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Wednesday, 01 July 2009

Comments

In my view, this just points out once again the extent to which the photoreporter (photojournalist) is a reporter, and how much the truth of what he reports depends on his integrity. Just as a reporter bent on deception can fool both editors and readers, so can a photojournalist bent on deception fool a panel of judges. This merely emphasizes the significance of the responsibility placed on the reporter to be honest. Every reporter is implicitly charged with this duty in the course of his or her work, every day.

Mike

"Let me give you an example. As a teacher I encounter a great number of photographic students who are active in college life, naturally emotional about many aspects of education, and who spend the greater part of their waking life on campus. But in the past 15 years, and over 1,000 students later, I have never seen a photographic project based on what it is like to be a college student. In fact, it is rare indeed to see a photographic student carrying a camera."

-Bill Jay, from "The Thing Itself"

I don't really have any problem with what they did. They weren't submitting these to a newspaper and they admitted the hoax themselves. I would find it offensive if they had presented the pictures to others in a context where they were more likely to be accepted as straight news without the opportunity for them to correct the initial impression (a newspaper "corrections" notice never really undoes the damage done), or if they tried to pull one over on us and someone else had to discover the "fraud".

These guys appear to be art students. They created art. What's not to like?

That said, they don't deserve the prize and I would be surprised if they disagreed. This was a photojournalism contest. Their project wasn't photojournalism, therefore it shouldn't qualify. Of course their hoax will probably draw greater attention to the issue of the challenges faces by students than a real photojournalism project would have, but that is just the nature of the beast.

Nor do I think this says anything about the judges or the contest organizers. They got duped, but there is no reason why they should have been suspicious and it is very easy to dupe anyone, including experts, under these circumstances.

These guys will (rightfully) never get a job in photojournalism, but I don't think that's what they're going for anyway. Here's hoping they are able to use this to launch successful art careers, rather than just being a couple of one-trick ponies.

Regards,
Adam

Ha Ha..

Maybe this just proves how formulaic and similar so much Photojournalism is these days? These kids cunningly played these people by doing nothing but feeding them a well crafted spoonful of just what they wanted to see.

Brilliant!

Utterly brilliant, because the artistry stands on its own, despite the hoax. I think this was a necessary hoax, but also a very clever one.

A simplistic hoax would have been to make a mock reportage about a story in Africa: pick the clichés, reuse them, wrap, sell. What is very clever here, is that the premise of the fictional reportage is serious enough: to question received received ideas of photojournalism by applying its codes to a local problem.

It's a strategy that anthropologists have used. Anthropologist Serge Bouchard, for instance, did his field work not on an exotic people of the South Pacific, but on the culture of truckers in the province of Québec.

Likewise, these students offer us an equally interesting premise: instead of focussing on a distant catastrophe, let's have a look at a more quiet, local one. Already, one can sense a critique of the conventions of photojournalism: look at what happens if we turn the same lens on ourselves.

They up the ante by making this critique a hoax. By doing so, they not only demonstrate that the photojournalistic lens is made of conventions; they also show that these conventions are sufficient in themselves to validate the content of the reportage.

It's a hoax in the great tradition of received ideas criticism, such as Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçues. It's a subtle art, because it must avoid parody to maintain its impact.

Maybe this just proves how formulaic and similar so much Photojournalism is these days? These kids cunningly played these people by doing nothing but feeding them a well crafted spoonful of just what they wanted to see.

Huh? What formula did they follow? As I said here:

If you’re going to evaluate the quality of photojournalism, I guess, you have basically two angles:

1. Is it real?
2. Is it good?

I’m sure every photojournalism student in the world would maybe cringe at my ignorant summary, but hey. So, if you’re the review board for an award like Paris Match’s, I guess you’d want to at least vet the submissions based on the above two pieces of criteria. Clearly, they failed on the first — but I am not really sure how you ever could verify authenticity. Isn’t there inherently a certain measure of trust involved in something like photojournalism? Sokal’s fake journal piece was not only not “real” — it also wasn’t “good”, which was his primary point. Conversely, this hoax seems to focus on the fact that it wasn’t “real”, which strikes me as much more banal betrayal of trust with no real redeeming critical impact.

