IRCC ... Interview published in XATAKA PHOTO

IRCC ... Interview published in XATAKA PHOTO

"Knowing the degree of authenticity of a photograph by reliable means was an outstanding debt with our photographer’s community", Paco Membrives, President of IRCC

Controversies of all kinds about the authenticity of the photos are far from new. They generally arise around photography contests, either for a prepared photo, an excess in the postprocessing or an alleged plagiarism. In this context IRCC Photographic Association arises, a project that wants to recover the authenticity of photography.

This is a recently created Spanish project whose main objective is "the search for authenticity and reliable procedures within the contexts of nature photography and photojournalism, where today more than ever the documentary image demands credibility". To achieve this, they use the highest technology applied to photographs to the point of carrying out a study with forensic analysis methodology.

A very interesting initiative, for a very laudable objective, that we wanted to know. For this reason, we have spoken with Paco Membrives, President of IRCC and the most visible head of the project, so that he can tell us first-hand what the IRCC (International Raw Compliance Committee) Photographic Association is.

- Can you tell us what the IRCC Photography Association is and what is its purpose?

Our Organization has its origins in a project developed during almost two years, which was created with the purpose of restoring credibility to nature photography and photojournalism, being the photography community the recipient and beneficiary of this project.

We live immersed in a progressive environment of pollution and manipulation, which has plunged "photography" into a deep crisis of credibility. Nowadays, being able to discern between what is authentic and what is altered, or trying to know the degree of verisimilitude or fidelity of each image with respect to its original, has become a simple act of faith, and it is difficult to give credit to the vast majority of photographs that can be viewed on social networks or many other media.

To be able to determine what is real, or to what extent an image adjusts to accepted parameters or standards, or to know the degree of plausibility and authenticity through reliable means and guarantees, is a necessity and an outstanding debt of the photography community towards itself. And thanks to IRCC, it is now possible to verify and validate photographs using the highest level of technology, with a scientific methodology of forensic image analysis, which determines and concludes the acceptance and certification of each photograph according to its level of digital processing and absence of manipulation.

 - The idea is to ensure the authenticity of the photographs; how do you do that?

After a year and a half of deep analysis and preparation, our technological partner (with a team of 6 programmers and 2 engineers specialized in OpenCV), had the task of developing a powerful technological tool at the service of photographers. The architecture and structure of the IRCC certification process is based on the comparison of the developed JPG photograph with its original file (RAW, native DNG or original camera JPG).

The need to compare "pears with pears" implies one of the most brilliant steps of the software used for this purpose, consisting in the creation of a perfect mirror of the developed photograph, based on its original. This is achieved by identifying hundreds of points of coincidence between the developed and the original, placing the developed JPG within its original image and thereby determining the crop factor applied, or the degree of levelling made and the correction of lens distortion applied.

Before the creation of the above-mentioned mirror, all the metadata tags of the original file provided are checked and analyzed, verifying the authenticity and absence of manipulation.

The certification process involves different stages of processing analysis in which the light and color differences between the original and the developed image are measured, both globally and by image quadrants. And it concludes with a thorough visual check to detect manipulations or alterations in the image, performed by two powerful interfaces through which each controller performs its check (a first HSV or heat map view, plus a second overlay view that proposes possible differences).

The software used quantifies the processing action of each photograph by means of a comparative percentage analysis of light and color values between the edited JPG and the original RAW, carrying out this measurement in 2 phases: a first global one on the whole image area and a second one on 9 areas or quadrants of the image, analyzing them as if they were 9 independent photographs.

Thus, the proportional values of possible zonal processing actions, which can be multiple and combined, are weighted, measuring if necessary the weight or load of actions derived for example from the use of selective adjustments, degraded filters, or selections of specific areas of the image where development adjustments are carried out.

The maximum processing values established as a limit and which give rise to the granting of IRCC certifications have been determined after a comparative diagnosis of a sample of more than 3,200 photographs admitted to different international photography contests, with respect to their original RAW files, establishing limits that correspond to the processing values currently "in use" and implicitly accepted by the international photography competitions.

Thanks to this, progress has been made from "arbitrary, undefined and subjective criteria", which include the majority of the bases of many photographic contests, to a measurable and objective evaluation on which the IRCC certifications are based. All this with the collaboration of experts and renowned photographers, as well as some heads of photography competitions, who supervised the transparency, methodology, objectivity and thoroughness of the IRCC certification processes.

