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.

  • Alittletooartsyforme

    You sure you’re a photographer?
    You see no creativity? What you don’t see is all that raw emotion the photographer was able to catch.
    Coincidental lighting? You’re joking, right?
    LOL-right place at the right-that’s half of any example of street photography (from Bresson to Matt Stuart)-anywhere-I’d say he got it in one-and you’re just sniping at his work.
    Yeah-he nailed the emotion of the moment, didn’t he? At least you agree with World Press on that point.
    You understand they’re grieving and taking their kids to be buried, right? They’re up front and in your face-you can’t miss ‘em. Guess he nailed composition too, eh?
    But hey-I’m just a keen amateur with no political axe to grind. I think the original stands strong enough on it’s own-without the processing questions raised by others.
    I can see how the picture might piss you off to the extent that you have to fight with anyone that questions you. Best of luck with your photography.

  • Dylan Vaughan

    I see grieving familes and friends and and two dead children, that is more of a concern than what colour or tone the image is to me.

  • Eli

    The picture doesn’t “piss me off” as much as it seems to get you stirred up. Anyway, I’m glad you like the picture. Do you want an award for that too, or what’s your purpose in commenting here? If you can’t handle differing aesthetic opinions, you definitely should keep your day job!

  • bob cooley

    The difference with the OJ photo was that the change was toned significantly darker from the original, with specific intent. The slight toning of the image in this article doesn’t change the emotional content of the image or scene at all for me (or likely for most viewers). it’s a powerful image in any minor tonal variance, or in black and white.

    Often photos shot in color end up in black and white in papers who don’t print color, sometimes at all, and sometimes on interior pages.

    If you look for an ‘issue’ you will always find one, but i really see none here – this is just hand-wringing. You can criticize ANYTHING at some level.

  • Joe Person

    So, tell me which camera and lens combo I should use to capture reality, because my Fuij XPro 1 produces slightly cooler toned images than my 5D mark 2. Tell me which white balance setting captures the truth. Thank you.

  • Steven Gustafson

    I applaud the author for seeking out a standard of truth. Arguments for or agains the use of photoshop are a secondary issue. Without a standard everything is relative. If everything is relative then credability is lost. Journalism then just becomes an opinion that has little or no value.

  • Stokov

    I really would like to see the original image and how it looks like right out of Mr. Hansens the camera.

  • Darren

    Lens focal length has at least as much of an impact on perception in photos as color and tone. Should that be regulated, too?

  • Jake

    Well now, Bob, it sounds like you’re using selective reasoning here. How do you KNOW that both of these photos were edited for the reasons you cite? It seems to me that their tones were both manipulated to increase the emotional effect of the shot, to different degrees of subtlety and with different agendas. A straight b&w printing in a cheap newspaper is not the same thing at all, since there is purely logistical reason behind it.

  • AP

    Quit trolling

  • charlieS.

    so, at the end of the day, how does people/audience view this image? majority through a monitor of some kind, smartphones, laptops and TV?…how are we going to color calibrate all the monitors in the world to look the same?

  • Noise>Signal

    Truth, veracity, factual statements.. comparing the use of Lightroom to a lying Senator? Whatever the point the author was attempting to make, his myopic, sanctimonious, zero-sum approach does more harm than good. I hope the author is better at taking photos than he is at persuasive writing, but after reading this, I am disinclined to bother finding out.

  • E C

    The all-powerful author’s arbitrary ‘truthiness-meter’ will be the judge. Who are we mere mortals to question?

  • charlieS

    IZ agree…no further discussion needed.

  • Cemal Ekin

    One important point seems to have eluded the author and the commenters. If the photographer used a camera setting to arrive at this result, apparently most if not all will agree that it was perfectly fine. The main point argued here is “once the shutter is clicked, the photo is done”. The objection seems to be after capture editing rather than recording “reality” differently as it would have been done on Kodachrome, Ectachrome, Velvia, etc. Without this clarifying point, the all the arguments miss the point in my humble opinion.

