About the most dissected photograph of the year
In the three decades I worked in the news business I have witnessed many changes in the way news are being gathered, edited, packaged and presented to an audience.
The winning image of the 2013 Word Press Photo of the Year Award, taken (unless you rather say created) by photojournalist Paul Hansen, continues to be at the center of a great controversy amongst accusations of being “fake”, excessively manipulated, digitally altered, etcetera.
Obviously, I am not here to add my humble voice to the thousands of highly skilled pixel analysts who have already used the most sophisticated tools available, including “forensic image testing”, to determine how much the image has actually been over-manipulated and how. If that is of interest, you can read all about it here.
Instead, I am here to write a few brief observations the maelstrom of “rage against the photojournalist” has provoked in the heart of this old newsman.
First of all have you had a good look at this image? Regardless of any Photoshop dodging, burning, lightening, darkening, layering, or other pixel manipulation applied, it remains a very strong image, a troubling image, an image that tells a story that is never told enough in today’s news reports. In the end that is what really matters to me and I wish we could talk more about that rather than insist in an endless technical pixel peeping.
Is the original, un-retouched photo less strong and poignant than the allegedly over-retouched version submitted to the 2013 Word Press Photo of the year jury panel?
Does it tell less of a story? I don’t think so.
I ask myself: why then did the photographer feel a need to retouch this photo?
I think Mr. Hansel did it because of a veiled but welcome “stylistic sensationalism” which again and again proves to be a winner whenever a decision is to be made of what image gets published or discarded in the rapidly vanishing photo journalistic outlets that still exist.
In other words, unlike when I started in the industry, a strong raw image today, often appears to be in need of being somewhat “reinforced” by an accurate (and obviously sometimes excessive) post-production process in order to be selected for publishing by the editors in charge.
You can perhaps better understand why I say this, just watching several of the other 2013 Word Press Photo Award winning pictures here.
Remember, in the film days there was only a very limited amount of retouching available to the photographer after the photo was taken. As a photographer the main objectives were “simply” a (fairly) accurate focus, being “on the money” with your exposure, particularly if you worked with Kodachrome or other reversal stocks with little latitude, and finally, a good framing. Other important assets for a photojournalist in the past were “being there”, have the ability to visually tell the story and deliver your images fast, before deadline.
Here comes the digital imaging age, easily enabling endless retouching and manipulation at any time in its swift electronic journey from acquisition in the field to an editor’s desk.
Add to that a (perhaps Hollywood-induced) visual sensationalism ever so common both on television and on plenty newspapers today, and I ask you: aren’t these clear enough hints to follow, even unconsciously, for a working photographer who desires his/her pictures to get published (or win a prize)?
So, I guess, I would like to dissipate at least some of the un-relentless criticism so many have poured on Mr. Hansen’s photograph and professional integrity or at lest invite them to point such criticism towards countless other gatekeepers of today’s journalism, and their “firm journalistic standards” which, as it has happened in the past, continue to be re-assessed and revised, as this industry and society change along with their stylistic, editorial, marketing rules, as well as their preferences and expectations.
The experts’ last word: after all the hoo-ha, Mr. Hensel’s picture WASN’T a fake !
Do you think this photograph would have had more impact if it had been retouched in Photoshop ?
© Nick Ut/The Associated Press