 - During the authentication process you analyze the photos following a methodology of forensic analysis, can you explain us briefly this process?

The certification process begins once the user has completed the upload of the "JPG-RAW" file duplicates, initiating a complete diagnostic procedure through various stages which are briefly described below:

1. Preliminary - Validation of coincidence between the developed JPG file and the original RAW

Through the form used to upload the images a process of verification of coincidence between both files is activated to identify any potential mistakes on the part of the user when selecting the original file and the developed one.

2. Level N0 - Metadata

Analysis and classification of metadata from the original file (RAW) After validation, the process of creating a perfect mirror of the JPG developed from the original RAW is launched, obtaining information such as crop percentage and scale factor (distortion or lens correction).

3. Level N1 - Global evaluation of light and color variations between the original file and the developed one

Global JPG image processing diagnosis, by quantifying percentage differences of the accumulated values, 0 to 255 per pixel, for Gray and RGB channels.

4. Level N2 - Zonal evaluation of light and color variations between the original file and the developed one

Zonal processing diagnosis of the JPG image, divided into 9 partitions or areas, by quantifying the percentage differences of the accumulated values, 0 to 255 per pixel over the Grey and RGB channels, for each of the 9 areas.

5. Level N3 - Visual processing control and alarm review in order to detect unsupported development actions

Visual analysis of differences between developed JPG files and original RAW files, through powerful visual analysis tools consisting of two specific views for this purpose, called "HSV and Overlay", which allow the detection of manipulations, clones or alterations with respect to the original photograph.

6. Obtaining IRCC certification

The authentication process concludes with the achievement of the IRCC certification, through the identification and registration of the unique HASH code (SHA256) of the revealed JPG file. IRCC provides the authenticity accreditation of the developed JPG file through an image with a built-in QR code that allows the certification verification by third parties, keeping the files under guaranteed security protocols for 4 years.

- What would the process be like for a freelance photographer? Must he/she necessarily become a member of your organization? How much would it cost him/her?

In order to obtain IRCC certificates, it is necessary to register on the IRCC Photography Association website. Registration at IRCC is free of charge. Once registered, you can automatically redeem a limited number of free credits that you can use, as a photographer, to certify your photos, as well as request additional credits for belonging to supporting associations and photo contests. Thus, those photographers who belong to one or more photography associations or federations, or who participate in associated photography competitions, can certify up to 15 or 20 photographs completely free of charge.

Photographers can also request a semi-annual or annual subscription and obtain additional credits for processing new certification requests, without becoming a member. The request for a certificate implies the consumption of credits established in the conditions in force on the date of the request, except in the cases of a second request on the same photograph initially rejected. It is therefore possible to adjust or correct the processing values on the same photograph, allowing the photographer to certify his/her image without additional expense.

- Is it mandatory to submit the RAW files? I understand that images must be certified one at a time, is that right?

In order to request the certification of a photograph, both the "developed JPG" and the "original RAW" files (RAW file, native DNG or original camera JPG) must be submitted using the form provided for this purpose.

Photographers must submit an individual certification request for each photograph, as each image requires its specific title and description. IRCC carries out verification processes of photographic collections for photography contests with which it has collaboration agreements.

IRCC issues two types of certifications as accreditation and guarantee of authenticity of the photograph to be legitimized:

- RAW certification: issued for applications that provide the edited JPG photograph that is intended to be certified as a "RAW" or "native or original DNG" file. This certification is suitable for all photography contests whose rules require the availability of a RAW file as a guarantee or support of the edited photograph. In certain events that have collaboration agreements with the IRCC, the photographer will not be required to provide the RAW file if his/her photograph has been previously certified.

- JPG certification: issued for applications that provide the edited JPG photograph that is intended to be certified as an "original camera JPG" file. Obtaining a certification based on an original camera JPG file certifies that the edited JPG image corresponds to the aforementioned original camera file, within the established development limits, although it will only be accepted in those photography contests where a "direct camera original JPG" is admitted as an original support, as dictated by the contest rules.

IRCC processes certification applications for any current camera model, as long as it is published on Adobe's official list.