  • EC

    +1 – Wow, the trolling is strong in this one.

  • EC

    I quite agree, Bob – while it’s always possible (for trolls) to split hairs and pick nits with questions like “how do you KNOW” the reasoning behind a decision; in politics we call these people truthers and dismiss them out of hand.

    But anyone interested enough in photography to read this article, let alone comment, should be able to discern a difference between scandal-worthy error in editing judgement (OJ) and an edit made in the pursuit of style.

    In many circles, there will always be some who perceive themselves as “purists” (but to whom I refer as “Luddites”) who oppose advances for the sake of opposing them. In Alcoholics Anonymous, this behavior is termed “contempt prior to examination.” They’re entitled to be as vocal in the minority of public opinion as they wish, but neither that entitlement nor their vocality renders their opinions into facts.

  • John Adkins

    I still think you’re missing the point, or not willing to accept a few truths yourself.

    First off, let me agree with one of your points in that, if the general public wants to continue to look at photo journalism as ‘truth’ and no editing should be done ever, then all photographers should be forced to shoot .jpgs, with no in-camera corrections, no flashes used and only at noon. Sound crazy? Yeah it does, but where do you draw the line? If more edited photos are where people’s desires and opinions are leaning, but yours is not, then you’re just left with your opinion. More power to you to try to sway others, but again, opinions, opinions, opinions.

    Also, my other argument is, if the winning photographs didn’t violate the World Press’s rules of the contest, then why are you complaining about the photographers who took these shots and their shots? Shouldn’t you be complaining to the World Press Association and those that create the rules for contests such as this? If the winning photographers were within their boundaries to do the editing they did, then why is that a problem?

    Personally, I liked a few of those photos, not all, but a few and in my mind, those edits that were made, did not change the story or composition of the photos. If you really think its the editing that won them those awards, then try taking a crappy, uninteresting photo, edit it like the winning photo and see if it wins anything. I seriously don’t think it was the editing at all that one these contests.

    Also, to say that “the Ansel Adams argument” is not valid is kinda BS imho. To me, it totally is valid, because what people are saying is that, there were/are those that consider Adams to be a purist, much like photojournalism, yet he pioneered darkroom techniques for improving his own work as he saw fit. AND Photoshop or whatever other program you decide to use for editing is TOTALLY the new dark room of today. How can you seriously not say it isn’t???? I mean really, are you a photographer?

    “We don’t care about factual statements. We care about visceral reaction and entertainment value. Make us feel something!” —I really think this is totally being over dramatic. Look at any of those photos and tell me that you honestly don’t think there is any factual statements or feeling there, with or without the editing.

    Again, all this is my opinion so take it for what its worth. To me though, your argument, as sound as it may be, sounds more like you were a person who competed in this same competition, lost, and is now sore about it. Just my two cents though.

  • Nikki Kitley

    Firstly in today’s day and age I think the media has lost all ethical obligations to tell the truth, I think they see the truth as lies, and constantly spew what Governments tell them to, and Fox news had a court case a few years ago that even decreed they had no legal obligation to tell the truth, so to imply they have ethical obligations is laughable in this era, but in regards to this picture, call me a Luddite if you like, but I believe that if a PJ wants to photo shop then they should keep it as a hobby, if your telling the news we want it as it is, we are fed up of hearing and seeing BS all the time,( so much so that many people can’t even tell between lies and truth anymore) when you start messing with the picture you are then going in to the realms of art, it all has it place, but there is no room for Art in a fast paced media society we want facts and truth, even if they are hard to come by. IMO a picture captures a moment in time and if it is photo shopped to me then that moment never happened as the picture of it is not telling the truth but we are all free to have an opinion as long as you respect others we should all get along.

  • Robert Mark

    Let’s not forget that photojournalism is not reality, it’s just a photographer’s selective view of it. Cropping an image in post is no different than cropping with a zoom lens, yet, by your definition one is noble photojournalism and the other is a misleading manipulation of the scene.

