Last spring, controversy shook one of the world’s most respected photo awards when World Press Photo revealed that 20% of entries that made it to the final round were disqualified for what the jury deemed excessive manipulation. Subsequently, a prize given to Italian photographer Giovanni Troilo was withdrawn for geographic inaccuracies.
The debate snowballed online, spurring questions about the contest's rules and their enforcement. What are the judging procedures? What counts as manipulation? How important is context? The WPP's guidelines were publicly thrown under the microscope—forcing the organization to unveil on Nov. 25 its first code of ethics.
The World Press Photo Foundation has a storied history that dates back to 1955 and has since grown into one of the most lauded awards in the industry. Their annual exhibitions are seen by more than 3.5 million people worldwide, with photojournalists dedicating hours, even years, to stories that might be worthy of the envied prize. But while WPP has had some giant hiccups this year, they are determined to re-establish their role as a leader in the industry.
“When I started, everything was already in place so I went with what was there,” says managing director Lars Boering. “During everything that happened, it strengthened my vision that we needed to take a close look at everything, so we did.”
Boering and WPP's team manager Micha Bruinvels spearheaded a five-month review of the foundation’s activities and previous photo contests, examining similar codes of ethics from journalism associations and media organizations. The primary findings came from 17 consultations with photographers, editors and publishers at events in 15 international locations, from Beijing to Perpignan, New York and Kathmandu (TIME participated in that process). “It was a very consultative process,” says David Campbell, who worked on the contest overhaul team. “It was very much about engaging the community, presenting drafts and getting feedback on those things to come up with solutions.”
The team posed questions about the editor-journalist relationship, photo specifications, image standards and the role that WPP plays in determining the mechanics of an award. “Awards set a standard of what is acceptable, what is good and what should be done,” said Gary Knight at the Image Truth/Story Truth conference at Columbia Journalism School, during one of the 17 consultations. “If that standard falls short of fairness and accuracy, it is problematic because many replicate and produce similar imagery.”
The new code of ethics offers a description of the judging and verification process, as well as clarification on usage rights. They also list a set of guidelines that range from staging to post-processing and manipulation. Image caption requirements specify what is expected sentence by sentence, ensuring accuracy and fair representations of the contextual details.
As for adding and removing content, participants almost unanimously agreed that doing so under any condition was unacceptable. When it comes to toning, however, the lines become hazy. “How do you make that clear without limiting the creativity of photographers to tell the best story?” Campbell asks. “If you apply enough heavy toning to certain areas, you can actually obscure details in the background to the point where you’re taking out content. That’s where we drew the line.”
WPP will implement a verification process in the five days between the jury’s decision and the public winners announcement. An independent fact-checking team will scrutinize metadata, captions and supporting information for accuracy. For those who need further clarification, short, two-minute videos with visual examples will be included on the website.
Additionally, WPP will be launching an online channel that will commission and curate new work, report on the opportunities and challenges of photojournalism, conduct analyses and lead debate. The channel will be on a stand-alone website coordinated by foundation staff along with an external group of contributing editors.
The main goal is to break out of the photo bubble and bring in a broader community as a leader in the field. “We wanted to be a think tank that wasn’t afraid to have an opinion or take a stand—on everything from new business models for visual journalism to the necessity of opposing restrictions on free speech; even if that made us more vulnerable,” Boering said in a statement. “We want to help lead the visual journalism community by offering quality information, rigorous analysis, informed debate, and the most creative approaches to reporting and storytelling.”
Despite past obstacles, WPP is working to re-establish its place as a leading curator of good photography. The skeptics will surface, but Boering says they are prepared. “We’re ready to answer their questions,” he says. “But we are ready for it because we are very clear and we’ve worked on this so hard that we are confident that we have found a way to make the WPP contest stay on top of things.”
Boering hopes the WPP's actions will help spur greater trust in photojournalism. “With such a big audience of people who have not been confronted with great stories, it is our duty to serve that to them and provide insight about the people who made the pictures,” says Boering. “If you do that then you lift up the whole structure and people will value even more the art of visual journalism and the people behind it who are driven in such a beautiful way.”
The 2016 World Press Photo Contest submissions will be open from Dec. 2 to Jan. 13. Entries may be submitted at the World Press Photo entry website. To view the full code of ethics or information regarding the 2016 Photo Contest, click here.