I'm just amazed that anybody could have thought it was real. french students having a tough life? that's hilarious.

Chris,

I think we all agree that it's terrible photojournalism. In fact, it isn't photojournalism at all, since it isn't "real" or "true".

The question is whether it is any good as art, and whether it was worth the consternation it caused the judges, organizers and other contestants in the photojournalism contest. This is obviously something we can disagree on. I'm not a fan of pulling a hoax just to embarrass others or just for the fun of it, but without knowing more about the "artists" or the project, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Best,
Adam

@Adam

You are right, the judges can't protect themselves from being fooled though it does say something about the judges or the criteria they used to evaluate the winner.

As those students planned the whole story they were fully aware of what they were doing while taking the pictures. They knew how to compose and what (stereotypes?) kind of imagery they had to use in order to give the judges what they wanted.
They did know what the market wants and this predictability is what they are trying to question.

Or in other words. Shouldn't projects which do not follow that well known pattern be rewarded instead of the photojournalism seen (too?) often nowadays?

I don't think photojournalism is in a crisis for most of it shows grief and pain but I think a little diversity would be nice and should be rewarded.
Showing not only the brutal truth but a more sophisticated and subtle approach to a topic could be a far better catalyst for further thinking.
The things out of place make us think, the obvious miseries often make us nod and agree to disagree with the shown situation.

To educate the people both approaches are equally important in my view. There is joy as well as grief on this planet and both can be used to emphasize the other in photojournalism. However, showing only one side is like telling only half of the story.

Michael Walker

"Nor do I think this says anything about the judges or the contest organizers."

I think some of are missing the point. The all idea was to show how predictible Paris Match is in his eagerness to publish anything fitting the stereotypes they use as a rule to push their publication: students resorting to prostitution to pay their way through college, etc... etc...
Giving the two students the prize says a lot about how the judges and the contest organisers see the social reality they feed on, how they see their 'mission'. Their hoax was set up to prove their point: that Match is ready to publish any story without asking too many questions if it fits their growing tabloid mentality.
The all project was designed to expose what, in their opinion, Paris Match is. Before starting shooting and creating their story, they wrote down what they intended to do as well as why and how and filed that with a notary.
So whatever we think about what they did, they certainly made their point.
As a sidebar, it was interesting to see that many publications and media outlets took this opportunity to snipe at Paris Match.

I think the students lied in two ways. Of course, their submission itself was false. They also deceived by pretending to be sincere when they entered the contest.

To cheer their hoax is to assume that all the other entrants were untalented and unworthy because the point was to say, "This contest is a sham."

I'd be impressed if someone trained, say, a set of ten year old children in the supposed PJ cliches to see how accurately they can choose the winners. With the hoax, I just conclude the students were convincing tricksters.

Finally, perhaps I'm unsophisticated, but I didn't like the winning images much.

It's as fake as many things with photography, especially now with Photoshop.

I'm reminded, all at once, of two things:

First, there's that newspaper editor from the fifth season of "The Wire," certain that one of the staff photographers has a trunk full of charred dolls that he can sneak into the foreground when he goes out to cover a fire.

Second, there's Tim O'Brien's assertion in The Things They Carried that the book is more true than it would have been if he had actually given an account of his time in Vietnam, because "story-truth" is more profound and impactful than a colder, removed "happening-truth."

Of course I cannot say whether their photo-essay corresponds to any truth at all, but I'm not prepared to write off the entire enterprise just yet. Many of the photos are fantastic, staged or not.

This reminds me of the 1964 movie "The Brig"
Jonas Mekas filmed a performance of Kenneth H. Brown's play The Brig at the Living Theater in 1963 when it was shut down by the the IRS for nonpayment of taxes.
The filmmakers, cast and the play's director filmed in the theater one night without permission using very fast grainy film shooting handheld, and got the soundlevels way too high and distorted. It looked and sounded so "real" that people thought it had been filmed in a real brig and it won the prize for Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival.

