Is the 'Press Photo of the Year' Actually Photoshop Art?

Swedish photographer Paul Hansen is fighting back against claims—from hackers calling his work a composite, bloggers calling it a "fake," and still others questioning the meaning of news photography in a digital age—that his winning image for the "World Press Photo of the Year" contest is nothing but a computer-aided forgery. Even the World Press judges are doing some forensic second-guessing.

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Hansen won the major award last month for "Gaza Burial," a shot he snagged in Gaza City during the brief air war with Israel in November 2012. The photo captured a funeral procession for two young children, aged four and two, who were killed in an Israeli airstrike. Almost from the day it was published, Hansen (like others covering the conflict) was accused of embellishing the photo, possibly to make the Palestinian mourners look more sympathetic. The odd angle and ghostly lighting seemed highly unusual for a straight news photograph—and given the heavy political weight of the situation, the symbolism of such moments resonates around the globe. (Hansen has also been caught up in similar controversy before. It's not that the incidents didn't happen, they just maybe didn't look quite the way he made them look.)

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Suspicions were raised even further when Hansen arrived at the award ceremony on April 27, but "forgot" to bring the unaltered RAW file that contains the original source image straight from the camera. Without the original source it would be very difficult to tell what alterations had been made before publication. Nearly all news photos these days are taken digitally and most undergo some small degree of touchup before publication, like small lighting and color adjustments. But news agencies must adhere to their own strict guidelines, the most important being that nothing should be added to or removed from a photo.

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On Sunday, Neal Krawetz published a post on his website "The Hacker Factor" declaring that "This year's 'World Press Photo Award' wasn't given for a photograph. It was awarded to a digital composite that was significantly reworked." Krawetz has a Ph.D. in computer science and blogs about "non-classical computer forensics," among other things, so he isn't just an armchair pixel hunter. Intrigued by the controversy over the photo, he looked at the meta data embedded in copies of the photo (not the original file), an examined shadows and other details to make his call that "it appears to have been modified specifically for this contest."

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The next day, the website Extreme Tech upped the ante, calling the image a "fake" and stating that (based off of Krawetz' analysis) the image appeared to be splice of at least three different images. Now Hansen was being formally accused of doctoring his award-winning photograph. 

On Tuesday, Hansen denied that he did anything wrong. He told that it was a totally normal case of retouching, and the original image is bascially what he saw with his eye.

"To put it simply, it's the same file - developed over itself - the same thing you did with negatives when you scanned them."

The World Press Photo organization also stuck up for Hansen, saying they had "no reason to doubt his explanation" and that there was already a "heated discussion about the level of enhancement of the image file." It was examined by numerous judges and photo experts and found to be legit, but just to ease everyone's mind they sent the original image to two new experts for further analysis and they concluded that ... it's legit.

It is clear that the published photo was retouched with respect to both global and local color and tone. Beyond this, however, we find no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing. Furthermore, the analysis purporting photo manipulation is deeply flawed, as described briefly below.”

Whether or not Hansen's photo is "real," the debate over how much license should be given to photographers covering the news isn't going away. Every one accepts a certain level of manipulation in photographs, especially in the Instagram age. (Even a flash "changes" the original scene.) But how much alteration can you make before the image itself is no longer the same image? And how much editorializing can you do as a news outlet when it comes to altering the mood or perspective to heighten drama, the way reporters do it with their words? The only thing to do is to remember that no journalist is 100 percent objective—not even the camera itself.