Post Processing: When a photo can go from true to false.

Kristine Nyborg is a Norwegian photojournalist based out of Vancouver, Canada. She has a BA in Photojournalism, MPhil in Visual Ethnography and teaches photography to anyone who’s willing to partake in a combination of monologues and attentive listening. She has been swinging a camera since 1998, and has made a living from it since 2002, making photographs internationally for mainly Norwegian media organisations. She once found herself in a George W. Bush and Karl Rove sandwich in the doorway of Lincoln’s bedroom while on assignment, and can hold serious conversations on worldly topics but prefers to find ways to make herself laugh. Other people laughing is a bonus.

The last five years she’s been learning how to be a mom, and expects that education to level out around September 2019 when all three kids will be in school. 

(She also wrote this bio about herself in the third person.)

In 2015 and 2016 some stuff happened that riled up the photojournalism community and put all eyes on the meaning of post-production. As real life storytellers, part of our job is to make sure we capture reality as it is, and over processing can radically change that. 

The first thing that happened was a controversy over some photographs submitted to World Press Photo, one of the most renowned photography contests in the industry. 20% of the finalists were disqualified for breaking the post-processing rules. Contestants who made it to the final round were asked to supply the RAW files so the contest could compare them to the submitted photo. Managing Director of WPP, Lars Boering, told PetaPixel back then: “It seems some photographers can’t resist the temptation to aesthetically enhance their images during post-processing either by removing small details, or to ‘clean up’ an image, or sometimes by excessive toning that constitutes a material change to the image. Both types of retouching clearly compromise the integrity of the image.”

Excessive toning. Removal of small details. Integrity of the image.

Here is why this is important. We are subjectively looking at the world through our lenses, which already alters reality some. What we choose to include in the frame is based on a lot of subconscious thinking, and also our perception of how things are in that moment. Once we go back and beautify our images, some of that information can be lost. The image no longer says what was true in the moment the shutter went off, another layer of subjectivity has been added in post-production. When it’s done with a heavy hand it can significantly alter the message of the image. 

Which leads me to the second thing that happened that year. Steve McCurry. You will know his work because he’s ultra famous. Maybe the most famous contemporary photographer of our time. He was also a photojournalist who worked for National Geographic for decades. Now he’s a photographer, that is what he calls himself, and it’s largely due to a huge controversy over his images that unfolded in the spring of 2016. 

Some of McCurry’s images were hung at a show in Italy, and a photographer who happened to drop by noticed one of them had elements that were out of place. Specifically a traffic sign that appeared to have been moved. This launched a huge inquest into McCurry’s work, past and present, and what unraveled was nothing less than scandalous. Over the course of his career he has excessively photoshopped, staged and cloned his photographs. In a press release he tried to distance himself from the mess by calling himself a fine art photographer, removing the photojournalism label, while also laying blame on the people who worked for him. The community was largely outraged by these findings, but there were also those who defended McCurry, like fellow Magnum photographer Peter Van Agtmael. He argued in a TIME article that manipulation should be ok as long as it’s not deceptive, that the process is transparent. The article argues that mainstream media consistently misrepresents facts to be truths. He goes on to say: “I’ve never met two people with the same truth, nor seen true objectivity ever demonstrably applied to anything. They are nice words, but remain aspirational and cloud a more nuanced interpretation of reality and history. We shouldn’t mistake something factual for something truthful, and we should always question which facets are employed, and how.”

The NPPA Ethics Committee chairman Sean D. Elliot said in a story on their website in 2016 about McCurry: “He bears the responsibility to uphold the ethical standards of his peers and the public, who see him as a photojournalist. Any alteration of the journalistic truth of his images, any manipulation of the facts, regardless of how relevant he or others might feel they are to the deeper ‘truth’ constitutes an ethical lapse.” 

Former National Geographic director of photography Tom Kennedy said in the same article: “If one is presenting photojournalism as art and asking people to evaluate it using the same criteria as applied to expression in print or broadcast or digital journalism media, then any manipulation that alters the fundamental scene beyond customary colour adjustments or toning is unacceptable.”

All the above not-to-dos to illustrate this: when it comes to post-production your job is to present it as factual as humanly possible. There are not that many hard and fast rules as far as toning is concerned, but cloning and composite images are a big no-no. Work done with multiple images layered on top of each other or with elements cloned out are not considered documentary or journalistic.  That said, most newspapers won’t accept work that is too heavily processed, so try to stay within the real of reality as much as possible when you work on your photos in post production.

 I think it’s important to keep in mind that once you understand how post-processing in a photojournalistic and documentary way works, then you can also understand how to make it work for you. You want to develop your own style and vision, and in the end your vision is your vision. But the label matters. So if you’re using excessive tools, cloning, making composites, it’s no longer considered documentary work.