Fantastic debate going on in the world of photojournalism right now as two of the top contests have awarded images that stretch the definition of photojournalism. Wait, there’s a definition of photojournalism!? No, and that’s the reason for the debate. If contest organizers, newspapers and magazines would simply define what’s acceptable and what’s not, there would be no debate. It’s pointless for an all encompassing definition to exist because purists want facsimile’s and populists want aesthetics. What’s important is that contests and publications communicate to their followers the rules they’ve laid out and the purpose for them. If factual information is imperative to your mission then you must fact-check your photography (magazines) or hire photographers who follow your carefully defined rules (newspapers) just like you do with your writing. Asking photographers to police themselves is silly and lame.
The first debate erupted when Damon Winter was awarded 3rd place at POYi for a series of images taken for the NY Times with his iphone and processed in the phone with the Hipstamatic app. The very vague rules for POYi and the NY Times are as follows:
Assistant Managing Editor for Photography Michele McNally (here):
We do allow basic contrast/tonal adjustments as well as some sharpening and noise reduction.
POYi Rules (here):
No masks, borders, backgrounds or other artistic effects are allowed.
WOW. You people are really laying it out for everyone. Good job. Now that cameras are basically mini computers you sound like you’re stuck in 1984.
The second debate bubbled up when Michael Wolf was awarded honorable mention in the Contemporary Issues category at the World Press Photo contest (here) for a series of images taken of his computer screen while looking at google street view. In this case there seems to be not much debate about rules but rather a collective huh from photographers wondering if this really qualifies as picture taking.
FYI these are the equally lame World Press Rules (here):
11. The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide.
12. Only single-frame images will be accepted. Composite and multiple exposure images will not be accepted. Images with added borders, backgrounds or other effects will not be accepted. Images must not show the name of a photographer, agency, or publication.
So, while the debate about it is great for photography, personally I have no problem with the tools photojournalists choose to tell their story. I do have a problem with contests and publications that claim to uphold the ideals of photojournalism but leave photographers flapping in the wind when it comes to defining what that means.
I highly recommend reading though the different threads on the debate.
More on the Damon Winter controversy:
More on the Michael Wolf controversy: