fill-flash to me and
    what is wrong with that? I’m surprised that was taken out. All photos are always processed and it’s just a
    matter of how much control we have over that. His very examples of the
    same image on different films show that an image is not “the truth” but
    some representation of a point in time. Photoshop has allowed a great
    deal of latitude for the photographer, but as he alludes to(while
    immediately cutting off rational comment), Ansel Adams codified the
    processes to do this in B&W photography. Saying he was not a
    photojournalist is just dumbass. He was from the Realist school, who did
    try to convey the scene they saw. AA merely provided an end-to-end
    understanding of a process which had largely been trial-and-error up to
    that point. All in all, a completely ignorant post. For example, by his
    admonishments, we should not even compensate for white balance. And
    leading with abortion? If he had anything relevant or valuable to say,
    why lead with an irrelevant attention grabber like that. This man
    deserves a fate worse than Instagram!about a minute ago

  • Richard

    So then photojournalists should only shoot with a 50mm lens or with a lens/camera combination that approximates the perspective of the human eye so as to accurately reflect a perception of the world at large? This is nonsense. As an observer the journalist is going to respond emotionally to any given moment. They act as a filter through which we see the world and what we see is a perception of things as they EXPERIENCED them. Good photography communicates so much more than what we see – great images convey smells, sounds, tastes and texture. They communicate emotion and so much non verbal, non visual stuff. Without any input from the photographer he may as well be just a walking copy stand. That does not make for engaging imagery nor accurate reportage.

  • jbmonco

    Meh. I’m having trouble getting quite as worked up about this specific photo and its processing. I don’t disagree with some of the other comments but the processing done to this one really doesn’t seem to merit the level of outrage. My raw images don’t look the same as the image on my LCD screen, and what if I shot JPEG.

  • jbmonco

    Still trying to see the big problem. Maybe I need it spelled out. What is ok? And how much? Desaturation but only to level 10? Pull down the highlights but no more than 15? I didn’t get the movie poster bit.

  • Shannon Wolf

    I can’t take seriously a person who writes an article trying to make his
    point, then systematically mentions things that would not support his
    viewpoint and says “and don’t give me ______ and ______”. We should be
    able to bring up the things he mentions as counterpoints. He can’t just
    choose to ignore those aspects. … I’m not one for overly manipulating
    digital photos, but compared to most images we see on magazines and the
    internet these days, the image in question is incredibly close to the
    original. The photographer did not change any information, he simply
    desaturated the photo (among I’m sure some other slight lighting/color
    adjustments). It is the author’s opinion that it looks like an
    illustration, but that could be argued widely. … To me, if you are
    shooting digital, the same as if you are printing in a darkroom, there
    are a wide range of ‘realities’. Change your exposure, your white
    balance, or a number of other settings on your dslr and the same scene
    can manifest in thirty different ways. I have printed both black and
    white and color in the darkroom and I know from vast experience that an
    image can have dozens of different forms. Not only with black and white
    printing, where there is dodging and burning, contrast filters, and
    simple exposure time variances, but even more so with color printing in
    the darkroom. I know this because of how Difficult color printing is. It
    took ages for me, as a beginner in color darkroom printing, to try to
    get the colors to look like reality. It was an uphill battle of
    adjusting cyan, magenta, and yellow. … While I am not ever a fan of
    HDR photos, or combining of multiple shots to create one image (as a
    form of portraying truth and not purely as an artisitc endeavor) or
    over-editing or actual changing of information in a photograph, I feel
    that if a digital image is taken straight from camera, the photographer
    has the right to basic lighting and color adjustments as his
    predecessors had in the darkroom. But according to the author of this
    article, we shouldn’t bring up photojournalism techniques of the past..
    or the fact that flash photography changes reality by adding a light
    source for the sole purpose of taking a photo when it does not exist
    naturally.. or the fact that every photograph ever taken is an imitation
    of reality, not an absolute truth. If the author chooses to ignore
    these important aspects of the discussion, then his argument is weak as
    well as flawed.

