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Drawing the Line

There IS a line. There IS a definable point, a noticeable action. No slippery slope.

From the POYi rules:
• No masks, borders, backgrounds or other artistic effects are allowed.

The Hipstamatic App for iPhones is a software that manipulates colors, saturation, exposure and textures in an image to “Bring back the look, feel, unpredictable beauty, and fun of plastic toy cameras of the past.” (From The Hipstamatic official Facebook page) The website for the app states images become “Artistic and painted with light.”

As described by the the company who created it, this application CLEARLY clashes with POYi rules. Therefore, the winning essay HERE shouldn’t qualify for this contest.

Let me back up and clarify – really quickly – what this post is NOT about:

IT IS NOT A PERSONAL BASHING – I am a HUGE fan of the photographer who made these images. I consider him a friend – when I worked with him, he was very kind to me, a lowly confused intern at a Big-City Paper. I have told several folks that I think he should win POYi this year, for his amazing coverage in Haiti, Afghanistan, and the midterm elections. I consider him one of the best living photojournalists in the world.

IT IS NOT A RANT AGAINST PHONE-PHOTOGRAPHY – This is a documentary/journalistic photography contest. The medium has NOTHING to do with the content. Use a daguerreotype, large-format, medium format, phone, pinhole, whatever. *The physical tool used to make the image is not an issue here.* Several other times I have seen camera phone images win contests and there have been no issues.

If anything, this photographer’s huge stature in the photojournalist community enhances the iPhone’s legitimacy as a tool – The reasons he gives for using the phone are completely functional. This is a photographer who doesn’t need “gimmicks.”

The issue IS about a digital manipulation that was applied to the image. The filter changes the content of the image, and by the rules stated above, should not be applicable in this contest.

The most ironic thing to me is that many other award winning photographs have been MUCH more manipulated than these, but they have been done so on the “slippery-slope” of what can be called “toning.” There are many, many, many other images I personally think have been “toned” to an excessive point that becomes, not a simple color-balance or contrast adjustment, but out-and-out manipulation. Don’t even get me started on this, as I think so many photographers spend more time “toning” their images to outlandish lengths than actually thinking about and making good images to start with… I am NOT condoning those images, or the photographer’s responsibilities in image preparation.
However, I have to concede that standards can be tricky when judgments are made by an “opinion-based” threshold or judgment.

The reason I think this case is so unique – and DOES need to be addressed quickly – is the fact that there is a singular action that can be pointed out and admonished as against the written rules for this prestigious (and guiding) contest.


  1. Joshua wrote:

    Very well-written. I also find it hard to view even the ‘many, many, many’ examples as truthful photojournalism – and the ‘Press this button and make the image interesting’ mentality irks me even more.

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Anja wrote:

    …but wouldn’t the same things apply if he had chosen to use polaroid film? he would have had a frame with every picture and a certain look (very similar to the filters applied by hipstamatic – you don’t have the choice to not use the filters in that app)? I do get your point of the whole over-processing thing, but in this case and with this app, the “post-processing” isn’t done afterwards, it’s just the way the picture comes out, if he chooses to use this “camera”… same thing with dianas, holgas, etc…
    For me it’s just the same as a decision to use a certain film or a certain camera that produces light streaks or a certain colour scheme…
    just my two cents :o)

    Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  3. admin wrote:

    Hi Anja,

    My main point of this discussion is that the POYi contest has rules. These images break those rules.

    Your point about the App being an “in-camera decision,” much like film, is very fair. Another argument is that changing an image to B&W is MORE of a post-processing decision than the usage of this App. Personally, I have not been able to think of a reason that either of those two arguments contain large fallacies. However, I am not disputing those arguments OR the worth of the images.

    Do these images have content? *Yes*
    Is there a place for them in history? *Yes*
    Are they story-telling? *Yes*
    Can the images be published and enjoyed as a way to carry the experience of being there? *Yes*

    The problem is not denying those -or many other- valid points.
    The problem is: Do the images break the rules of the contest they were entered in?

    Hopefully, one of the results of these discussions will be a more clear-cut definition – if not of photojournalism (as well as its purpose and ethnics) for rules and expectations of images and their eligibility.

    One of the most mind-blowing statements I’ve heard in quite some time was made by Bess Greenberg of 25CPW at Luceo Images‘ panel discussion on the future of documentary photography (held in conjunction with their Altered States gallery exhibition) Photoshelter was nice enough to post a video of the discussion HERE.

    She asked: “What if we defined photojournalism too early? Too narrowly?”

    It is a very valid point. If the purpose of photojournalism is simply to share information – not just facts and documentation, but also intangibles such as mood, feelings and emotion – then processing of images is simply another tool.

    I am not a believer that definitions/labels should constrain or hold back. However, clarity is appropriate, especially in competitions, and without a doubt completely necessary in one such as POYi, which influences and documents the artistry, actions and attitudes of photojournalism itself.

    Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  4. Anja wrote:

    Hi Logan!

    You are of course right about the contest rules – if it says no borders etc. then there schould be none. Still if you think this through that would per definitionem exclude analog polaroid pictures with frames as well…

    I understand that your post was about the contest rules, but it triggered a few thoughts and I just thought i’d write them down. It’s very interesting to see how definitions and genres and photography in itself change all the time – at least that’s how I often feel, but exactly this entry made me think if it really has changed that much after all…

    And I have to say I really enjoyed the way you explained your point of view, opposed to so much simple “digital” or “phone-photography” bashing without giving it some real thought.
    Even though I missed your main point about the contest! 😉

    Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  5. Mike wrote:

    Sounds like the problem is in the rules, not the app itself…

    Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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