    I find it a bit of a stretch to assert that only a RAW file is the definitive representation of an image. Process the same RAW file in Lightroom, CaptureOne, and Aperture and you will get three different versions of the scene. I’m not ready to suggest that only one of those applications is capable of delivering reality. Does a camera JPEG qualify for your definition of truth in photojournalism? My camera let’s me choose among several different shooting modes — all of them deliver a differently toned JPEG.


    allen, amen!

  • Ballookey Klugeypop

    Having thought further about what was written in this post, it seems like a bit of snobbery is at work. The author seems to have no problem with the old “hand of god” techniques that were employed by a very few skilled photographers and pressmen of days gone by. But now that modern technology gives those abilities to everyone and makes their use easy? NOW it’s a problem? Oh sorry we dirty common folk got our filthy hands on the precious tools of God.

  • Eli

    It’s a good question. One explanation is that journalists enjoy more freedoms in Western liberal democracies like Israel, so they are presented with more opportunities to critique them. I wouldn’t fully fault journalists with an inherent bias in their reporting; it’s a systematic problem that news organizations ought to address.

  • ddeerreekk

    I totally agree – the author is way off-base in this case.

    IMO, the photoshopping is really quite subtle – while yes the color and saturation are clearly altered, I wouldn’t necessarily say one or the other is ‘closer’ to reality. Any photographer knows how often a ‘SOOC’ image doesn’t accurately render what you actually see on location.

    The photographer’s edit was totally justified and seems to represent his impression of the emotional tone of the scene. The comments about his intention being to alter the ethnicity or make the photo more foreign is completely ridiculous.

  • JJ Black

    “The slight toning of the image”

    You have a pretty generous idea of the concept of “slight”

  • Matt

    Rob S, you are imagining things. Your imagination is getting the best of you. You want to see things wrong with the manipulation, that it is indeed changing the photo because of your bias. But, the things you are pointing out are just not true. I don’t really like the winning version, but I also do not see anything untrue in it.
    I can understand being against manipulation that changes an image to something that did not happen. But, your suspisions and fears are over the top.

  • Matt

    Everything is relative. Only fantasy is absolute. And why does opinion have little or no value? Sorry, but I find the author just as missleading as the photo editors that he is assailing.

  • Matt

    I too support calling people out when they cross moral and ethical boundries. However, I think the author is out of line. Truth is a nobal goal, but it a photo alone has never equaled truth and never will. You want something simple, but the world is not simple.

  • Angelo Sotira

    This is an absolutely awesome post. Thank you for telling it like it is.

  • Mick O

    Just a little longer… just a little longer. Soon my preference for creating minimally processed photos (Ones that actually use the subject and existing light to convey mood instead of using processing technique to convey mood) will be such a shockingly rare and unique preference that I will suddenly be considered edgy and original and I shall profit handsomely from a brief window of fame. Judging from many of the other comments on this piece, that time is just around the corner.

  • A-Holland

    I find this topic a little narrow and idealistic when it comes to photography. If the photographer left the images unaltered via photoshop or other means then the photographer is just letting the technicians at Canon, Nikon, Sony or any other camera brand determin the look of his/her images. There has always been some sort of authorship when it comes to photo journalism. Dorethea langes Migrant mothere is well known to be taken from a large sequence of images, Robert Capas man being shot is now know to be staged and not to forget Roger Fentens Valley of the shadow of death again staged. The photograph is ultimately an interpretation whether it has been framed in camera or cropped in photoshop………that is the way it is.

  • Simon

    Boring. You need to get out and smell the roses Allen and think of something interesting to write about. Just saying…

  • A-Holland

    If I understand your point correctly I agree. If we go back 15 years before digital and delivering what he author is asking for then we wou,d be simplying delivering the negative from the camera. A digital camera processes the images in the eye of Canon/Nikon/Sony etc and as the photographer we surly have the right to alter the images as we see fit.

