This Contest Winner Looks Like a Movie Poster (And That’s Good)


John Stanmeyer of VII won the World Press Photo of the Year on Thursday with this magnificent image of migrants in Djibouti trying to get a cheaper cell phone signal from neighboring Somalia.

It looks like a movie poster, but not for the reasons that I complained about last year. In a departure from the typical, hard hitting spot news image that has typified almost every winner since the contest inception, Stanmeyer’s image is a quiet image that (literally) illuminates so many issues of modern life: immigration, communication, technology and more. Jury member and former WPP winner David Guttenfelder commented in the LENS blog, “It might provoke debate, but will signal to photographers that they can cover events with a different visual language and they will be taken seriously.”

In a video produced by WPP on the winner, Gary Knight extolled that “This image is so hopeful.” In many ways, the image solves the oft-heard complaint that photojournalism is depressing and only highlights the plight of the suffering. I applaud the selection.

Amid all the celebration and discussion of John Stanmeyer’s non-traditional winning image, was the disclosure by jury Chairman, Gary Knight, that 8% of the final round images were disqualified for manipulation. Speaking to James Estrin on The New York Times LENS blog, Knight lamented, “As a photographer, I reacted with real horror and considerable pain because some of the changes were materially trivial but they were ethically significant. In every single case it was a meaningless and stupid process. None of the photographers improved their work and if they hadn’t done it they may well have been up for consideration.”

Since 2010, WPP has required photographers to submit RAW files, and in that year, Stepan Rudik’s 3rd place Sports Feature work was disqualified after judges determined that he had manipulated a photo. In Rudik’s case, he cropped the following image from a horizontal to a vertical, and then converted it into black and white. Here is the original:


And the submitted image:


But the image in 2010 wasn’t disqualified because of the crop and black and white conversion, it was because he took a white shoe from the background near the index finger and effectively made it disappear by heavy burning. To the judges, the violation was clear: a lighter object in the scene was obliterated in a way that altered the veracity of the photo.

This year, 10 entries in the final round were disqualified by the jury after consultation with an outside forensic effort would looked at cloning and “extreme toning,” and the affected photographers were being notified of their disqualification. That is 10 entries from a final round of about 125. It’s scary to think, therefore, how many of the original 5,754 photographers from the initial round also would have failed the examination. And even scarier to think how this extrapolates to every photo that runs across the wire on a daily basis.

I applaud WPP for hiring an independent consultant to analyze the files. In a technological world, we constantly struggle to reconcile rapid advances with ethical and moral dilemmas. It has been well over a decade since news organizations started to adopt DSLRs en masse, and WPP is the first mainstream organization that incurred the expense and time to address the pervasive issue of digital manipulation. In doing so, it has bolstered its credibility and positioned itself as a forward looking organization that doesn’t shy away from the challenges of photo manipulation.

But WPP could go further:

  • Release specifics on the methodology used by the forensic expert. Using an independent expert is a major step forward, but the process is still opaque. If, for example, the expert was using a simple software tool to make an initial determination, that same tool could be made available to photographers while they are assembling their entries. The industry’s goal shouldn’t be to apply a punitive measure after the fact, but rather, to help educate photographers so that the best work can rise to the top and be seen by all.
  • Show visual examples of manipulation. While privacy issues would likely prevent this year’s disqualified entries from being displayed, there is clearly a lack of “real life” examples that the industry can use to foment a discussion. Perhaps we will see some of the ten disqualified entrants rise up to the challenge and show us their work. In their absence, it would be easy to take “well known” images and apply manipulation to show acceptable and non-acceptable actions.
  • Continue to refine the definition of “acceptable” cropping and toning. We often see terms like “traditionally applied darkroom techniques” or “industry accepted cropping and toning,” but the fact of the matter is that this language is insufficient. And as we saw from Paul Hansen’s winning image last year, there is a wide range of opinion of acceptability between US and European counterparts. At the end of the day, manipulation is the act of taking a pixel and changing its originally recorded value. We should theoretically be able to get to a point where we can mathematically define what is acceptable, so that we are not reliant on the imprecision of language.

