Enhanced Reality: Exploring the Boundaries of Photo Editing

The procedure is called "post-processing," and Claudio Palmisano is a master at it. He works with two colleagues in a garage-sized space on a quiet street in Rome. His company is called 10b Photography, named after the street address of the studio. The old Kodak slogan, "You press the button. We do the rest" is on the door, but one word has been added: "better." It isn't just an advertising pitch, but can also be interpreted as a suggestion that what photos show has always been more than "reality." "It used to be a chemical process, and now it's a mathematical one," says Palmisano. Today people can use their computers to adjust contrast and saturation, elements that were once determined by the film and its development.

Photographers upload 50 to 100 images a day onto 10b's server. Palmisano begins by making automatic corrections to the photos on his computer, a process in which he hardly pays any attention to the image itself.

Then the detailed work begins. He darkens areas along the upper edge of one image to draw the viewer's eye toward the lower part. In a photo depicting a soldier in the foreground, he carefully and manually enhances the gun. In another photo, he makes the shocking and luminous red of a bleeding wound seem less glaring. The supposed original, he says, would simply not have corresponded to our expectations of what blood looks like.

Moving Pixels Oversteps the Mark

What distinguishes Palmisano is not just the virtuosity with which he uses the software, but also perhaps the fact that he is aware of how sensitive his work is.

Francesco Zizola, a photographer who co-founded 10b with Palmisano six years ago, says: "The difference between photojournalism and photography is ethics. We are good at trying out possibilities without overstepping limits."

For 10b, there is a clear definition of what constitutes impermissible manipulation of a journalistic photo. It includes, for example, moving around pixels within a photo. But the choice of development techniques, as well as modifying contrast, saturation and density, are all allowed in principle.

"There are no 'correct' colors," says Palmisano. "It's all relative." In 2008, his partner Zizola won a World Press Photo prize with a photo of a Colombian refugee camp with a double rainbow overhead. The colors were so intensified through editing that the scene looks almost surreal. This is allowed, says Palmisano. What isn't permitted, he adds, is to change the relationship among the colors and to turn, for example, the green house in the photo into a red one.

News agencies, in particular, place significantly narrower limits on what is permissible, but they too do not completely prohibit post-processing. The Associated Press (AP), for example, essentially allows only the kinds of enhancements that were once commonplace in the darkroom, and that "restore the authentic nature of the photograph," as the agency states a little enigmatically.

"Changing the sky excessively can be problematic," says AP Vice President Santiago Lyon, who chaired the World Press jury this year. On the other hand, "there is no absolute rule in terms of enhancement," Lyon notes. "The jury is made up of industry leaders and their decisions can be right even if they don't exactly conform to AP's standards," he adds.

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