  • A-Holland

    If we go back 15 years before digital and delivering what the author of this article is asking for then we would be simplying delivering the negative from the camera. A digital camera processes the images in the eye of Canon/Nikon/Sony etc technician and as the photographer we surly have the right to alter the images as we see fit.

  • Stokov

    Mr. Hanson took a very good picture and probably none of us were in the same place at the same time. So nobody can judge the lighting.

    Just to be sure…Question: Any of you bloggers…were you there the day the picture happened? I wasn’t. So I can not judge the lighting situation.

    Please excuse my bad english, I cannot photoshop it.

    On an analog typewriter, I used 30 years ago to text the wire pictures to AP, I can type a love letter or a ransom note, as you all can easily do at your computer.

    Same machine, same instrument, different user.

    Same camera, same lens, different user

    It is very sad, that the death of two children is overwhealmed by how to or not how to process images.

    Two dead kids and 106 blog post argue about saturation, Lightroom and journalistic ethics.

    May be this is how we see the world today, packaging counts

    Lächerlich! (that means ridiculous!)

    I am glad that someone like Mr. Hanson was there. That is news. German TV Stations don’t show that kind of footage at all.

    I still would like to see the original JPG or RAW to make my own judgement.

  • Hue Fokncares

    I wonder what the two dead children think of this argument? Obviously they didn’t die in vain with such a robust conversation about ‘color’ ‘tone’ and so on. Great that we haven’t missed the point on why the photo was captured in the first instance.

  • `

    Photojournalists don’t usually shoot RAW. The usual practice is to shoot JPEGs and send them to an offsite editor.

  • Cemal Ekin

    Yes, indeed that is the point. I am not suggesting any editing should be OK on any kind of photographs. The fallacy of the arguments based on recorded reality is that there is no “real” way of recording it. The choice of camera, lens, camera settings, not to mention the photographer’s choice of the photograph from an infinite number of possible frames all distort reality. Add to this the “reality-flattenting” nature of photography, the reality-based argument becomes a giant slippery slope. There should be some standards, I agree. But I would focus more on frame selection that, by focusing on a more photogenic or compositionally attractive frame the essence of the event being reported should not change. In this case, it is hard to think about a more compelling frame, but I was not there so I will take the photographer’s selection.

  • Eric Larson

    this article would be more useful if the author proposed an acceptable standard of editing

    I agree truth matters

    but I also acknowledge photography by its very nature is creative and interpretive

    please tell us what you propose would be an acceptable level of “retouching”

  • anonphotoz

    it´s not “subtle” to turn a photo into some kind of “beautiful”__painting__ with dead children and btw touching a very troublesome subject like Gaza -the selection of that particular photo as a winner is also open to debate as to the possible effects it has both on the israeli and palestine part but that goes beyond the topic, and well has to do I guess with the morals and ethics of the social communicators involved: Is it positive to give extensive worldwide diffusion to THAT photo?- and imho the author has a very good point, grounded in theory of photography. Most of the reviews or comments of the photo when It got first price were using expressions like “the beautifully horrible photo” or the kind. That´s an oxymoron and raises the main problem with the photo. It should not be made “beautiful” or “nice” by _any_ means! Removed-Added stuff is not the issue and undermining modifications of texture and color is imho, wrong. Photojournalism deals mainly with photos not paintings. IMHO the photo of “the Crescent” series -2nd price- is more accurate as to how some of us believe photojournalism should be. It´s rough and disturbing. “beauty” distracts from tragedy. Reviews like the one cited -most of the magazines wrote short reviews with that wording, goes absolutely against the principles of photojournalism. In film theory there´s a better word, “abject”.

