After reading thoroughly the David Campbell’s World Press produced report on image manipulation, one is left with one question : How opinions affect image manipulation..or is an opinion the truth. And rather than answers, guidelines, rules, code of deontology, anything that one could hope to hang on, we are left alone within the silence of our loneliness. What we could have expected from the World Press organisation is thought leadership, what we got instead is a soft response that runs around the debate and ends up where it started. Nowhere.

It is understood that in an age of excessive political correctness, no one wants to ruffle anyone’s feathers and everyone wants to remain friends with everyone. But at a critical point of photojournalism, where almost every image is doubted, where armies of self-taught forensic experts go through great length to analyse any potential flaw in key news photography, proudly shaming the guilty culprits on the stages of social media, it would have been useful to have someone of the World Press caliber draw a definite line and declare loudly ” This is never to be crossed”.

Instead, we have a flow of opinions, generalisation, interpretation but nothing that a logical mind in search of clear-cut answers can chew on. Not even a bone.
The report is greatly informed, from pixel formation to digital darkroom sorcery, sprinkled along the way with accurate historical facts. It regroups the opinions of experts – that is, those of who have executive positions in major news outlets at the time of this study – in a clearly and approachable format. And that might be its biggest error.

The methodology of the report is flawed. By asking the same set of pre define questions to a group of news executives, the report quickly enters quick sand. Why ? Well, first in foremost, in our day and age, it is not because someone has an executive position in a news organisation that this makes him/her an expert on photojournalism and its boundaries. It just proves that they have very acute corporate politics savviness and have been really good at managing their careers. For example, would the AFP individual who took the Morel picture from Twitter and had it distributed by both AFP and Getty be considered an expert ? According to this methodology, probably yes, especially since he has since been promoted. In other words, the title underneath ones name on a business card does not make for an accurate source of information.

Sure, one might say, they are the policy makers, thus in charge of the guidelines. True. But then, the report is just a snapshot of current practices and thus not very useful. What is painfully missing here are recommendations for acceptable, industry-wide guidelines. And while the World Press is not an industry policing organisation, it certainly has  enough community respect to be a leader in this troublesome period. Otherwise, who else ?

With an industry-wide clearly define set of common rules, we should see the end of the current drastic variations of what is acceptable. Sometimes, what kids behaving badly need is a clear set of rules. And everyone applying them, from newswires to publishers, taught by photojournalism schools, explained during workshops, posted in every press room, printed at the back of press cards, inside helmets, in drone instruction booklet, in…well, you get the jest of it.
So, instead of giving snapshots of what the industry is doing and how policy varies from one desk to another, why doesn’t the World Press follow-up with a 5 point document that clearly define what is acceptable/not acceptable in photojournalism today and tomorrow and politely asks for everyone making a living ( or not) from this profession to approve it and implement it. So like that, next time there is a corporate downsizing, the next person hired can continue on the clear path of a more accurate, more truthful, more respected and more importantly more believable photojournalism . Because it is not money – or lack of – that will kill photojournalism, it will be its lack of truthiness.

Author: pmelcher


  1. With all due respect Paul, your polemic fails to grasp the purpose of the report, overlooks its actual findings, and misses an opportunity to advance the overall debate. Given that we have spoken or corresponded on a number of issues in the last year or so, it’s also disappointing you didn’t think it appropriate to have a conversation before launching this broadside, because I think such a conversation might have sharpened your thinking even if it didn’t change your mind.

    I’m sure given your experience in the industry you understand how these things work, but to be clear, I prepared this under contract as an independent research consultant, and the final report (as it states on p. 3) is based on my submission to World Press Photo. Given that, let me respond to some of your main points:

    1. The report follows the terms of reference set by World Press Photo which was to establish as far as possible the standards that media organisations around the world might currently hold or practice with regard to manipulation. The ToR mandated that the report would not recommend or impose industry wide standards, but provide a global survey so as to encourage debate. As it is the second initiative from World Press Photo following the 2014 Awards Days discussion, this could be an on-going process. The one area where there could be a direct impact is in relation to the World Press Photo contest, where the organisation does have the authority to determine policy. If you or others feel World Press Photo can or should legislate standards for the industry, then that is a separate issue you can take up with the new managing director.

    2. The methodology of the report is sound. What you object to under that rubric is the report’s purpose – finding out the possible the standards that media organisations around the world might currently hold or practice. You might have wished for something else, but in the end you’re just criticising the report for doing what it set out to do, which doesn’t get us very far at all.

