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Reality vs manipulation: What indeed is true photojournalism?

Reality vs manipulation: What indeed is true photojournalism?

The prestigious World Press Photo organisation, based in the Netherlands, has found itself caught in a storm over the authenticity of images that won awards in the 2015 competition. The WWPh is not an insignificant body - it has been a leading voice in photojournalism since its founding in 1955. For many, winning one of the several awards in various categories is like getting a photojournalistic benediction. So when the very basics of photojournalistic and documentary photography ethics appear to have been discarded by the organisation, practitioners around the world are up in arms. GREG MARINOVICH reports.

This year’s awards seem to have been particularly controversial and divisive, with twenty percent of the images that were on the shortlist for awards being disqualified for excessive post-production, or manipulation of the images with photographic retouching software.

While that percentage grabbed initial headlines about misrepresentation of reality by photographers, it was a set of images of a Belgian town called Charleroi by the Italian photographer Giovanni Troilo that really upset the photojournalistic community.

Troilo’s work won first prize in the Contemporary Issues story category. It was an eclectic collection of images, some portraits and some seemingly documentary moments. Questions around this set of images first came from the mayor of the pictured town in Belgium. Mayor Paul Magnette wanted to defend Charleroi’s honour after Troilo dramatically titled his work “The Dark Heart of Europe”. He complained that Troilo had staged sensational pictures, had false captions, had manipulated reality and had betrayed the basics of journalistic ethics.

Of course, Mayor Magnette was doing his best to rescue his town from bad publicity, but his take on Troilo’s pictures is accurate. The trouble is that Troilo had staged several of the images – other than the portraits, and gave ambiguous, perhaps even misleading captions, making it seem as if he ‘captured’ spontaneous events before his camera. The compelling image of a couple having sex in a parked car is too good to be true. The image is of the photographer’s cousin having sex with his girlfriend in the back seat of the car on an overgrown road. There is an astonishing amount of light in that back seat, illuminating the naked couple. It turns out Troilo had placed a flash inside the car.

This is Troilo’s entry caption for that image “My cousin accepted to be portrayed while fornicating with a girl in his friends car. For them it was not strange. There are parkings popular for the couples exchanging sex with others; also single men and women can watch anonymously the acts through the foggy windows of the cars.”

Shame has died,” one commentator said in Charleroi.

There was a further clarification from the photographer that was issued by the World Press Photo organisation. “I used a small flashlight in the car scene. The couple was inside the car and I was about 15 meters from them. Every now and then I shot a photo.”

Photojournalists are outraged, not with the photographer but with the jury that awarded the prize and the organisation that allowed the award to stand once it was clear the most basic of journalistic ethics had been breached. Many call this a tipping point between truth and fiction, the opening of Pandora’s Box.

The renowned founder and director of Visa pour l’image, Jean-Francois Leroy, a huge figure in the industry, stated in an email communication, “I’m devastated by their decision. They just committed suicide! In Perpignan, we are standing beside photojournalists for 27 years. We can’t afford to show something which is set up, staged. World Press lost their credibility. They have to discard this award, or they have to change their name! Not connected to photojournalism anymore…”

A former chair of the competition, and a former high profile picture editor, Jimmy Colton, wrote in his blog:

There is no doubt in my mind that this story fits the category of ‘contemporary issues’. There is also no doubt in my mind that they are fine images. But…it is beyond the shadow of a doubt in my mind that it is not photojournalism. It is, at best, photo illustration. ‘Created’ images have no place in the World Press Photo Contestperhaps other than the portrait categorywhere the photographer has control of the environment they are placing the subject within. And even within that category, there is a fine line that must not be crossed. But they definitely do not belong in contemporary issues.”

Yunghi Kim, a well-known photojournalist with Contact Press Images, said: “What WWPH needs to decide is which direction they want to go. [They are] being pulled into two directions. Photojournalists have been quiet until now, but with this controversy, they have become vocal because photojournalism’s values are at stake. It involves ethics. It’s not about the photographer, it’s a service to the viewer.”

One of the only picture editors to speak out is Marco Pinna, with Italian National Geographic, who wrote on his blog about the Troilo images the breaking of a taboo – a prohibition in photojournalism.

Bruno Stevens, himself a former WPPh winner, says it is not the work itself which is the problem; it is simply not filed within the proper genre. “We are in fiction, as in a studio. This is not photojournalism. By endorsing such practices, a paradigm is changed.”

Last year’s jury chair and co-founder of the agency VII Gary Knight, himself a documentarian and photojournalist, says, “If we can no longer trust pictures, then we have a credibility problem. We have to ask ourselves: can this work be believed? Is the intent and purpose of this work just and fair? And if it is not, then it must be tossed aside.”

He sees that there are much larger issues at stake. “If it is not in the public interest, then it is damaging to democracy, the public interest and to civil society, and the communities we live in and among. We have to deal with the big moral, philosophical issues.”