Sorry, but its just boring. I fake pictures about my life almost every day.

Could those who accuse photojournalism nowadays of being "formulaic" please point to some areas of photography that exhibit more creativity and varieties of approaches than PJ now has?

When I think "formulaic" photography, I think landscape, travel, product, street, and almost every kind of photography except photojournalism, which includes more varieties of style - from poetic to gritty to eloquent to brutal - than any other category of photography.

I fear that a lot of criticisms of photojournalism are merely complaints about being reminded of the way the majority of the people on this planet are forced to live. In other words, the messenger is being blamed for leading us to look at some unpleasant truths.

It just goes to prove that in the world of "Art" or "Photojournalism", if you play to the openly proclaimed stereotypes and dogma, then you are wonderful. I love it, because it skewers the pompous judges and editors by exposing their biases. Hilarious, just hilarious. Its like most "Art" today, throw a few splashes of color on a canvas, call it some High Toned name like "Man's inhumanity to Man", and the critics love you. Thanks for posting this

Remind me again how this is any different than the "journalism" as evidenced by both MSNBC and FOXNEWS?

"Journalists" have been creating and manipulating since the beginning of time. Nothing new here.

I have to vehemently disagree with Chase Jarvis when he argues that these students have made 'brilliant art'. The point of the contest was photojournalism, not fiction. When Jarvis claims that this prank "made us all pause, even if just for a moment, to consider what photojournalism really is", he's running full speed down the same blind alley used by the 1960s-1970s French literary 'theorists'. Nothing is real, everything is contingent upon imposed meaning, all of life is performance art. This sterile, self-absorbed branch of philosophy ran out of new ideas circa 1976, and is quite justifiably ridiculed today.

Photojournalism as both trade and artform is always suspended over the abyss on the slenderest imaginable thread, that of trust in the veracity of its practitioners. The contemptuous parody committed by these pranksters hacks at that thread with a machete. They aren't brilliant artists.
They're arsonists.

This reminds me of a recent article in time. There was a photo of 2 afgani children. In the photo were images photoshopped in.

Ah okay...

Seems I had their intentions all wrong and the little parody they tossed up backfired on them.

maybe this makes my point even stronger?

http://www.px3.fr/

When over6000 persons to sumbit the pictures and need to pay Euro 20- Euro 30
for each pictures, I think that photo game is able to quickly get a high profits in short time.

Are there many many photo games in France? Who can explain it? which photo games are importanting for France Photographers?
HCB Award or others?

More time-wasting, sophomoric bullsh*t. So they fooled some people by lying. So what? It seems to me that contests of this sort rely on the honor of the contestants, and if somebody lies, there's almost no defense. The photos are a long way from brilliant -- in fact, they look like what some photo students would produce.

Here's a more subtle critique...A St. Paul newspaper photographer back in the 70s and 80s, found an old boot in the street, and tossed it into the trunk of his car. When he was sent out of the right kind of inane assignment (go to the corner where the little girl was killed getting off the school bus, and shoot the corner -- neither the bus nor the body or anybody else being there at the time) he'd take the shot, then take the same shot with the "shoe" (as we call called it) tucked away in some less-than-obvious spot. That would go on the bulletin board, to highlight the inanity of what was actually printed in the newspaper. This is not a myth, by the way; I knew the photographer, saw the shoe and saw the posted photos -- and the point was made, and nobody got hurt. Except maybe the assignment editor who sent the photographer out...

JC

Brilliant! I can't wait to see what they do next.

Bring it on...

Magician James Randi, who's spent much of his career exposing spoon benders, mind readers, psychics and so on, states that scientists are bad judges for detecting hoaxes. In their (mine) world there's a basic assumption of honesty - people may be mistaken, or overy enthusiastic, or biased, but intentional fraud is rare. Since it's rare people don't go out of their way to look for it, and they wouldn't really know what to look for even if they tried. Randi is a stage magician and he and his people do nothing but encounter hoaxes and frauds, on the other hand, so they're very, very good at detecting hoaxes.

These judges--and newspaper editors--are in the same situation as scientists. They have no reason to believe anyone would submit a wholesale fake to a contest. People may go overboard with photoshop (and I'm sure they try to look for that), but actually making up the whole premise of the shot must be very rare. Rare enough that, again, they probably don't know what to look for even if they tried to.

By the way, as one commenter above says, this is not the same thing as Sokal's paper. You could argue to what extent Sokal hoaxed anyone at all--after all, he submitted a real paper, on the subject he stated. It was just intentionally very, very bad (stripped of any rational meaning).

Could've been worse; they could've taken a photo of a Spanish soldier being shot in the "decisive moment"...

Nah, that would never happen...

Non-story. About as exciting as getting your dog a credit card, or having your parakeet ordained by the Universal Life Church. (Go forth and scam no more...)

I'm afraid the point eludes me; the bragging rights are what?

"Hey, you trusted us and we lied and you believed us."

I don't know art...but I had an uncle that knew Art Carney...

"Could those who accuse photojournalism nowadays of being 'formulaic' please point to some areas of photography"

It's not about photojournalism being formulaic, it's about publications being formulaic. In this case Paris Match. But if we look at most magazines still in business and making money, that's what they do. They have a formula, and they stick to it because that's what makes their publication what it is, and what makes it sell. Match=sensationalism, People=gossip, etc... And by the way, what are the magazines of photojournalism left, if any? I mean printed, not online. The last one must have been Life... So we can produce all the stories we want, in term of originality and quality, but if they do not fit into a "formula," they'll end up on our hard drives. Unfortunately, I know...

Staging or faking PJ pictures is not really art, it's more like mimicry. Not surprising that a judge could be fooled, as seems like in many respects it was a simple form of mimicry. I would give them a C grade on their "art" project.

What's more "formulaic" than students making a parody of adult-world conventionality and palming it off as art? I'm not sure which is worse, this flat-footed expose or Chase Jarvis' golly-gee credulity.

After reading all the comments, I tend to agree that there's a certain quality to be admired (genius is probably a stretch) in what they did. If, as some suggest, they simply entered a contest under false pretenses and happened to win, then it would be a minor story about a couple of cheats. Instead it does appear that they set out not specifically to win, but to prove a cynical view that the contest will be won by a certain kind of entry. It's not that they lied; it's that they knew what lie to feed the judges.

As for 'formulaic' I think about the photojournalism awards handed out each year ... seems like I usually find out about them from something Mike posts here and before I click over to see them, I can just about envision the poignant moments of human suffering and the lack of "good news" that will be represented in those images. I imagine that the photographers who won this contest had an even more narrow expectation of what these judges would be looking for.

Q: if photojournalism is so much more diverse than other genres, why is there a photojournalistic style of wedding photography ?

I've been kicking around a response to this.
Addressing mcananeya's quote from Bill Jay... Virtually all of my students carry a camera every day. It's rarely out of reach. It's a cameraphone, and as wretched as the image quality can be, it's always there and frequently used to document their lives. These kids are not making b&w fiber-based prints from Tri-x negs. They're viewing the images on the camera screen, or at best, on a computer screen. Nobody makes a photographic print unless I assign that. This is their world, their gallery, not ours. We need to get over that, I guess.
What nobody here has picked up from this story is that, while these French students apparently were gaming the system, what I see in my students is a rejection of the basic rules of photojournalism. With some exceptions, they see nothing wrong with manipulating an image, either while shooting or with Photoshop, to make a point. I point out that they're creating propaganda, not journalism, but they just don't get it. Half of my students are journalists, half fine-arts majors, and that does not help.

Mike,

If you add 'journalism' to any word, shouldn't you expect lies, obfuscations and misrepresentations? These students should go far, bless 'em.

What a timely post. I was talking with an older photojournalist two days ago about how tired and unoriginal so much photojournalism had become.

He was saying how much he wanted to see something that didn't look like what he was shooting in the 70's and 80's. He's going to love this.

"Half of my students are journalists, half fine-arts majors, and that does not help."

This statement surprised me, at first. It seems to me that among the several intriguing tensions in journalism is that between aesthetics, conventions, and documentation. It has to be difficult to recognize, let alone navigate those tensions, on both personal and professional levels. You'd think that a good mix of artistic and reportorial backgrounds and aspirations in a classroom might aid in drawing the bright lines. But apparently it can exacerbate the difficulty.

This stunt has, predictably, raised hackles. But it should remind us that institutions like the NY Times, LA Times, Getty Images and AFP have all been party to disseminating fake news in recent years. This is a harmless prank in comparison, yet also an effective (I hope) reminder that we should never uncritically believe what we read, see or hear as news, that "journalistic" is an aesthetic as well as an ethic.

It reminds me too of "The Front Page" (adapted to film as "His Girl Friday"), a play written by two former journalists, and a hilarious story that told some dark truths.

Finally, I note that the organizers and sponsors of this contest, rather than redistribute the prizes, interestingly chose to cancel the Grand Prize for 2009 and use the money to supplement the 2010 Grand Prize. (Assuming I correctly understand the Google translation of the contest's home page.)

Perhaps these students are being honest and its the so-called photojournalists that are deceiving us. I look at what passes for photojournalism these days and all I see is carefully orchestrated photo opportunities. Very few photographers are now given unfettered free access to a story, usually a pr will have drawn up a list of does and don'ts and made them sign agreements.

I'm going to go with Chris Wage here (he and other commenters put it much better than I can). If you set out to prove something, then you design the right experiment. If the point is to show that the judges like a certain "formulaic" style, then this is _not_ the right experiment to prove it (the right experiment could be to show that year after year, the same sort of photos win). Nor is it the right experiment to show that the judges are idiots, since the submitted photos are not unattractive, they're just fake -- it's patently obvious that PJ implicitly relies on trust in the photographer and no judge can be expected to be a fact-checking commission.

It's relatively easy to stage a powerful series of human interest shots -- heck, plenty of filmmakers do it all the time. The whole _point_ of PJ is to do it in a real context, to create an emotionally powerful series of images from the world beyond your absolute control. Pass off the former as the latter, and all you've shown is that the power of the art relies on the assumption of the photographer's integrity. How is this a novel statement?

To Robert Noble: I whole-heartedly agree. There are a lot of great photojournalists out there and we get to see a lot more of their work thanks to the internet. If anything, this has forced photojournalists to compete with each other to come up with original shots that are capable of standing out from the crowd.

I'd also like to caveat my comments above by pointing out that my French is miserable, so I didn't really get all of the backstory to what these guys did. From what I know so far, I'm not sure that my response would be any different, but I still don't feel like I have the full story.

Best,
Adam

The odd thing is how often we are more affected emotionally by something when it's fictionalized than we were by the real thing. Part of Martin Cruz Smith's novel "Wolves Eat Dogs" is set in Chernobyl and his fictional descriptions of the area are riveting. Similarly, James Lee Burks's "Tin Roof Blowdown" describes hurricane Katrina and its aftermath more eloquently than any reportage I saw.

Even so, I think that fake reporting is an awful thing. But what is it when you self-declare that you are doing fake reporting while at the same time not doing fiction either? Is this a kind of performance art?

One thing the occurs to me. Granted the photos and subjects are fake, but is the story behind the hoax a fake? In other words does this hoax actually draw attention to a genuine problem (regardless of the artists' intention)?

It seems to me we are used to the "dramatic reconstruction" on TV. In general we do not complain that "fake" footage is used to illustrate an issue (ok, we might prefer the real thing, but accept that it is not always possible). We don't appear to have an acceptable equivalent in photojournalism. Just curious as to why.

