Photographer takes photograph. Then: crops out 90% of the image. Converts colour to black and white. Artificially adds grain. Dodges and burns to within an inch of its life. Finally clones out about 100 background pixels. Guess which step the World Press Photo judges objected to?

When the story first leaked that WPP had annulled their award to Stepan Rudick for his “Street Fighting In Kiev” series word was that he had removed an object from one of the pictures. WPP later confirmed this, stating that Rudick had been disqualified because “an element had been removed from one of the original photographs”. The element, as we now know, was part of a foot in the background of the photograph.

But in quoting the missing foot as the reason for Rudick’s disqualification WPP are being at least as dishonest as the photographer. It’s now clear that WPP would not even have detected Rudick’s digital handiwork had Ukrainian photographers who had seen the unmanipulated versions of the pictures not tipped them off. Having been alerted WPP were faced with an uncomfortable choice. They could stand by the award, knowing that word would rapidly spread that the winning versions of the photographs were radically different from the originals, and brace themselves for a starring role in the latest press photo fakery scandal; or they could take the apparently principled step of withdrawing the award.

However the latter presented the judges with an uncomfortable problem, for all Rudick had apparently done was follow the WPP reportage recipe book: black and white pushed two stops, burn down, vignette, print on grade 5. That kind of stuff is meat and drink to WPP, so combined with the gritty title – for a set of pictures where no streets seem visible – it’s no surprise the judges fell for it.

Photo © Stepan Rudick: the original full-frame...the crop...and the World Press Photo entry
But if WPP had disqualified Rudick purely on the basis of crop, burn, dodge and vignette they wouldn’t have much of a contest left: many entries, including winners, use the same techniques to varying degrees. Take for example Platon’s 1997 winning portrait of Vladimir Putin. Is anyone at WPP seriously suggesting that the erstwhile Russian president actually looks like that?

The likely truth is that having been alerted by the Ukrainians the judges set about poring over the pictures searching for something – anything – that would provide a viable excuse for disqualification. Fortunately for them they found a couple of missing toes to serve as a fig leaf to cover their own embarrassment.

If WPP are going to ask photographers to justify the validity of their winning entries by providing raw files – and they pretty much have to from now on – then they also need to be able to justify the validity of their own rules. On this year’s evidence they can’t, nor have they even tried to. While Rudick has been smart enough to gracefully accept the disqualification, he’s also taken the opportunity to publicly explain his position and attempt to justify his actions. WPP on the other hand have remained silent apart from their initial announcements, presumably in the hope the fuss will blow over. It won’t, for the simple reason that here will be another contest next year, carrying with it the potential for further scandal. Unless everyone suddenly goes back to shooting film this is not a problem that is going to go away.

Anyone can see through the WPP fiction on the Rudick affair. What nobody can see is a clear definition of what is and is not acceptable in terms of digital manipulation of contest entries. For now, thanks to the way WPP mishandled this incident, the message appears to be:

  • You can convert from colour to black and white – sometimes.
  • You can crop, but not too much and we’re not going to tell how much is too much.
  • Lots of grain and contrast is ok, but don’t overdo it.
  • We usually like vignetting, but sometimes we don’t.
  • Misleading story titles are fine.
  • And never show your unmanipulated pictures to other photographers.
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2 Responses to “The World Press Photoshop Police Are Wrong”

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by lostart: “Unless everyone suddenly goes back to shooting film this is not a problem that is going to go away.” Jeremy Nicholl http://is.gd/aFZvt

  2. […] The photographer neglected to use the World Press Photo recommended formula: convert to b/w, burn down 2 stops, add 100% contrast, run Tunnel Vision™ vignette plug-in, […]

  3. police photoshop for effect

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