Those big, moral issues are kind of the dividing line here. Some feel that the end justifies the means; that greater truths may be unearthed through more expression by the photographer. Others, more purist in their approach to not tampering with a found or observed reality, feel that an almost cinémavérité approach to photojournalism and documentary photography is the only path.

This is not a new conflict. People have been enhancing reality for news and documentary purposes since cameras were invented, just as others have seen the captured moment as an essential truth.

When mere humans are asked to judge between these two extremes of approaches – and all in between – there is sure to be conflict. To offer art-cum-documentary images such as Troile’s in the same category as a purely observed set of images lends itself to confusion with the photographic community, as well as in the larger public. There is a crisis of confidence that has to be resolved.

Let’s go back to what the quarrel is all about.

The basic tenets of photojournalistic and documentary honesty in the last decades are not complicated. There are three distinct parts to this process: what happens at the time of taking the image, how that image is processed (retouched/toned/etc.) and how it is presented.

  • The image captured and presented after editing and processing must be a factual representation of what occurred before the camera, with no directing, intervention or prompting by the photographer.

  • Any analogue or digital processing of the image must adhere to restraints that ensure the final image is an accurate representation of what was captured through the lens. The worst sins here are adding elements that were not in the single image chosen, or eliminating distracting or otherwise unwanted elements that were in the image. The limits of toning digital images are trickier, and a variety of standards are constantly being re-evaluated.

  • The captions or texts that accompany the image(s) must not misrepresent the content or the context of the images.

The only exception to this ethic is when images are self-evidently portraits, where varying degrees of interpretation as well as negotiation between the subject and the photographer are allowed. But this is not the only view out there. Many see photojournalism and documentary photography as a much broader field than purely observed slices of life.

Yet the modern, digital world is a complicated place to adhere to these tenants.

The American photographer Kenneth Jarecke has contributed at length to the debate. “Publications continue to ‘relax’ their standards as to what constitutes photojournalism because reportage photography is expensive. Newspapers and magazines, with their budgets slashed, cant afford to keep a photographer in the field for the amount of time it takes to capture real moments in pictures. They still need the pictures, of course, because they drive internet traffic and they also justify the words which are printed next to them.

So what happens is that the photo editors encourage freelance photographers to, ‘just make it happen’, when it comes to delivering the preconceived ideas theyve dreamed up during an editorial meeting. Now it seems these practices will be validated as World Press Photo has knowingly awarded staged photography in this years contest. Thanks to the World Press Photo Foundation, this is the new definition of photojournalism. Just as long as they dont remove or overtone any of the fabricated elements in their creation, the photographer with the best teammaking images of events that may (or may not) have happened will replace the photojournalist in the field and now be eligible to be awarded by World Press Photo.

Think this wont happen? It just did, and World Press Photo is standing by their decision.”

It may seem a bit like a storm in a teacup, but much of what we understand of contemporary history is led by still images. Think of the Vietnam War, and the Eddie Adams image of a suspected Vietcong insurgent being executed. This image dominates that era, as does Nick Ut’s image of a young girl running, burnt by napalm. There was no staging in these images. Ron Haviv’s image of Serbian paramilitaries kicking the body of a Bosnian civilian they have just murdered epitomises the brutal breakup of Yugoslavia. If the photographer Sam Nzima had staged the world-famous images of Hector Pietersen’s broken body being carried by his classmate, this would have called into question more than just his integrity – it would have reframed the entire event of June 1976 in South Africa.

If the recreation of images to reflect a perceived truth is allowed, then anything is possible: if I know that soldiers/rebels have raped and murdered women in a war, then am I justified in recreating or manipulating those soldiers/rebels to do it again for my camera? After all, a greater truth has to be shown to the world.

If all these rigorous journalists had staged images, and manipulated the scene, what would that mean about our understanding of history, of the world around us? As an observer of others’ lives, you cannot cross that line. You do it just once, and none of your images will ever be credible again.

The world’s premier photojournalistic competition cannot afford to play fast and loose with these rules. Yet this is not the first time they have failed to act against photographers who have been found to be less than truthful. The Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin was awarded second place for his 2012 images from Rochester, USA. At least two of the images were proven to be staged after Pellegrin’s fixer, a local photography student, spilled the beans that the image of the “former Marine sniper” in a garage in a dangerous neighbourhood was no such thing. Pellegrin posed the guy (a friend of the students) with the shotgun and used a misleading caption. The second image has the student himself shirtless and tattooed posing with a gun; which later turns out not to be his own gun at all. Both these images were misrepresented. Somehow, once the story broke, Pellegrin attacked all those around him instead of ’fessing up and moving on. The World Press Photo jury also failed to withdraw the 2013 Pellegrin award.

Some years before Troilo’s work, a notably honest set by Eugene Richards won that same category.