  • Shannon Wolf

    I agree with you E.G. The image could look drastically different straight-out-of-camera, simply if the photographer had different exposure and white balance settings. Just because we have moved from darkroom to digital (photo-journalistic speaking, as I still shoot film artistically :) ), does not mean that digital has somehow managed to solve the problem of being able to 100% mimic reality in a photograph. Different DSLRs and different camera settings can take the same scene and produce a hundred different images. The information would be the same, but the lighting and color would vary. As you said, no faces were added or subtracted, nothing was cropped out or photoshopped in. I think it is just the author’s opinion that the more desaturated image looks like an “illustration” or “movie poster” so he decided to go on this rant that really isn’t based on fact, but on his own flawed opinion.

  • Shannon Wolf


  • Shannon Wolf

    What are you talking about??? No one looks older or like their beard is bigger. Certainly not the guy on the far right. He looks exactly the same, except some of the shadows are a little deeper.

  • Shannon Wolf

    What are you talking about? You are trying to turn this into an argument about ethnicity, culture, race, or whatever. You couldn’t be more incorrect. The fact that you associate less sunshine and desaturated colors as being more foreign and less Caucasian or western says something about you as an individual. I personally think of the middle east as a very sunny place with lots of vibrant colors. The ethnicity of the subjects in the photo does not change between the two images. The image is not darkened to make the subjects look less white or more Islamic. They look the same. We can tell it is not in America regardless. Did it ever occur to you that the subdued colors chosen by the photographer were chosen to remove distraction and focus on the serious subject matter?

  • Shannon Wolf

    I personally am not aesthetically fond of the way HDRs look. However, I think there is a difference between taking one image straight from camera and doing slight edits to the lighting and color (as shown in the article) versus combining multiple shots to create an image that is not reality (as with an HDR).

  • Rob S

    Exactly. I agree with you. The Middle East is a rainbow of colors. But that is not the image portrayed. Look I have lived in the Middle east for many years. i know what it is like. And I know how it is portrayed in the vast majority of western media. The “winning” photo fits the stereotype. THe SOOC does not.

  • Pocket

    I agree with the author of this article. Good job. Pity that so many can’t see the point you are making.

  • D_B

    Sorry to break it to you but not everyone is “we” in terms of using film or not or using a darkroom or not. I have used digital for nearly 20 years and while I still look forward to that medium, I actually use more and more film and hand print it in a darkroom than ever before and have art directors and editors who love to see it and pay for it. The worst thing about the digital age is not all the photoshopped crap we see but ignorant comments like the assumptions that the author of this piece has resorted to.

    Digital is not nor will ever be all there is you idiot, stop speaking from ignorance.

  • Braxton Bruce Photo

    If you’re looking for someone to retouch your news photos to win next year, hit me up :D

  • foljs

    There should not be “specific requirements on editing for each wire” that’s the whole point, Einstein…

  • foljs

    “””What are you talking about? You are trying to turn this into an argument about ethnicity, culture, race, or whatever.”””

    No, the western press does.

    “””The fact that you associate less sunshine and desaturated colors as being more foreign and less Caucasian or western says something about you as an individual. “””

    And also says something about hundrends of millions of other individuals which think alike. Which is the very reason for the subtle color manipulation in the image (and in tons of other contexts).

    “”” The image is not darkened to make the subjects look less white or more Islamic. They look the same. We can tell it is not in America regardless.”””

    A person, like you, that considers that the only non-islamic place that matters (as a possible confusion) is America (!!!), is surely not qualified to discuss this matter, and surely not in the way you do in your comment.

  • DamianM

    There is no point to argue this.

    everyone has been conditioned to making the images “better” by over processing them.

    The argument is lost for the fact that the people believe in the idea of a hyper reality being Reality.

  • Alittletooartsyforme

    Is this the same Eli that posted a defense of the Israeli sniper Instagram photo of a child in crosshairs? (DL Cabe, Feb 20, 2013)

  • Eli

    This is me. How can I help? I guess you think you’re clever to put the two statements I made together. On the surface, I see how it could seem that I’m just a “pro-Israel” hawk, whatever that means. But, actually, I don’t think any unbiased viewer would hold Israel fully accountable for the death of the kids in this picture, so I don’t accept your implication. Sure, an Israeli weapon ultimately killed these children, but the weapon wasn’t shot at them intentionally, nor was it shot in Gaza unprovoked. I’m not going to get into details here, but the facts are abundantly clear that the last bout of fighting was a direct result of Hamas’ belligerency over the past decade. (Imagine for a second if any country would — or should — stand idly by while thousands of rockets are shot at its civilians.) Israel seeks peace, but it doesn’t have a partner in the matter. Are you implying I can’t hold an honest opinion because I don’t subscribe to your interpretation of the events? I’d prefer you don’t impugn my judgement, as I haven’t yours.

