Photo Manipulation Controversy: Ethical Breach or Creativity?

Oct 25, 2006

The recent 2015 World Press photo competition was home to a great deal of controversy when several of the favored images were disqualified for “overmanipulation.” For professional and amateur photographers alike, this raises the question: how much alteration is too much? When does post-production manipulation become deception? Photoshop and assorted post-production tools are an integral part of the photographer’s toolkit, but many purists look upon them as “cheating.” Today we’ll explore the ethics of staging and manipulation and try to find the line between recording images and creating art.


The Ethical Issue

The World Press Society is currently retooling its entry rules to be more in alignment with ethical journalistic practices — which is to say, staging the photo’s contents or altering them digitally is now forbidden. Over half of the 1,500+ photographers surveyed by the organization admitted to “sometimes” staging photographs, while more than 10% said they did so more than half the time. While this practice is expressly forbidden by newswire services and the Associated Press, it’s apparently become something of an open secret in the photojournalism community.

The conductors of the study later stated that the questions may have been confusing, and pointed out that expecting photojournalists to remain completely removed from the events they document is unrealistic. Even with these stipulations, the conversation continues: where is the line between recording and creating?


The Professional Perspective

The New York Times surveyed photographers and photo editors regarding the controversy. The opinions were diverse, but it was generally agreed upon that photo editing and manipulation are far more widespread than is perceived by the public. Stanley Greene of Noor Images characterized the practice as poisonous to the public’s trust in the media, particularly with regard to disaster areas. The Associated Press’s photography vice-president condemned staging as having “no place in journalism,” while Donald Weber of VII Photo Agency urged readers to look toward the problem’s source: media members who prioritize clicks, views, and shares over journalistic ethics.


The Counterpoint

Not everyone agrees that staging or otherwise manipulating photographs is inherently unethical. A directed picture can sometimes convey truth that an in-the-moment snap would miss — and a good image’s attention-grabbing nature means that people pay attention to critical news issues they may otherwise overlook.

The ethical lines between staged and candid photography are fine and easily blurred, and the definitions of both often shift over time. However, the World Press’s strong pushback shows that for some ethical lines are still firmly drawn.


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