Canon controversy: Photo alteration a ‘no no’

By Sen    November 3, 2018 | 05:03 am PT
Experts weigh in on Hanoi’s Canon Photomarathon controversy, rejecting alterations and decrying poor composition of winning entry.

More than 3,000 people responded to a fast photography challenge in Hanoi last week. The sole grand prize for the challenge, Canon Photomarathon Vietnam, was won by a photo taken by amateur Tran Huu Long, which was submitted under the "Hard Working" category.

On October 28, the awards ceremony showed Long’s winning picture, which had a thit cho (dog meat) sign in the background. The sign belongs to a restaurant next to the working constructors - the focus of the picture.

However, when this image was released and circulated in the media by Canon Vietnam, the words "thit cho" (dog meat) at the top-right corner of the photo was replaced with "thit ga" (chicken meat).

The change triggered a debate over the ethics of "photoshopping" contest entries and plunged the competition into its worst controversy in the 13 years it has been held in the country.

Tran Huu Longs Grand Prize picture. Photo by Canon Vietnam official Facebook 

Tran Huu Long’s altered Grand Prize picture in the category, Hard-Working. Hard Working, Passion, and Vietnam’s Pride were the three subject categories in the competition. The contest, held in Hanoi and HCMC, welcomes submissions from all nationalities who are legal residents in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Canon Vietnam 

We did it

Canon Vietnam, one of the biggest Japanese investors in the country, admitted that they had edited the photo to avoid the social controversy that has been raging in Vietnam over dog meat consumption.

They said the photographer had consented to the alteration without infringing on the main value of the photo.

"Many readers, reporters and photographers, who have not read the information closely, are creating mixed reviews saying Canon has violated its own rules, based on their own judgments," Canon Vietnam spokesperson Ly Tran told VnExpress International.

This newspaper also spoke with photographer Long and he confirmed Canon Vietnam’s statement.

"As a contestant, I read and agreed to all terms and conditions, including the one saying the organizing committee can edit my pictures when I enrolled the contest. I agree with their decision and motive behind changing the word in my photo," Long said.

He said he was not a professional photographer, and photography was only his hobby.

"I was asked by many why I took that photo while eating dog is being boycotted in Vietnam, but I had to capture everything very fast so I didn’t pay attention to minor details... just focused on the main subject of the shot," Long explained.

Photographer Hai Thanh, one of the judges of Canon Photomarathon 2018 in Hanoi, posted a public statement on his Facebook about the incident on October 31.

"I claim part of the responsibility in this unfortunate incident which has made the competition controversial and face harsh criticism. This should not have happened and I myself should have done better...."

Since November 1, the content of the post had been removed and can only be seen in edit history and screenshots of it in the comment section, while the accompanying photo and tagged people remain.

What the professionals say

Nguyen Tien Anh Tuan, a former Canon Marathon contestant and a journalist, said in a Facebook post that he did not intend to get involved in the debate initially, but felt compelled to do so after viewing the photos on Canon’s official page.

He did not specifically address Long’s photo but did not find staged shoots tasteful.

"To be honest, I do not discriminate against staged photos. Many genres like art, commercials, fashion ... then it is natural to do [a setup]. I also know a lot of colleagues, friends, and seniors who produce photos in these fields which I still cherish. But perhaps staged photography should be limited to a certain extent and [the contest] should not accept unrealistic arrangements."

Tuan also wondered if the judges and organizing committee had shared with the contestants what they should or should not do. It has to do with orientation, encouraging creativity and passion, how to apply simple to complex techniques... "telling them what is right, what should be done, what is wrong and should not be done," he said.

Otherwise, contestants might just "emulate" previous years’ winning works, he added.

Nick Ut, the Pulitzer-winning "Napalm Girl" photographer, who is currently visiting Vietnam, told VnExpress International he strongly felt that using photoshop is something that should not be done.

"As a photojournalist, I don’t think using photoshop is a good idea. Sometimes we can crop a picture or change the lighting but altering details in the picture using photoshop is a no-no," Nick Ut said.

He felt Canon Vietnam could just have not selected that photo in the first place, instead of editing it.

Catherine Karnow, a photojournalist well known for documenting Vietnam for nearly 30 years, said: "From a compositional point of view, the writing is distracting. Your eyes keep going to the red writing. The problem with the photograph is the red sign, which is completely irrelevant.

"If they were women eating in a restaurant, that would have been fine but this is not. It’s not that it’s a good or bad picture, but it’s flawed to a point where it shouldn’t be winning the grand prize because of that sign."

Karnow told VnExpress International that there was a gray area where to which extend alteration of a picture is acceptable or not. "If you take a picture and a bird in it looks like dust, will you remove it?" 

The National Geographic photojournalist added that in photojournalism, there is an unbroken rule: you cannot alter elements in a picture, which are objects such as a hat, cat, person, brick, or so on.

However, in the context of this competition, photojournalism was not mentioned, so nobody broke any rule, she said.

Ly Tran of Canon underlined Article 21 in the terms and conditions of Canon Photomarathon 2018 competition, which states that the organizing committee has the right to copy, reproduce, use, display, modify, transmit, distribute and create derivative works of the materials. The competition rules are posted on the Canon Vietnam website.

In contrast, contestants are not allowed to alter or edit their entries, according to the same book of competition rules.

"Canon values the photo highly and also respects the judges, the photographer, and the contestants. So when the results were published, the original work was screened at the award ceremony. Canon only uses the edited picture for media purposes and not for any other purpose," Ly Tran said.

She also said that the original photo taken by Tran Huu Long will enter the next stage of the contest, Photomarathon Asia.

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