  • Peter Duke

    Richard Avedon said “all photographs are accurate, none the truth.” The argument that un “augmented” photos are “truer” is specious. It all goes back to Deuteronomy… All images are graven and merely the point-of-view of the photo-maker. If you start with the assumption that EVERYONE has a point of view, and that no person or photograph is “the truth” then you don’t need to fall into this trap of righteous indignation… and don’t even get me started about how the father of these children was shooting rockets into Israel… That “truth” is none too self evident, but that was the whole propagandic point, wasn’t it???

  • John Smith

    Sir, you have written some of the best articles on this site in a long time. Thank you for bringing joy to my day. I tell friends that people get away with things because nobody calls them on their bull, this is a perfect example. In the recolored photo, the children look dead, in the original they do not – I think he did it on purpose to change how people emotionally react to the image.

  • Alittletooartsyforme

    Are you a photographer?

  • Eli


  • DB

    So if the photographer had put a filter on the lens, would that make the photo “untruthful?”
    Also, you may know what the world looks like to you when you step outside, but human vision varies widely. And cameras remain a technically stunted way for imitating what the eye and brain do.

  • Alittletooartsyforme

    Amateur or pro? You’re a photographer and this picture doesn’t impress you? Talk about sour grapes. Incredible. Now you’re interesting.
    Your trollish behaviour aside-we’ll keep the politics out of this for now.
    Me? I enjoy photography- I’m more of a keen amateur.
    I know nothing about the picture-I don’t know where in the world the picture was taken. Those folks are burying their children. I don’t know the how or why-but I can damn sure see the grief and anguish.
    Now-talk to me about photography-about how, photographically speaking-that picture does not impress you.

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    Just a small point: you can’t go on and say that comparison to darkrooms and Ansel Adams are irrelevant and then yourself compare it to a statement on abortion and planned parenthood as well as retouching of photographs within the fashion industry. That’s not a fair argument.

  • murhaaya

    I might mirror somebody’s argument as I haven’t read through all the comments but what if the photo was taken on Tri-x? It is not and it’s not like any photo in the contest ever will but would the lack of color make the image more gloomy? Would an orange filter made the people more western looking and the sky darker (there’s not much sky in the photo but the point stands) or a blue one could make them darker… And printing on a paper with more contrast would add more dramatic effect as a soft tone could kill it and make it dull… The photo is changed but where is the line of acceptability?

    I see the point here, that we cannot trust the news anymore with photos like this around us and we should not trust the news. Abundance of photoshop and wide usage of photomanipulatig tools whether it’s the PS or Instagram should make all of us more aware of how the reality is treated when photographed.

    As somebody mentioned a daughter that wants a lipo or botox… show her how the photoshop works, explain her the liquify tools so she can realize that pages of the magazines are deceptions.

  • tomtwigg

    I tend to agree with most of your points, but I look at these two photos and can’t help but think the version that was published first looks more manipulated than the version entered in the contest … is possible that they pulled back on the heavy-handed processing (HDR filters it looks like) of the first version because of concern about manipulation for the contest?

  • Eli

    I’d refer you to similar critiques in these comments. It doesn’t impress me because I see no creativity. The shot is taken at eye level head on. The lighting is good, sure, but that’s by coincidence. It looks to me that he was in the right place at the right time to get an emotional picture. Photographically speaking, the picture isn’t particularly impressive in terms of its composition. And if by “trollish behavior” you mean picking fights unnecessarily, I’d remind you how this conversation was begun. By you. In any case, I hope this clears things up for you, though given your apparent hostility, it probably won’t.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    I don’t think Rob was going directly for the race angle there. I think he’s saying when you’ve got an image as such, there are certain elements you can accentuate to conform to what the world/media want to see.