Applications for certifications are accepted for grayscale (B/W) converted images, photographs composed of multiple in-camera exposures, panoramic photographs, and photographs resulting from focus stacking.

 - How much is it for companies or institutions that want to join your association? How do you finance yourself as a non-profit organization?

IRCC has signed different collaboration agreements with photographic associations and federations, as well as with different national and international photography contests.

Collaboration with associations and federations is aimed at facilitating their own members to disseminate the certification of photographs under favorable and advantageous conditions, without incurring in any cost to them.

On the other hand, the IRCC offers all national and international photography contests in the field of nature and documentary photography, participation alternatives with previously certified photographs (which makes subsequent verification of the authenticity of these images unnecessary), as well as a consultative service for the verification of the finalist or awarded photographs. Thanks to this, these contests acquire a commitment to comply with reliable standards for checking the authenticity of the photographs, thus providing credibility and guarantees on the verification methodology and credibility of the participating images.

Members' contributions, subscription plans for photographers or contributions received from photographic contests, as well as some advertising inserts, are the only resources that allow the Association's operational structure to be sustained.

- How many associates, whether photographers or organizations, do you have at the moment?

Today, a little more than three months after the IRCC website started operating, we are very satisfied despite these hard times we have had to face. We currently have just over 300 registered photographers of different nationalities, who have certified over 3,000 photographs.

There are about 30 national and international supporters and collaborators, including associations, federations and contest promoters.

- This is a Spanish project, right? I understand you have an international vocation in mind... How do you plan to spread your idea?

That´s right. The whole germ of the project was born here, among photographer friends who shared the same concerns and who were concerned more than anything else with preserving the authenticity of documentary photography as we know it, as an instrument of dissemination and diffusion in this current context of declining credibility.

But it was clear to us from the beginning that this goal and the search for the digital ethic had no boundaries and we wanted to address the entire international photography community. For this reason, long before publicly announcing the beginning of our activity on our website, we made several international contacts at various events, international congresses and other meeting points on photography.

We visited the World Press Photo offices in the Netherlands, as well as France and Italy, and contacted a number of several international photo contests such as GDT, Montier, Nature Namur, Asferico or BioPhotoContest, among others.

Thanks to this we are currently collaborating with some of these contests and we hope to do so soon with many others. Just to name one organization, we have the support of the International Federation of Wildlife Photography (IFWP).

- In addition to ensuring the authenticity of the photographs, what other purposes does IRCC have?

Although it is the main task of our Association, we do not intend to limit ourselves only to preserve the integrity and authenticity of photography, but also to carry out all kinds of activities that contribute to the dissemination of the values associated with the development of the photographic activity. Thus, we have other tasks, such as:

- Collaborate with institutions, associations and other entities, promoting cultural exchange among their members through the organization of exhibitions, meetings, seminars and conferences or similar activities.

- Promoting and organizing training courses, forums, portfolio exhibitions, as well as supporting the editing and publication of relevant photographic content.

- Has the COVID-19 pandemic greatly influenced your IRCC plans?

Unfortunately, to a greater or lesser extent, it is unlikely that anyone will have been immune to the direct or indirect effects of this pandemic. We were surprised precisely with the newly launched project and logically our plans have slowed down considerably. Even so, we have no complaints and have done reasonably well, with slightly lower than expected IRCC participation records, but very good acceptance. So much so, that we recently published this public acknowledgement.

- Can you think of anything else you'd like to tell our readers?

In the short time that we have been working on this project, we have received many suggestions, useful feedback and very interesting opinions of a very varied nature and involving many renowned photographers, institutions and heads of different organizations. We are well aware that we are taking the first steps in a long-distance race and we hope to gradually convince those who have not yet had the opportunity to appreciate the very useful tool that IRCC puts at the service of photographers.

Undoubtedly, it is a challenge to rely on the figure of an impartial judge based on technology and mathematics, where nothing is subject to subjective interpretation. We are confident that the transcendental change associated with the "verification and approval" of a photograph a priori will lead to the disappearance of the inefficient or unwarranted processes of revision and verification of RAWs or original files carried out with limited technological capacities or resources and without homogeneous standards, with the resulting loss of guarantees both for the photographers themselves and for the public or viewer.

We invite all your readers to visit us, register and try to certify their photographs.