    3. Like some others, you’ve actually missed the report’s central findings. You say “with an industry-wide clearly define set of common rules, we should see the end of the current drastic variations of what is acceptable.” What we found was a de facto global consensus on what is and is not acceptable. So, in fact, whether written in codes or generally practiced, there are some common standards now. Those standards are clear with regard to manipulation. Another of those common practices, around the grey area of processing, leaves a lot open to application and interpretation to be sure. And you don’t seem to have much time for interpretation. Instead you want to “draw a definite line and declare loudly ‘this is never to be crossed’.” Again, in terms of manipulation, we found there is both a definite line and a loud declaration. But when it comes to what is “minor” versus “excessive” processing, there is no clear line, and the darkroom analogy is long past its use by date as a means to think about any line.

    4. You could have advanced the debate by developing the constructive point you so clearly desire. Want a clear line with respect to processing (as distinct from manipulation)? I invite you to draw it; where is your “definite line” between “minor” and “excessive” processing? You want to see “a 5 point document that clearly define what is acceptable/not acceptable in photojournalism today”? I look forward to reading your document. I hope it will build on what we found media organizations already think is acceptable/not acceptable.

    In sum, from my personal perspective, the best way to advance the debate would be to recognise that processing is inescapable for a digital image to be an image at all, think about what is acceptable in terms of what we want images to do, and then consider the wider issue of verification as a way to help secure the integrity of the image. I very much regret you didn’t want to engage those concerns in your response.

    1. Author


      Thank you for your response. Greatly appreciated and valued. Happy to clarify some points you might have missed.

      1. The title of this entry is entitled “With all due respect”, declaring de facto my immense respect for this work and previous writings that you have made public over the years. This was not meant as criticism of you, your body of work or anything related. As you might have understood from previous conversations we had on a variety of similar topics, I am a big follower of the Socratic dialectic that requires investigative dialogue in order to achieve truth. Thus the purpose of this, and many of my previous entries.

      2. One of the greatest shortcoming of this report, maybe due, as you write, to the World Press terms of reference, is its lack of depth. Trying to define accepted policies by aggregating a few responses ( 45 out of 95, that is less than 50%) is not what would be considered a rigorous approach. At best, it is, as I already stated, a generalization based on a few opinions. There is nothing more damaging, when dealing with truth, than to rely on opinions.

      3. The report fails to clearly state what is a truthful image. Instead, it solely focuses on what is unacceptable behaviors. To have taken as step back and researched what is a truthful image ( beyond physical alterations), with input from great minds outside of our industry would have been greatly useful. You and I had discussed this at the beginning of your research.

      4. Some of the greatest photojournalistic images, along with their photographers, have played in the grey areas of manipulation way before digital technology. From Robert Capa to Eugene Smith and more recent photographers have been questioned on their use of recreation, scene manipulation and other non technological artifacts. As well, untruthful or biased captioning, have been judged as blatant manipulation. Those are not properly addressed in this report.

      5. General response to this post clearly shows that a large majority feels unsatisfied with the extend of this report and would like to see, as I did, something more potent and useful come out of it. It is another shortcoming of this report that is the responsibility of the World Press, not yours.

      6. It is not my place, nor do I have the authority, to draw the lines. As clearly stated, an organism like the World Press would have much impact and success if it wanted to proceed in advancing the debate. As much as I would be happy to help, adding my opinion to 45 others, as explained why above, would be a waste of everyones’ time.

      It is understandable that you would defend your report against what you might read as negative criticisms. Let me assure you that this is not what this entry is about. Rather, it seeks to build upon it to plant the seeds of a wider debate and concrete actions from those who could create a positive impact on our beloved community. Hopefully we can all put our disagreement asides and work on the next steps together.

      1. Thanks for your additional response Paul. I’m definitely interested in moving the debate forward. At the same time, we all have to be clear about how research can be done and what this research actually did. So some brief remarks to your numbered points:

        1. Thanks, and dialogue is necessary and the only way forward, but that dialogue has to proceed first from some points of common understanding, and to start with that means reading the report in its own terms before moving on.

        2. You think the approach of primary research based on semi-structured interviews with industry participants, combined with secondary research based on codes of ethics and other written analyses, is not rigorous and just collecting mere “opinion.” But that’s how much social science research proceeds. I’d be interested to hear from you an alternative methodology when the purpose is finding out what the industry thinks and does about practices like manipulation.

