Danish Debate Leads to Disqualification

The use of HDR technology and other Photoshop techniques leads to disqualification in a Danish photojournalism contest. What are the limits to processing images? What is accurate and what is extreme?

This appeared in News Photographer Magazine in May, 2009.

Contest judges were angry when some pictures went "too far."

by Donald Winslow

The ethical questions surrounding photojournalists’ use of Photoshop in image processing is not a controversy limited to the American publishing market. Recently an embroilment raged in Denmark when a photojournalist, Copenhagen’s Klavs Bo Christensen, was disqualified from a contest because judges determined that his image manipulation went too far.

The discussion that followed the disqualification of Christensen’s pictures from the Danish version of “Pictures Of The Year” was heated, Jens Tønnesen told News Photographer magazine. Tønnesen is the Webmaster for the Danish Union of Press Photographers. He wrote about the debate on the Danish Union’s Web site and, after the debate spread beyond Denmark, was persuaded to publish a version of the ethics blog in English.

A rule change in their contest a few years ago allows judges to request a photographer’s RAW files if there is any doubt about the images. The Danish contest’s new rule reads: “Photos submitted to Pictures of The Year must be a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure. You may post-process the images electronically in accordance with good practice. That is cropping, burning, dodging, converting to black and white as well as normal exposure and color correction, which preserves the image’s original expression. The judges and exhibition committee reserve the right to see the original raw image files, raw tape, negatives and/or slides. In cases of doubt, the photographer can be pulled out of competition.”

And that’s what happened this year. Danish judges asked Christensen to provide his RAW files from a story he submitted about Haiti.

Tønnesen said that when judges saw the RAW files, three of Christensen’s images “invoked the judges’ anger,” and the entry was disqualified.

The Danish judges told Tønnesen that they repeatedly saw images in the contest that were Photoshopped in a way that made judges “deem them unreliable,” but that Christensen’s Haiti photographs “went too far.”

“After going through my images and re-editing them, I can only agree [with the judges] and I am not especially proud of it,” Christensen wrote to News Photographer.

“It goes far beyond my own standards of ethics. I also agreed to letting people see my disqualified images since I think the debate is important, and hopefully it will give a constructive debate that people can learn from. I have learned a lot myself. The funny thing is, I have never ‘overdone’ my images like that before or after. I am still beating myself since I think the [Haiti] story is very important.”

Christensen said that it’s been difficult to read some of the comments that have accompanied the debate, as is being “on stage” because of his pictures.

“Sometimes I think I should never have started the debate in Denmark. I had no idea that it would go worldwide and personally, I’ve got nothing out of doing this except a lot of harsh comments ... so I hope this gets used in a constructive way.”

After the disqualification Christensen told Tønnesen that from now on he plans to avoid any more controversy by participating in the contest using photographs that are “only in black-and-white,” Tønnesen said.

The National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics clearly addresses the issue of manipulation: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images ... in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.” A digital update added to the Code of Ethics in 1991 also says, “We believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public ... accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession.”