Was the World Press Photo winner a fake? (And what’s a ‘fake’ photo, anyway?)

Was the World Press Photo winner a fake? (And what’s a ‘fake’ photo, anyway?)

Paul Hansen’s image of a funeral procession in a Gazan alleyway on Nov. 20, 2012 is undeniably striking. Two men, their faces warped with grief and anger, carry the shrouded bodies of their young nieces, killed in an Israeli missile strike, while a crowd of men follow behind them. When it was selected as the winner of the 2013 World Press Photo contest in February, the chairman of the contest jury, Associated Press Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon, praised the photograph’s "incredible collection of powerful motifs of imagery, that when it all comes together makes for a really strong photograph."

But was it real? And what does that mean at a time when photo software can aid in collecting the very motifs that made the image so remarkable?

On Monday, British tech writer Sebastian Anthony claimed on the blog ExtremeTech that the photograph isn’t really a photo at all; according to image analyst Neal Krawetz, it’s three photos that were enhanced and stitched together using Photoshop. The proof is in the code, Krawetz argues, which contains a record of the composition. Applying other filters and tools to the image, he writes, shows evidence of additional manipulation including image sharpening and brightening. "Basically," Anthony argues, "Hansen took a series of photos — and then later, realizing that his most dramatically situated photo was too dark and shadowy, decided to splice a bunch of images together and apply a liberal amount of dodging (brightening) to the shadowy regions."

Hansen, for his part, told today that the allegations just aren’t true. "In the post-process toning and balancing of the uneven light in the alleyway, I developed the raw file with different density to use the natural light instead of dodging and burning," the Swedish photographer explained. "In effect to recreate what the eye sees and get a larger dynamic range."

As I understand it, Hansen is arguing that his mild image manipulation is the digital equivalent of under- or over-developing select portions of the image in a darkroom. No fancy bells and whistles — and definitely no composites of other photos. And as points out, this seems to be acceptable according to the somewhat ambiguous rules for the World Press Photo contest, which states that the "content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to the currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed."

At the end of the day, an image from the November conflict between Hamas and Israel was bound to create controversy. The meaning of another photograph from that bout of violence — depicting BBC World journalist Jihad Mashrawi holding his dead son in a hospital — has also been subject to revisions. Initial reports claimed the child was killed by an Israeli attack, while a U.N. investigation found that the death owed to an errant rocket fired by Hamas.

Image manipulation is becoming more and more common in news photography, but many media organizations maintain certain journalistic standards for the pictures they use. Krawetz argues that Hansen’s image violates "the acceptable journalism standards used by Reuters, Associated Press, Getty Images, National Press Photographer’s Association, and other media outlets." Anthony, however, doesn’t seem so certain:

The bigger discussion, of course, is whether Gaza Burial is actually fake — or just enhanced to bring out important details. This is a question that has plagued photography since its inception. Should a photo, especially a press photo, be purely objective? Most people think the answer is an obvious ‘yes,’ but it’s not quite that simple…. Is it okay for a photographer to modify a picture so that it looks exactly how he remembers the scene?

For what it’s worth, the qualities that Lyon, the jury chairman, cited for the award are fundamental to the photograph:

This photo was chosen because it is so powerful…. The combination of the small size of the bodies — they’re very young children — combined with the variety of expressions of pain and rage and sadness…. This image sums up the story very powerfully, very poignantly.

On Tuesday, World Press Photo told the Huffington Post that two independent experts will be carrying out a forensic investigation of the image file with Hansen’s cooperation, and later informed Poynter that it had found "no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing." 

Ultimately, Hansen may have edited the picture to emphasize the features that the judges cited in deeming his image the best photo of the year. But what Lyon described in announcing the award goes far beyond lighting in a dark alley.