I’ve written a few articles about photography ethics, most notably a piece on the disqualification of the 2015 World Press Photo Winner and another about staged photos and representation. After the Troilo debacle, there really was a sense that ‘something had to change’ and it seems they have, with World Press Photo unveiling their New Ethics Guidelines, the key elements of which are shown below (my bold):
- Should be aware of the influence their presence can exert on a scene they photograph, and should resist being misled by staged photo opportunities.
- Must not intentionally contribute to, or alter, the scene they picture by re-enacting or staging events.
- Must maintain the integrity of the picture by ensuring there are no material changes to content.
- Must ensure captions are accurate.
- Must ensure the editing of a picture story provides an accurate and fair representation of its context.
- Must be open and transparent about the entire process through which their pictures are made, and be accountable to the World Press Photo Foundation for their practice.“
Considering that those six points consist of only 100 words, one might wonder why it took so long to come up with them (I would be inclined to agree). However, the greater challenge is surely in the policing of the new rules, because if this is not done effectively, then they are fairly meaningless. World Press Photo has been quite explicit in what constitutes manipulation, so there is little wiggle room for those who may seek latitude in the rules.
Perhaps these new rules (released in November 2015) will help ensure greater integrity in the work we see winning high-profile press awards, but what about day to day press work?
The Reuters Handbook of Journalism provides clear guidelines in support of the Reuters Trust Principles, including sections explicitly referring to photography ethics. It takes a very similar line to World Press Photo, but it again raises the question of how this can be policed. Unlike an award, which may only have to fully vet a few hundred potential winners, Reuters deals with a staggering volume of photographs and policing would seem all but impossible. It is for this reason that they have taken the drastic step of requiring the submission of out of camera JPEGs! While photographs can of course shoot RAW at the same time, Reuters only wants the out of camera JPEG and will not accept JPEGs that have been derived from processed RAW files. Wow.
It seems rather tragic that ethical photographers can no longer exploit the benefits of RAW, because these can be very useful in the field i.e. extra dynamic range in high contrast lighting, better fine detail and fewer artefacts. However, as is typically the case, rules and restrictions are not made for the many, they are designed to prevent the cheating of the few.
If this direction continues, we may notice that press photos look a little less polished, that there are more candy wrappers and plastic bags in scenes, or that lighting has not been quite so well managed. Nonetheless, I am absolutely delighted at the change in direction and feel it was long overdue. While the ‘truth in photography (see this article)’ may be a debatable concept, something did need to be done to restore faith in the photograph in this increasingly manipulative digital age. Losing a little polish is a small price to pay.
I’m going to finish up with a thought, which ironically is related to a famous photograph from the film era, by Nick Ut. Where would the new rules referenced above leave this photograph and what difference would it make?