The challenges of digital manipulation won’t ever be fully eradicated, but major contests like WPP can help define the tone for this generation of photographer by continuing to lead with clear and decisive rules and enforcement.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.

Image credits: Photographs by John Stanmeyer and Stepan Rudik

  • Stan B.

    It also smells of incest and nepotism- and that’s bad.

  • James

    I mean I see the value of keeping images unmanipulated for the sake of this context, but why can’t it just be something simple like, “no cloning”/”no photoshop” rather than try to vaguely say of well “you burned that too many stops darker” there needs to be a line, and I think it’s as simple as that, ban image manipulation, let them tone to their hearts content.

  • James

    “That is 10 entries from a final round of about 125. It’s scary to think, therefore, how many of the original 5,754 photographers from the initial round also would have failed the examination.”

    While that might make deductive sense you need to keep in mind that this isn’t statistically normal data, the manipulated photo’s where more likely to have been chosen because they where manipulated, and thus rose to the “top” of the data, making the top 125 a poor sample to make assumptions about the whole of the data about.

  • Banan Tarr

    Removing that bit of shoe from the photo should not have disqualified the entry. As it was, there was no way to tell it was a part of a shoe. In the final product it was nothing but a white blob. There was no context or meaning conveyed by a white blob, so removing it didn’t change the message or meaning of the photo. By disqualifying the entry they went too far.

  • Bill R.

    Can’t say for sure but when I enlarge the images [in the link], it appears to have been cloned rather than burned; there looks to be a texture in place of where the shoe was, which isn’t visible in the color version. That’s a big difference from dodging and burning to slightly change values.

  • harumph

    The rules state simply and plainly, “The content of the image must not be altered.” Removing the foot altered the content. Period. It doesn’t matter how relevant or vital anyone feels that content may or may not have been.

  • Kynikos

    Can’t hurt when your business partner chairs the jury.

  • kodiak xyza

    these standards are stupid. in the film days, there were presets used: you pick a Tri-X, or a slide film, or something. in film, the preset is baked in with the recording. it is stupid to just allow camera manipulation to be the only source of artistic expression — which of course, it is not. what does an engineer at a camera company know about the intent of the photographer? digital frees the photographer from the hold of a few film emulsions, let’s celebrate such a freedom.

    to the last point by Mr. Murabayashi, what can readily be available as “manipulation” is a set of presets that people can use in their submissions, with the basic sliders available for adjustments. these presets are for readily-available software. the idea of a “mathematical cop” seems a bit futuristic, and not sure what would that offer, but the powers-that-be can approve of an photo application that can be used by all contestants. the application will not allow for all kinds of manipulations, but will embed in the EXIF the use of the tools available, and embed the original.

    as mentioned elsewhere, there are bigger problems to be solved with this juried prizes, such as an inability for juror disqualification due to conflict of interest.

  • Banan Tarr

    Yes, I know. Thanks.

  • Benicio Murray

    The winning image without the caption looks like a mobile phone advertisement.
    It helps to have friends on the judging panel.

  • Babb

    Burning out a shoe seems ridiculously pedantic. I agree there should be no manipulation but removing extraneous objects? Everyone does that. Even people in proper dark rooms did that.

  • David Vaughn

    It’s the principle of the matter. Who’s to say what changes the context of a photo? He removed a white blob, so is it okay if I remove this pole? It’s slightly out of focus and it’s not relevant.

  • Banan Tarr

    The judges are the ones who say what changes the context. The difference between your example and a blob of nothingness is a pole can be recognized as a pole. An amorphous blob isn’t recognized as anything and does not add any context or change the message in any way. A pole says “there’s civilization here, there’s infrastructure, this isn’t in the middle of nowhere” and that changes the context.