Pressures of the press

With the results of two important photojournalism awards soon to be announced — the Canon Media Awards, celebrating excellence in local press photography, and World Press Photo, an international search for the world's best photojournalism — D-Photo presents a feature from sister publication The Photographer's Mail, discussing the 2013 champions of both events.  

Last year’s winning photo in the world’s most prestigious photojournalism competition caused a flurry of controversy in the media, after digital imaging experts accused the image of being a heavily-manipulated fake. Around the same time that quarrel broke out New Zealand was celebrating the pinnacle of local photojournalism achievements in the Canon Media Awards. The Photographer’s Mail speaks with some of the 2013 winners to discover where digital manipulation ranks among the challenges facing Kiwi photojournalism today.

Swedish photographer Paul Hansen’s image of a burial procession in Gaza city picked up the Photo of the Year nod at the 2013 World Press Photo competition, a decision that has seen the organisers come under fire due to the image’s significant digital treatment. Many are now questioning the degree to which a news photo can legitimately be manipulated after the taking, before losing claim to authenticity.

Emma Allen, photographer for the Marlborough Express who was named Junior Press Photographer of the Year at the 2013 Canon Media Awards, doesn’t think Hansen’s photo has been too heavily manipulated, but she admits it’s a difficult line to draw. Though it was the topic of a spirited discussion at her workplace it is not, she says, an issue that affects her own daily work.

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Emma Allen, Marlborough Express

“We would never have the time to do that much editing. He obviously put a lot of work into the photo; we have maybe 10, 20 seconds to edit each photo.”

A glance at Allen’s winning portfolio — featuring such diverse subjects as car crash victims, roller derby players, community fundraisers, and flood-hit families — bears this out. The images evidence the hallmarks of classic photojournalism bereft of all but the subtlest of digital tweaks. While Marlborough Express owner Fairfax Media includes in its Code of Ethics a rule to not “tamper” with photographs beyond the cosmetic, Allen says it’s the unofficial rule to only perform digital edits that could have been performed in the darkroom which guides her and her colleagues.

“Of course we’d never move something around or cut something out or anything like that. Never, never, never.”

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Emma Allen, Marlborough Express

It’s a sentiment echoed by The Daily Post photographer Stephen Parker, who was last year named Senior Press Photographer of the Year at the media awards programme. While editors are always looking for an eye-catching photo for the front page, he has not seen anything in New Zealand photojournalism that approaches the realm of doctored images.

“It’s the same as it’s always been, just the same old burning and dodging under Photoshop.”

Rather than computer acumen, the 15-year veteran says the ability to concentrate and find form with each and every job is the bigger challenge with working in the local news industry.

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Stephen Parker, The Daily Post

“Sometimes I feel like I’m owed the pictures because I’ve put in the time in the testing conditions, and nobody else is there,” Parker explains.

“Sometimes the pictures you envisage don’t come, but then there are the days when everything falls into place — the horrific attack happens in front of you while doing a street poll, or the five-year-old triplets at the breakfast club have both infectious smiles and shocking footwear.”

He says he was happy to pull in the award for the Rotorua newspaper, which doesn’t have the resources some of the larger media outlets do (“I’m usually the one on the ground and the bigger papers and TV networks are buzzing overhead in the choppers”). But a smaller paper does not mean a smaller workload, especially with the industry-wide increase in demand for online imagery and video in addition to print photos.

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Stephen Parker, The Daily Post

“You’re sort of wearing two hats, if you’ve got time you try to shoot the video as well. The advantage of working on a small paper is pretty much everything gets used.”

With the future of print media still in question, the biggest trend reported within the industry was a shift towards the web, accompanied by an increased urgency in turnaround and a more diverse array of media products.

Despite this, there’s still an appreciation in the industry for crafting a classic news image, says Natasha Martin of the Timaru Herald. She took home the Best Feature Photo award, a new category at the 2013 Canon Media Awards, for a warm environmental portrait of an elderly man, just enrolled in a chef’s course for people aged over 65, serving his wife a boiled egg. Martin says the time pressure of a daily newspaper is no barrier to connecting with subjects; it is a simple matter of treating people with respect. She was with the subjects of her winning image for around 40 minutes.

“I really enjoy being able to spend time with subjects prior and just listening to the interview, as the picture idea will normally come to me during this time. So then it’s just a matter of replaying what would typically happen in that scenario and letting the picture unfold before you.”

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Natasha Martin, Timaru Herald

Though she hopes respect for straight photojournalism will continue into the future, Martin says her advice to anyone starting out would be to build skills beyond still images.

“I think the biggest challenge these days is breaking away from past ideas, offering the readers something different by use of multimedia, informative photo essays, graphics, etc., all alongside a great read but most importantly delivering that package in a professional visual.”

The winning images at last year’s Canon Media Awards would seem to clear the local industry of the concerns raised by the World Press Photo debate, with technical camera talent valued well ahead of digital editing skill. The news industry’s self-regulatory body, The Press Council, confirms that alarm over image manipulating is not a concerning trend within New Zealand — there have been no complaints relating to technical manipulation of photos in recent years.

All of which is not to say digital editing of photojournalism imagery does not have a place here. The Iris Awards, the annual awards programme of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography (NZIPP), contains a Photojournalism category in which minor exposure, contrast and colour adjustments are allowed in pursuit of a high quality print. Kaye Davis, chair of the NZIPP honours council, believes Hansen’s controversial World Press Photo entry would also have been accepted into the local competition.

“Under the criteria, entries must reflect the authenticity of the original scene without any form of manipulation that takes this away … Even when reading through the debates over the image, there is no indication that the scene is anything but authentic in its content.”

She acknowledges that the level of editing allowed under the criteria can be “a little subjective”, but says things like removing elements, such as power lines, or adding elements, like replacing a head where a person’s eyes are closed, are clear violations of the rules.

In the Iris Awards it is important to note that the judges are looking at the photographer’s print quality as well as what the image communicates, a consideration that is not shared at the Canon Media Awards. But Davies says while digital technology is changing the photographic environment, which can lead to healthy debate, the core ethics behind photojournalism remain unchanged.

“There will always be images that push the boundaries and make us question what we do, and I see this as a good thing. Ultimately, it is up to the organisers of the competitions to determine exactly what they are looking for in entries and be specific when setting the rules.”

The erosion of photojournalistic integrity through digital manipulation may not have taken root in the New Zealand industry but the impact of technology is impossible to ignore. The Canon Media Awards show a strong appreciation of conventional photojournalistic aptitude remains. But in an industry where jobs comprising solely of conventional photojournalism are increasingly scarce, those keeping up with the technological tides are most likely to stay afloat in a swiftly evolving market.

 The judging process for 2014’s Canon Media Awards is currently underway, with  the awards night to be held on May 9 in Auckland.