Enhanced Reality: Exploring the Boundaries of Photo Editing

PHOTO: The 2013 World Press Photo of the year by Paul Hansen, Sweden, for Dagens Nyheter

Even top news photographers have their work digitally enhanced these days. Mounting competition in the market for news images is forcing photo-journalists to make their output as dramatic as possible. But where are the limits of cosmetic improvement?

The photo looks like a still from a movie. A funeral procession is passing through a narrow street in Gaza. There are gray walls on both sides, and between them, looking almost choreographed, are the mourners, a crowd of angry men stretching into the distance. They are carrying the bodies of two children, Suhaib and Mohammed, and, further back, the body of their father, Fuad Hijazi. They were killed when an Israeli bomb struck their apartment building.

The image conveys a beauty that seems almost inappropriate. The way the despairing faces of the men and the innocent faces of the dead children reflect the light -- it seems almost too perfect to be true.

So is it?

A week ago Paul Hansen, who took the photo for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, received the World Press Photo Award 2013 for the image. At the awards ceremony in Amsterdam, he talked about how the photo came about. He was fighting back tears as he described what it was like to visit the surviving family members once again, months after the funeral.

But one thing Hansen didn't want to talk about is how much the power of this image is the result of skillful editing. He had intended to bring along the RAW file, which is essentially the photo's digital original, for comparison purposes -- but he claims that he forgot to bring it. Hansen does not want to participate in the discussion, which he feels is unseemly, but that doesn't stop the discussion from taking place.

Pro-Israeli bloggers and journalists, in particular, had accused him of manipulation and embellishment. Other photographers have also been critical of the photo's selection for the World Press Award. Some fear that the boundaries are becoming blurred between journalistic photography, on the one hand, and artistic and commercial image design, on the other. Industry publications like Freelens Magazin have also voiced criticism of the trend.

Starting this Thursday, Hansen's photo and many other World Press Photo Award winners will be on display at the Gruner+Jahr publishing house headquarters in Hamburg. The exhibition will give the general public the chance to decide whether modern photography is indeed aestheticizing horror.

Hansen himself says that the magical light in that Gaza alley, which so effectively frames the mourners in his photo, was simply there, and that it was the kind of light that a photographer only captures once every few years -- and not something that was created after the fact on a computer.

A Digital Darkroom Revolution

Nowadays programs like Photoshop make it easier than ever to edit photos once they have been taken. In addition to making it possible to clearly manipulate a photo, they provide the tools to almost effortlessly remove, add or modify content. The computer perfects and expands the possibilities of what was once done in the darkroom to enhance the effectiveness of a photo during development and printing.

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