When the world’s premier press photography competition is rejecting one in every five entries due to the use of digital manipulation in one way or another, we have a problem.
 
For starters, it’s disturbing that there are documentary photo-graphers who apparently think it’s OK to make a few tweaks here and there, altering reality in order to create, supposedly, a better picture.
 
More worryingly, photojournalism is pretty well the last bastion of photographic integrity, because wholesale manipulations are pretty well endemic elsewhere, including in landscapes. It’s this that has prompted Ken Duncan – whose commercial success in landscape photography is well documented – to launch his own awards, focusing on what he calls “photo realism”. Ken defines these images as those in which “…the use of digital manipulation should be minimal to preserve the integrity of our photographic records”. The distinction is with “photo illustration” where “…a photo is used in the creation of an artwork with no limitation on post-processing techniques”. 
 
You can read more about the REAL Australia Landscape Awards here, but after receiving the press release from Ken Duncan, a couple of things happened which, I think, further highlight the problem. Firstly, I attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which was an evening’s screening of documentaries, all on the theme of mountains, either the environment aspects or the associated extreme sports. Some of the films were quite short, but what struck me was that there was no room for fakery here… you can’t fudge free-climbing a new route up a sheer granite pinnacle and you can’t fudge the filming of it, not if you’re going to convincingly convey the effort, the risks and the dramas. It’s all about the camera work and, in some situations, the cinematographer is doing as much as the adventurer in order to capture the real essence of what’s going on.
 
A couple of days later it was more than interesting to read David Stratton’s review of the new Mad Max film in the Review section of The Weekend Australian newspaper. This is, of course, very far removed from making a documentary about extreme sports, but here too, perceptions of realism are an issue. 
 
He makes this observation… “In the two extended chase sequences that comprise most of the film, the stunts are often amazing, though in this era of CGI and visual effects it’s not always easy to judge the genuine stunt from the digitised artifice.”
 
In other words, the idea that you can create something fantastical or risky-looking in the warmth and comfort of a design studio actually has the effect of diminishing the efforts of somebody who does the same thing but for real.
 
And then, just to further cement these thoughts, I was asked to open an exhibition of landscape photography in my home town in the Blue Mountains. The photographer, Peter Hill, has been trying to capture the elusive qualities of Blue Mountains landscapes, which has involved lots of pre-dawn rising, tricky descents into canyons and long waits in cold and damp conditions. This is because Peter creates his pictures in-camera (interestingly, he frequently uses a tilt/shift lens) and has similar views to Ken Duncan about post-camera manipulation, but inevitably he’s tarred with the Photoshop brush too. Everybody – as in the viewing public – now just expects that if an image looks truly amazing or dramatic it has to have been created via some form of manipulation. We’re rapidly becoming conditioned to the idea that something ‘out of this world’ can’t possibly have been created in this world.
Adventure or extreme sports film-making may just be the last bastion of pictorial integrity, although documentaries as a whole would still generally be considered to have a high level of believability. And, sadly, perhaps now increasingly also news clips versus the press photo.
 
But can we put the manipulation genie back in the bottle? Given how endemic and insidious it’s now become, it’s very unlikely, but press photography may continue to be protected by 
ever-vigilant judges in competitions such as the World Press Awards rigorously enforcing the rules.
 
It may be already too late for landscape photo-graphy, although perhaps if enough people get involved with Ken Duncan’s awards it will be seen as an endorsement of the need to return to an emphasis on camera work performed on location. And certainly the judges of other photography competitions need to stop being seduced by the fantastical and get back to evaluating the real elements of photography, namely what goes in the camera.
 
It’s the camera that makes photography unique and, without it, we’ve got nothing.
 
PAUL BURROWS, Editor, ProPhoto