Every year, like clockwork, the World Press organization reveals its selection of winning images and photo essays for what it considers the best photos of the year.
This year, as the world is in lockdown, nothing has changed. Out of 73,996 photographs entered by 4,282 photographers from 125 countries, a few were selected as the top of the 2019 crop. While we already touched upon the fact that photojournalism should not be a competition, we have seldom discussed the hypocrisy of this competition and the photojournalism world in general. This year’s selection of winners just brought it back.
There are a lot of Black and White photos in the pool of winners. Yet, there is no more flagrant manipulation of reality than reducing a world that is in color into a few shades of black and white. It is a lie. It eliminates essential information. On purpose. Yet, year after year, competitions after competitions, it is not only accepted but revered as the epitome of photojournalism. It’s in black and white so it must be
The process of deliberately removing color is exactly like purposely deleting elements in a photograph. The thinking behind it is that color is disruptive to the information conveyed. The same way as an object or person in the frame could be disruptive. Yet, we are okay with removing color but scream Fake if any component is deliberately erased from an image. Why?
Entry rule 12 of the World Press Photo states, “the content of a picture must not be altered by adding, rearranging, reversing, distorting or removing people and/or objects from within the frame.” It will not allow for too flagrant color manipulations, beyond little correction. However, striping an image of ALL its colors is okay.
Enters the fallacy of tradition and the reference to the “classics”: Capa, Bourke-White, Eugene Smith and so on, all shot in Black and White. And since they are considered the great masters of photojournalism, replicating their process is perfectly acceptable, if not honorable. We forget that if they used black and white, the reasons were:
- Color film was challenging, expensive and delicate to process.
- B&W film could be developed anywhere easily. Still is.
- B&W worked much better in difficult light and was much more versatile.
- Publications were mostly printed in BW. Especially Newspapers. They did not need color. They were competing with the TV, which was also in B/W.
Today, none of these reasons exist anymore. Film processing is long gone, the internet is all color, all the time, no one cares what is on TV anymore, and sensors can capture light from a star’s flicker.
Thus shooting in B&W is now a willing decision, one that clearly states that the images you are looking at are deliberately manipulated to influence your understanding. The photographer has purposely removed elements – in this case, color – hiding information from the viewer.
The same way as Steve Mc Curry has his images photoshopped. Yet he gets chastised and thrown into the dumpster of the disappointing heroes of photography while those who shoot in Black and White win awards. It doesn’t seem logical. In fact, it is pure hypocrisy.
In a time where consumers are bombarded with biased, manipulated, censored, and false news, photojournalism should heighten its tolerated level of credibility by rejecting any and all intentional image manipulation. It should clearly declare that B/W photography has no place in a competition aimed at rewarding those who cover and report the truth.
B&W photography is a deliberate deception, like erasing content, and should only be used for illustration or social commenting, not photojournalism.
main photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash