The Dark Heart Of Photography?
The old maxim ‘The camera never lies’ appears in recent weeks to have gone from being the photojournalist’s badge of trustworthy, evidential pride to a metaphysical conundrum. Photography, or more specifically photojournalism’s ‘bad week’, started with the announcement of the winners of the World Press Photo (WPP) competition on 12 February. Many were surprised when this respected international photo institution revealed how 20 per cent of entries that made it through to the shortlisting stage were disqualified due to breaching the competition’s rules on what was permissible in altering images in post-production. This largely appeared to focus on digital processing that removed or obscured elements in the frame that were present in the RAW or negative files.
“Our contest rules clearly state that the content of the image should not be altered. This year’s jury was very disappointed to discover how careless some photographers had been in post-processing their files for the contest. When this meant a material addition or subtraction in the content of the image, it lead to the images being rejected from the contest.” Lars Boering, managing director of World Press Photo
Many questioned what this said about the principles of trust and authenticity the industry relies on if such a large proportion of photojournalists are altering their images? Was this the slow erosion of the high standards the profession aspires to or the uncovering of a practice that had been prevalent for a while? If this had always gone on then was this a fuss over nothing, and if not, what could be done?
A few weeks later another form of manipulation gripped the photography world’s attention when Giovanni Troilo’s work that won first prize in the WPP Contemporary Issues category was accused of showing a “serious distortion of reality” by the mayor of Charleroi, the town depicted in the photos. The WPP conducted an investigation and announced on 1 March it stood by the award to Trolio.
“The conclusion of this investigation is that World Press Photo finds no grounds for doubting the photographer’s integrity in carrying out his work. No misleading facts have been uncovered in the caption information that was made available for the jury. As a result Giovanni Troilo’s award stands in the 2015 Photo Contest.”
A technical pass for Troilo but leaving the mayor’s broader point unanswered – was ‘The Dark Heart of Europe’ an unbalanced representation of the city? Some read the WPP’s defense of Troilo’s work to mean it approved of staging, most notably former chair of the competition Jim Colton in an open letter on 2 March. His polemic was grounded firmly in old school photojournalistic principles—illustrated by his dismissal of Sarkar Protick’s winning work in the same competition as “nothing like reality”— and lambasted WPP over awarding prizes to “created” images. Seeking to clarify its position WPP issued another press release the same day but failed to stem the flow of criticism. On 4 March, Visa Pour L’Image, via founder Jean Francois Leroy’s Facebook page, announced they would not be exhibiting WPP this year in a defense of photojournalistic values after further digging by photographer Bruno Stevens revealed that one of Troilo’s photos was actually taken in Brussels, not Charleroi as the caption stated.
This proved to be too much for WPP as it clearly breached one of the competitions rules and the prize was withdrawn on 4 March. It was suggested by one commentator that this was like “getting Al Capone for tax evasion”, insinuating that WPP had thus been able to dodge the more challenging question about whether staging was ever acceptable in photojournalism?
Some felt that the WPP controversies were illustrative of a decline in standards related to the use of digital technology (making alteration of images easier) and a crisis in the media economy (increased competition forcing photographers to cut corners). Some, however, felt that photojournalism only had itself to blame. Historically, it has presented its images – the content inside the frame – as authentic representations of reality whilst downplaying all other choices made in their production and distribution — Which story to cover/not cover, what to frame/what not to frame, what to publish/not publish etc. That means it can never be anything but an interpretation of the external world. The very idea that a photographer can enter a situation and not influence it just by their presence seems often to be forgotten, as is the cultural, gender and political baggage they bring with them. By focusing on digital manipulation was the debate ignoring the elephant in the room, that the greater manipulation in photojournalism is that it remains a predominantly Western male club that has pictured the world in its own image? And what of utility? Is a photo story adhering to photojournalism’s purist principles always better placed to inform people about an issue than one that is constructed? In judging this, would it be better for us to focus less on the unobtainable ‘truth’ and more on ‘honesty’? Maybe it is not that young photographers aren’t applying the old rules, but that the old rules no longer apply? With the vast majority of the world’s images now user-generated on mobile phones, how could they?
With all this controversy going on, BagNews raised some ethical questions of its own regarding another WWP winning photo. Liu Song’s photo that won second prize in Portraits Singles shows a woman accused of being a sex worker shackled in police custody with her head bowed.
BagNews questioned whether such a photo re-victimized the woman, and more generally challenged the way journalists typically depict human trafficking. It also touched on the question of whether the woman may have been a minor and so raising important issues of consent and protection. What should have sparked a debate about representation, victimization and exploitation never happened, most likely starved of oxygen by the other controversies. One can’t help wonder if more time should have been spent on these ethical questions rather on whether a caption indicated the wrong location? Does the WPP have a set of ethical questions it can put to photographers in such circumstances in the same way it can on digital manipulation and staging?
WPP has not been the only one stirring debate on ethics in photojournalism. Saiful Huq Omi, a photographer from Bangladesh, was accused of exploiting a burn victim whilst photographing in a hospital. However, the debate evolved into one about the use of staging in documentary photography due to the black backdrop Omi used. Accusations and rebuttals ensued. It should come as no surprise that little clarity emerged, just as it would come as little surprise if such alleged practices occurred all the time. Was this another illustration of a professional pushed by tightening photo budgets in the media to get his shot at all costs or just an individual lacking professionalism?
Lastly, the most recent photos to provoke an online ethical debate were those by Italian photographer Luciano Checco. His work ‘The Other Singapore’ focused primarily on sex workers and was featured on the Leica blog. Not long after it appeared, civil society organizations working to support sex workers in Singapore criticized the work for showing the women’s faces without seeking their consent and thus putting them at risk. Other commentators pointed out how tired they were with the clichéd choice of ‘exotic’ subject matter and representation of it by a Westerner in Asia – the fact that ‘shiny Singapore had prostitutes’ seemed like a non-story. What stood out was that as an amateur Checco had pursued this project on his own with apparently little knowledge of the issue and without partners in civil society. Because of this he failed to understand the ethical challenges he needed to deal with and risks involved for those he photographed.
The work of Troilo, Song, Omi and Checco raise important ethical questions about the way photographers work. Although manipulation, staging, exploitation and consent are far from new issues for photography, they have still sparked healthy debate over the last few weeks. This should be seen as a good thing. It indicates people are engaged and care. The question is where do we go from here? How do we decide, either individually or collectively, how to approach these issues? Are we in a thoroughly post-modern age where boundaries between photographic genres are blurring? And if they are, should we see this as an opportunity that allows us the freedom to tell better stories and have more impact? Or is the erosion of the principles of photojournalism undermining trust in one of our key tools for addressing society’s problems? If these principles are still valid, are new ways of applying them in a changed media economy needed? And what of our relationship with the people we photograph – are we respecting the trust they put in us in how we represent them and the issues that impact their lives? If not, is it time to rethink the power relationship and decision-making mechanisms regarding who gets to choose how a community or issue is pictured?
Text by Robert Godden. Robert is a human rights advocate with over 14 years experience. He is the founder of the Rights Exposure Project that explores audio-visual solutions for positive social change. He is currently producing photos for a book about the lives of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. Previously, he worked as Asia-Pacific Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International with a focus on trafficking for labour exploitation and forced labour.
We solicited opinions from a few photographers working in different genres on the issues raised in the article. Here is what they had to say.
2nd Prize, Daily Life stories, WPP 2015
Photography has offered us so many possibilities since it’s beginning. I wonder what’s next after this cell phone/ Instagram era. As you read this, some thousand photographs just got uploaded. In an age when ‘every one can push the button’ or touch the screen of their cellphone what is our role as a photographer? What can we do with the medium of photography? We can tell important social or personal stories, we can create beautiful poetry, or we can simply document. The role of a photographer is now more challenging then ever before. Not just to survive financially but also what to do with it. How can one create something new, something meaningful? How can one find his or her voice? Nice and dramatic compositions are not enough anymore. Craft is something that will always be compulsory, but that’s just basic. I believe in authorship so I often tell my students that I am not interested in reality. I want to see your own take on the story or subject (something that I also struggle with as a photographer). By that I don’t mean to alter or manipulate reality but to try different approaches or narratives to build a unique and coherent vision. How can we define reality, especially when one is composing the frame or making a selection from a larger set of images? What is going to be published and what is not? How an editor decides to send a photographer to do a particular story? When photographers from the West go to a Third World country and make stories about poverty and suffering, how much ‘reality’ does that represent? From here we can have all sorts of debates and discussions, from political to ethical or even philosophical. The moment we are present in any given scenario we affect the basic fabric of reality. The moment we take an image file from our camera and convert it into a black and white using our computer we alter reality.
However, providing wrong information is problematic. From that perspective, I understand why many experts have questioned the work of Troilo. I respect their stand on this matter. It started many important debates over social media. Not all of them were healthy. Some were simply ridiculous. But all of these I took positively as it clearly shows people care. Later, when the announcement came from the Visa Pour L’Image it didn’t sound quite right to me. I have no problem with whatever decision has been made between the Visa Pour L’Image and World Press Photo. It’s just the way it was told, the tone of it. I felt very strange. But that’s a personal feeling. Nevertheless, wrong information is a problem.
What concerns me more is a related issue. Back in 2013, similar ethical questions were raised against Paolo Pellegrin directly from the person he photographed.