  • Hugh Slater

    Either treatment of the photo merited to win the award. I don’t think any particular treatment was required with an image this strong and there are advantages and disadvantages with the two versions, but I can not see anything extreme (however the idea of submitting RAW images in this sort of award contest is interesting)

  • wonderous

    Sorry, but photojournalism has it`s own set of unwritten “rules”, that most of the time reflect the ethics and morals of a photographer or social communicators involved most of the time. “The change” you speak off, be it made by hand, pen, laboratory or whatever, is disgusting and immoral. Has nothing to do with a luddite point of view. And I disagree and you actually brought up the more disturbing part of the issue, and it has to do I guess with postmodernism, it is INDEED a “makeover and skin resurfacing” be it complete or not, and “putting makeup” on THAT photo sinks it to the same level of perfume ads and glam photography or any adult diapers ad. And it should not. Ever. Come on let´s not forget the content, dead children in a highly conflictive zone should not be in any way “embellished”…

  • Ken Wightman

    “I know what the world looks like when I step out the door.” You do? Gosh, my world changes with the hour and the weather and more. Paul Simon nailed it when he sang, “Kodachrome, You give us those nice bright colors, You give us the greens of summers, Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.” If it was truth one was looking for, in many cases Kodachrome sucked: too warm. Film is moving into history but “pleasing color” is still with us. Once you accept that even a RAW image is not an accurate representation of reality, at least when it comes to tonal range and colour, you will be able to lighten up — and get back to the important stuff, like discussing the moving, adding, removing of important content in a news image.

  • Gary

    The real picture is processed by your brain, and everyone will see it slightly differently. Everyone sees colours in different shades, they see focus in varying amounts and they see more or less contrast. So the ‘real’ picture does not exist. Every person who may have viewed that scene live would have seen their own image processed by their own brain. The photographer has simply altered the image he took to be how he wanted the scene to look on paper. That’s his prerogative as he’s the image-taker. Whilst he has altered the aesthetic tones of the image, he has not altered the fundamental story that the picture offers the viewer, so in that sense it is real, and I think your comment saying the truth is in question is far in excess of a reasonable comment given the example image.

  • Ken Wightman

    From Lens: The image draws some of that power from its striking — almost stylized — lighting and tones. Mr. Hansen, 48, said the unusual look resulted when light bounced off the walls of the alley for just a few moments.

    Mr. Lyon said the jury carefully examines the winning images for post processing. He said they decided Mr. Hansen’s photo was within the acceptable industry parameters.” He added: “Everybody has different standards about these sorts of things, but as a group we felt that it was O.K.”

  • Stokov

    After 95 comments, I still would like to see the original image as it came out of the camera.

  • David Kisielewski

    Noun – The art or practice of communicating news by photographs.

    I find the article pretentious. Although I did agree with a few of the comments, alas they were not relly relevent to the image in question. The aim of Photojournalism is to communicate news by photographs? Both images did that with different tonal values. I would go as far to say that the image that the author prefered was actually the closest one to being hyperreal. That is in direct contradiction to the articles main point, but both versions of the very moving image still portrayed the exact same story to me, which is the point…isn’t it?.

  • Simon

    This is stupid. It somehow imagines that the ‘original’ shot was ‘real’. Yes, there’s a point at which too much touching up tips the balance. This isn’t it. In fact, a lot less processing goes on in the digital age than when newspaper darkrooms would work on press photogs negatives.

  • seancayton

    I love your suggestion. Where’s the original image? Not the one published in the paper, but the image as it is straight off the card. Plenty of photoshop in the two you posted and you’re splitting hairs a bit on the retouching. It happened. It’s crazy impactful and the toning fails to affect the fundamental truth in the content.

  • B.O

    Amazing that toning and photoshop create so much writing to a point where it seems that the content doesn’t really matter anymore. if some photoshop was used to process the image and make it a bit more dramatic , is because war is the shitiest thing of the human being and I bet that however shockoing/dramatic, with or without photoshop, an image might be , it’s probably not even near of what reality must be on the field! if toning is a problem that black and white shouldn’t be allowed?