This time around, regarding Troilo’s images, the organisation initially issued a statement on Sunday that started thus: “World Press Photo is a contest for photojournalism and documentary photography, established to cover a wide range of topics, styles and practices in contemporary reporting. The contest requires [that] photojournalists do not stage pictures to show something that would otherwise have not taken place.

The meaning of the highlighted phrase (my italics) is that it is okay to recreate a scene that may at one stage have happened. Or could have happened. This is what started the firestorm of protest by journalists with integrity.

By Monday WPPh had corrected that to “Following the statement released by World Press Photo on Sunday 1 March, a misunderstanding has prevailed in the public online discussion leading to a conclusion that the World Press Photo contest would appear to approve of staging pictures. We would like to clarify here that the intention in the statement was to point out exactly the opposite.

The line in our statement says: ‘The contest requires photojournalists do not stage pictures to show something that would otherwise have not taken place.’ The last part of the sentence aims to define what we mean by staging; it does not aim to define an exception to a rule. Staging is defined as something that would not have happened without the photographers involvement. The sentence as a whole is meant to underline that it is not acceptable for contest participants to mislead by staging their pictures.

World Press Photo has not changed its contest rules regarding the professional conduct for journalists. There is no explicit mention of staging or re-enacting, but the rules state that World Press Photo requires all participants to act in accordance with the guidelines of professional conduct as laid down in the Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists of the International Federation of Journalists. World Press Photo regrets the confusion caused by the wording of the statement.”

But it is not the organisation itself that decides, but the jury, even if the WPPh people behind the scenes are ‘in tears’ about the choices made.

And when an entry is contested after the jury has disbanded and the results announced, as in this case, then it is not the organisation that makes a decision, but the chair of the jury together with the chair of the relevant sub jury. In this case Michele McNally, the director of photography, and an assistant managing editor at the New York Times, was overall chairperson; and Donald Weber was chair of the documentary category jury. David Campbell, the secretary of the jury was also consulted, as was Lars Boering, the WPPh’s managing director.

These four took three days to decide if the Charleroi images stood the test of honesty. To many seasoned photographers, the shadow of disingenuity was all over the essay, but there has to be proof that the photographer intended to deceive, and apparently they could not be satisfied that there was such an intent.

Their findings were encapsulated in a WPPh statement: In documentary photography consistent with the ethics of World Press Photo, the photographer follows his subjects in their environment. He or she does not fabricate situations from his own ideas, and he or she does not direct people to engage in activities that they would normally not engage in. WPPh concluded that it [found] no grounds for doubting the photographers integrity in carrying out his workand that [n]o misleading facts [had] been uncovered in the caption information that was made available for the jury.

Boering, in an interview, said that he and the organisation were listening to the community about the controversy. “We have to discuss what photojournalism is now; what is going on in this community, on the business side and in the storytelling part. There are grey areas. We have to define what that grey area is and what is acceptable. For us, it is really, really important to get this right and listen to the debate. People who make the work have to be a central part of this discussion. If we feel we have to change the rules then we listen, as we have always been a part of this community.”

The big question is whether Pandora’s Box been opened. Once the evils of deception and lies are loose in the world of endorsed photojournalism, where does the public look for a voice of truth? And was it really only in this year’s WPPh contest that the box was opened?

We live in a world where we are bombarded by imagery in all of our waking hours. Few of those images are the unmanipulated truth espoused by purists; most are carefully constructed artifices.

Some, like Knight, believe that consumers of news and documentary photographs are pretty savvy about differentiating between the types of images they see, and understanding the degree of veracity, even if it is on a subliminal level. Others, like Jarecke and Kim, feel it is all too easy to hoodwink society with faked images.

The truth lies somewhere in between, but it is clear that the credibility of photojournalism has long been under assault by ambitious fraudsters and those driven by an impulse to enhance the truth for the greater good.

It will take a massive effort of conscience from the photographic community to once again separate fiction from non-fiction in the world of news and reportage.

In a late development, photographer Bruno Stevens has spoken to the artist who does the re-enacted scene and he has stated that that occurred in Brussels and not Charleroi, fifty kilometres away. The WPPh has said in light of this they are looking anew at the awarding of the prize to Troilo. Additionally, the photojournalistic highlight of the year at Perpignan, the Visa Pour limage has decided not to exhibit the WPPh images as it has done for decades. Leroy stated that For 27 years, we have always stood strong, alongside the photographers. We have worked to defend values in which we believe and that we will continue to defend. Forever. The photojournalists we want to represent do not call upon their cousins to fornicate in a car.

(Disclosure: the author has twice been a WPPh Juror, was member of the Joop Swart nominating committee for several years, and was Editor-in-Chief of the WPPh Foundation TwentyTen project. He is also co-founder of a new photographic agency The Stand.)

Note: Michele MacNally did not respond to requests for interviews, and Donald Weber exchanged messages at length with the reporter, but requested that these be regarded as off the record. DM

Photo: Giovanni Troilo’s winning photo.

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