Digital photography can be a ‘lying experience’, says famed war photographer Don McCullin.

Don McCullin at Somerset House in London on Friday [Photo credit: © C Cheesman]

Speaking at an event to promote Photo London 2016, where the photographer will take centre stage, Don McCullin added: ‘The whole thing can’t be trusted.’

Speaking earlier, McCullin explained that his decision to return to the Iraq warzone a few years ago enabled him to see events ‘first hand’, rather than having to rely on images published by the media.

McCullin’s comments – at Somerset House, where Photo London will take place in May – came as news agency Reuters this month confirmed it has banned freelance photographers from sending images as ‘raw’ files.

Digital manipulation of press photos has led to controversy in recent years.

Earlier this month, the Australia-based Nikon-Walkley Awards was forced to issue a statement about an altered image after photographer David Caird inadvertently entered a manipulated photo.

As far back as 2006, a Reuters photographer was sacked for digitally ‘doctoring’ two images, which seemingly exaggerated the impact of Israeli air strikes on Lebanon.

In recent weeks, Reuters has moved to tackle photographers’ use of image enhancement.

According to US website PetaPixel, Reuters sent freelance photographers an email which stated: ‘In future, please don’t send photos to Reuters that were processed from RAW or CR2 files. If you want to shoot raw images that’s fine, just take JPEGs at the same time. Only send us the photos that were originally JPEGs, with minimal processing (cropping, correcting levels, etc).’

A Reuters UK spokesman has since told Amateur Photographer: ‘As eyewitness accounts of events covered by dedicated and responsible journalists, Reuters Pictures must reflect reality. While we aim for photography of the highest aesthetic quality, our goal is not to artistically interpret the news.’

Reuters’ Handbook on Journalism already contains strict rules on image enhancement in Photoshop.

For example, in-camera sharpening is not allowed and subsequent sharpening in Photoshop is limited to 300%, at a radius of 0.3 and threshold of 0.

In September, a global survey of photojournalists revealed that only 10% of photographers never enhance the in-camera or raw files by altering contrast, hue, tone or saturation.

And 51% said they do this ‘often’ or ‘always’.

When asked if they stage photos – by asking subjects to pose or repeat actions, for example – 36% said ‘never’ but 52% said ‘sometimes’.

The poll of more than 1,500 photographers in more than 100 countries was carried out by the World Press Photo Foundation and Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

  • Wilson Laidlaw

    Of course manipulation of analogue images went on. That is why the phrase “air brushing” is still in common use.

    I am very surprised at Reuter’s stipulation on JPEG’s. Surely JPEG’s are far easier to manipulate than a RAW image, as if the RAW file is sent unclipped, an alteration trail will still be attached to the file. All Reuters need to do is to say all RAW or DNG files must be complete and not have the history trail deleted. I did not think it was possible to alter for example, a DNG file undetectably.

  • chris

    I totally agree with Don. I am a current 35mm and MF shooter as well as a digital user. Doctoring originals has been going on since the days of glass plates. No comparison should be made between the darkroom and the lightroom. Manipulating a convincing print in the darkroom is a seriously skilled job. I mean seriously skilled! Whereas with PS and LR you can do it any time, any place and anywhere in minutes with often minimal skill. Editing a MF or 35mm neg is practically impossible to do without obvious telltale signs and especially on chromogenic film. Digital photographers just don’t know how easy they have it.

  • I don’t agree entirely with his views. Photo manipulation has been around since the camera was invented! I’m a former 35mm film camera user and I know ‘doctoring’ of images in the darkroom went on then (not saying I did that of course!) Nothing has changed, except maybe now it’s quicker with PS and LR.