From the report we can see:
- He asked his subject to pose with a gun.
- A flash or artificial light was used.
- The picture is in black and white (which is nothing like reality).
- The caption was wrong and misleading.
It makes me wonder what was the reaction back then by the experts, by the apparent authorities of photojournalism? I found a beautiful article written on this issue by Jim Colton. I completely agree with him. But why was Paolo Pellegrin’s case dealt with so differently (personally, I feel more appropriately) than Trolio’s work?
- Is it because Trolio is less well known than Paolo Pellegrin or not from a famous agency?
- Is it because Trolio’s photographs don’t look very photojournalistic?
- Or that Trolio has a different approach / work process which dose not necessarily fall into the traditional practice of photojournalism?
This different attitude toward fighting for the ‘truth’ in photojournalism is what worries me more. If the integrity of the image is the most important thing, why does our judgment vary from photographer to photographer? Is it really a fight for the integrity of images only? Or are there are other factors involved?
I am not sure if it’s possible to achieve the singular truth with photography, but maybe different layers of truth. The perception of truth always differs from one person to another. Rather, I believe in honesty and sensitivity. If a photographer holds a background behind an injured person, I don’t find it problematic. But if by doing that it has a negative impact on them then I will not support it. That’s just my principle. This is dependent on the integrity of each individual, not specifically photography or its ethics. It is a matter of compassion and common sense. If a photographer photographs a city from their own point of view, whether it’s in Singapore or in Belgium, that’s their own standpoint. It is their right to do so. The same goes for someone who travels from Europe to the Middle East to photograph the war in Syria. What he or she photographs can only represent a fraction of reality.
I hope from here we can go to a place where we can have a more constructive dialogue with the curiosity to explore more visual boundaries rather than rejecting something right away just because it’s unlike anything we have seen before or it is not within the limits of our taste. It is not very practical to think that a set of rules will remain constant within a medium like photography that evolves so fast and has the ability to go in so many different directions. And we cannot stop it.
Chua Chin Hon
APAC Editor at Shell, formerly Deputy Foreign Editor at the Straits Times
Robert raises all the right questions, but many of them won’t (can’t?) be answered without clear industry standards. As we well know, what’s unacceptable for one publication may be fair game for another. And in any case, who gets to set the standards anyway? The New York Times? The World Press Photo? I’m sure the usual politics will get in the way before we even get to talk about the journalistic issues. Someone has to take the lead. I would like to see the photo editors of the major international publications get together, discuss, and announce what’s acceptable and what’s not for their outlets. Not everyone’s going to buy it. But it’s time to draw a line in the sand.
Robert Zhao Renhui
This debate reminds me of the disqualification of the winning image at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2010, raising similar questions. I was very disappointed at the Natural History Museum’s decision. The image, ‘The Storybook Wolf’, was removed from the exhibition after its disqualification. The image was disqualified because the judges suspected the photographer used a tame animal for the photograph. The disqualification was unjustifiable in my view because it was based on contestable and unproven facts. I also felt that the decision has cultural and philosophical implications on the practice and perception of wildlife photography. The title, ‘The Storybook Wolf’, literally suggests itself. The photographer, whether or not he photographed a wild wolf or tame wolf, captured a human perspective that we all could relate to and created an image we wanted to believe in. Wildlife photography has always given us an illusion of what it means to be wild. While the other shortlisted photographers in the exhibition brought us closer to nature through photography, they were also ironically emphasizing our increased separation from nature. Experiencing nature has become a more and more a spectator sport, with increasingly sophisticated technologies penetrating different habitats and representing them in images. The disqualification of ‘The Storybook Wolf’ obscured our relationship with animals. The competition encourages a distanced disturbance of the image-maker on the wild in a morally acceptable crusade.
The implicit principle of all photography is storytelling, and the best photographers tell the story we want to hear the most succinctly and elegantly. That is already fiction making. Judges appear to be penalizing certain competition entries for ‘staging’ because the photographers failed to find a ‘reality’ – that is, in their eyes a truly authentic image – to match their imaginations. It is an act of human egotism.
Since I became an artist using photography, I can no longer shoot a fellow human being without feeling exploitative towards them. I feel like a user. I feel guilty. I feel a responsibility towards them. The relationship ends after that brief interaction. Did I just use a person for my photograph, and for what end? A story? An exhibition? A competition? Did the person want to be photographed? What if he/she wanted to be photographed? What if he/she did not? Do they even care? Don’t we already know that the act of photographing is extremely intrusive? The photographer is working, the human subject is going to be in the work and most likely the compelling stories will be submitted for competitions. Maybe we just need to stop competing.
If you’d like to contribute an opinion on the issues raised, please add a comment below or email IPA[at]invisiblephotographer.asia. A selection of these will be added to the article to further the debate.