Cheers,

Colin

So they proved you can stage photojournalism and make "stunning" photographs that look better than real situations. I think their point is just too obvious.

Anyone can lie, but how many of us can tell the truth when that truth is difficult to tell or not what people want to hear?

The problem I have with their actions is that they are mocking a genre of photography that I admire for informing me and others about the injustices present in our world. Photojournalism has been an effective means of bringing justice to those who lack power, even if some of it's practioners lack finesse. Rather than attempting to raise the bar, these guys took a cynical approach and made a cheap shot. Their actions potentially damage the trust that people place in photojournalism.

I must say that I am saddened by the many responses above that applaud their actions.

ahem, god bless the students and the kids...I still have that fire but now I get arrested instead of spanked.

I think what they did was excellent...

I appreciated the comment about Capa's "Spanish soldier" photo because it reminds us that the "wrong assumptions" sword can fall both ways.

For years it was just assumed that Capa "must have" faked that photo - no one could shoot such an image without autofocus and 10fps, could they? - and then evidence comes out that proves about as conclusively as possible 70 years on that the skeptics were apparently wrong and Capa did get the photo during "the decisive moment" of death.

So maybe one lesson is "Don't be too sure of yourself" whether you're a believer or a skeptic. Both approaches can be mistaken quite regularly-- it just takes less guts to be skeptic.

These guys have made a point that I have intuitively understood for a long time. There isn't any difference between "photojournalism" and any other type of photography. Seriously, what, apart from the intended audience, sets photojournalism apart? All of photography is concerned with putting what you think is important in the frame. The people that are upset about this have this idea that photojournalism is about "truth" or reality or something. BS, it has been, and always will be about what the photographer thinks is important. The Pjs have an idea of what they want to get across and they make their pictures accordingly. Just as Borges' literary criticism of made up works can be illuminating, so too can this photojournalism of a faked truth.

People need to get over their hero worship of Pjs, they are just photographers. Really, what else could the judges be judging? They have no idea of what really happened with any of the entries. For all they know, most of the photographers distorted the truth so much as to make it unrecognizable. As another poster pointed out, this wasn't so much duping the judges, in fact it was the opposite, they gave the judges exactly what they asked for.

We're told to avoid cliches (Mike, I believe you once wrote a great essay on the subject, Eschew Cliche, if I recall correctly) but maybe that's not such good advice if you want to succeed in photography. The hoaxsters left a hint by using grainy monochrome to portray the desperate and downtrodden, and they still won. All you Flickr photographers (I include myself) -- don't lose hope.

I noticed a few comments here putting forth the idea that the students were satirizing Paris Match for being formulaic. Although that theory seems logical, I would just point out it's disproven by the students' own interview from the linked Figaro article (http://www.lefigaro.fr/medias/2009/06/25/04002-20090625ARTFIG00647-paris-match-piege-par-deux-etudiants-des-arts-deco-.php). My French is rusty, but a rough translation is: "It was not an act of insolence, an angry hit directed against Paris Match. We are not tricksters. We saw these real cliches of vulnerability but they did not speak. We wanted to make a strong impact with our staged photos.

In another interview in Le Monde (http://www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2009/06/25/deux-etudiants-en-arts-deco-mystifient-paris-match_1211375_3246.html), discussing one of the photos which had been accompanied with the line: "To be able to study during the day, I serve my ass during the night..." Remi remarked, "We found that to be a bit caricatured, we thought that would never get past."

So it does seem the central point they were making was criticizing photojournalism for having descended into cliches, for selling the same old sensationalist and exploitive stories about suffering and poverty. That they have struck up such a debate (this was widely covered in France) shows that at the least, they have hit a real nerve with their little charade.

Hmm... I've been reading TOP articles out of order this week and hadn't noticed that the AIPP and Paris Match contest pieces appeared on the same day. Nice.

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