This crazy thing happened on the way to the anointing of our annual Photo Awards winners. We received an image of a statuesque great horned owl, perched on an autumnal branch in a Spanish-mossy wood, vamping a self-possessed stare over its right shoulder. It was a calendar shot for the ages, ordinary beauty rendered extraordinary. The judges swooned. “The colors and composition were just perfect,” Kenn Kaufman told me. “The image captured the character, or ‘feel,’ of a great horned owl, but it went beyond that.” The image sailed onto the short list and, as part of the standard vetting, its creator, Matthew Studebaker, was asked to send in the original file. Upon inspection, the file revealed the same forest primeval, except here the branch was occupied by a hunched, squinty version of the regal owl the judges had fallen for—same bird, different pose. The image was clearly a composite. And thus, our presumptive Grand Prize honoree got slapped with a DQ.
Our contest rules are clear: “All photographs must . . . accurately reflect the subject matter as it appeared in the viewfinder. Photos that have been digitally or otherwise altered beyond standard optimization (including but not limited to removal of dust, cropping, and/or adjustments to color and contrast) will be disqualified.” And can we even quibble with this? Here, after all, is what all photographic ethics, as it relates to manipulation, comes down to: What is your contract with your audience? What are they expecting? And based on that, are you deceiving them? “I think our readers take it for granted that all our photography is a real representation of nature,” said Creative Director Kevin Fisher, who oversees the photo awards and has no qualms about the disqualification of Matthew Studebaker.
Nor, for that matter, does Matthew Studebaker. He was, in fact, genuinely apologetic when I caught up with him by phone. Sorry, he said, to have wasted the judges’ time—though he wasn’t sorry to have manipulated the photo in the first place. Would you be? What happened, he said, was that he’d captured that majestic pose in one of his earliest shots, in vertical orientation with the owl crowding the frame. Later he decided his horizontal compositions were more powerful. But the owl had only harrumphed at full height that once, when Studebaker had it suboptimally framed. (The red line on the photo below roughly marks the invisible boundary where the two images were joined into one.) “That’s just using the tools you have available to help depict what you saw,” Studebaker said. “And tools continue to evolve.”
And, as they do, maybe the “rules” for what’s acceptable need to evolve, too. Or maybe not—I’ll be very curious to hear what you think. Drop me a line at email@example.com, and find all sorts of fascinating fuel for the conversation here, including an opportunity to tell us whether, and how, you think our contest rules should be altered.
I’ll leave the last word, for now, to the ever-thoughtful Kenn Kaufman, who surprised me with his tolerance for Studebaker’s deception. “I have to say,” he said, “that even though it was rightly disqualified from the contest—and even though I’d be more impressed if it were an unaltered photo—I would still frame it and put it up on the wall. This is a different kind of image, and we as a community haven’t yet figured out how to think about it.”
From the [doc:199056|link:official rules]:
All Photographs must depict “birdlife” and must therefore contain at least one bird, and accurately reflect the subject matter as it appeared in the viewfinder. Photos that have been digitally or otherwise altered beyond standard optimization (including but not limited to removal of dust, cropping, and/or adjustments to color and contrast) will be disqualified. Normal processing of RAW image files or minor adjustments to color and contrast are acceptable, as is minimal cropping. Stitched panoramas may be entered in any division.