        3. Yes, the report does not state what a truthful image. I don’t think that is either philosophically or practically possible, especially given the issues discussed in Section 5. You seem to think we could establish that. So I have to ask you: what is a truthful image? I’m genuinely interested to hear you or someone articulate it. From my personal perspective, a credible image (the term I would use as opposed to “truthful” given the massive conceptual problems with that term) would be one that could be verified as best as possible, hence the issues to think about in Section 9. I’d like you to engage with those issues around the concept of verification too because I personally believe we need to move the concerns about processing and manipulation to this wider terrain (though please note Section 9 does not constitute a recommendation from WPPh at this time, so if you think it should be then that’s another question to direct to the organisation).

        4. Going back to Capa and Smith is interesting (especially given this recent article on Smith – But one of my main points concerns the inapplicability of the darkroom analogy, so going back has limited value. The report makes clear (Section 3) that manipulation involves a wide range of issues, like captions, but the ToR required a particular focus. In no sense is this report presented as the definitive account of all elements related to manipulation – it is presented to prompt debate on the issues by making clear where we are now with current standards and accepted practices.

        5. Others can judge whether your overall characterisation of the response is correct, because of course responses have exceeded those to your post. As you say, if people want more from WPPh then that is a question they can direct to the new managing director and the board. It is easy, however, to offer a critique about how we need this or that, but I haven’t seen many people offer a substantive response about what they think the standards re processing should be. A number of people seem to think (no pun intended) this is a black and white issue, but if it’s all so clear cut, where are the clear recommendations from the critics?

        6. I beg to differ. If you think “that what is painfully missing here are recommendations for acceptable, industry-wide guidelines” then given your experience in the industry you should take the next step and start to specify what they might be re processing. As “a big follower of the Socratic dialectic that requires investigative dialogue in order to achieve truth,” the next logical step is to hear from you on how those guidelines might be formulated and where they might draw the line. For you to do that would surely not be a waste of everyone’s time. That is my genuine belief.

        My responses to you are designed to focus people’s attention on that the report set out to do and what it actually found, which I felt was missing in your original post. I’m happy for people to criticise it from any perspective, but first the report has to be read in its own terms. Once we do that then we can then work on the next steps together. And I would very much like you to move from criticism to a proposal as to what those next steps should be.

        1. Author


          When the report was released, you tweeted : “I hope “The Integrity of the Image” report will help promote a debate about processing, manipulation, verification”. I tried, others did too .Apparently it has to be done on your own terms… Will leave at that and move on.

          1. That’s a cop out Paul. Any critique has to proceed by reading something in its own terms, then criticising it from any angle you like. Very sorry your commitment to Socratic dialogue has ended so quickly without a substantive response on the point you raised – what would a better methodology be, what constitutes a truthful image, where the line on processing should be drawn, and what the next steps should be.

          2. Author

            You are understandably too territorial with your report right now to have an intelligent debate. Maybe we can pick this up in a few years.

            Thanks for the homework David. Will see what I can do.

  2. I wanted to reply to your final comment, but there seems to be a technical issue here that means the ‘reply’ link to that comment is not there as before…so I’ll have to start a new comment thread:

    Your wrote: “You are understandably too territorial with your report right now to have an intelligent debate. Maybe we can pick this up in a few years. Thanks for the homework David. Will see what I can do.”

    To the contrary, I’m open to debate here and now. That’s what I thought was going on with the discussion between us to this point. I just think in a debate the critic’s assumptions and points should also be open for questioning. Surely that is at the heart of Socratic dialogue? I regret therefore you have closed this down without responding to the issues raised about your own argument.

    1. Author

      Haven’t closed anything down. Just thought a breather would be beneficial to everyone involved. You seem to view my criticism of the report as a refusal to read in its terms. I am criticising its terms as I find them extremely limited, thus my post. If the intent was to confirm WP policy as fitting in the overall accepted policies, then it is a huge success. But then, 1. why make it public ( shouldn’t of been an internal memo) 2. Why even engage in a debate.
      Disappointment and criticism comes from what could have been in face of what is (as clearly stated in the original post).

      1. And my disappointment comes from the fact you have very specific points of critique that you introduced to the discussion (there should be a better methodology, what you think constitutes a truthful image, where you think the line on processing should be drawn, and what you think the next steps should be) but don’t want to back up or explain. I don’t see how the Socratic dialogue you rightly want proceeds, if only one side explains their assumptions and approaches. So perhaps you’re right, a breather is in order until this can be properly two-way.

        1. Author


          I am sorry to say that I neither have the time or resources to create my own report based on the terms I have described in my original post. Would love to and maybe when I win the lottery, I might do it. In the mean time, I thought that proposing some extended ( and more appropriate ) terms would be helpful to actually start a debate. Maybe someone else has a different idea.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.