Yesterday, I linked to a BagNews post about the accuracy of an award-winning photo by Magnum's Paolo Pellegrin. Since then, Paolo has responded (weakly, in my estimation) and a number of sites have leapt to his defense.
This morning, BagNews responds to the criticisms. An excerpt:
[A] notable effect from yesterday’s critique was the counter-critique that BagNews "failed to contact" Mr. Pellegrin in advance or "give him the chance to reply." I welcome the chance to speak to that, and to clarify a fundamental misperception people make about the role and practice of BagNews relative to news photography.
What is essential to understand about our role is that we are critics, not reporters. That may be confusing to some because there are not a lot of practicing visual news or, especially, news photo critics around. But our role and what we do—deemed essential by esteemed colleagues from visual media to academia—is no different from what art critics or television critics or theater critics or film critics do.
I like that point. But then, I'm sort of a critic too, so I sympathize.
Black eyes, or needed checks and balances?
If you don't mind me going all meta now:
To my way of thinking, there's a whole 'nuther can o' worms waiting to be opened here: are prizewinning photographs more often revealed to have been fudged to some degree simply because winning a contest puts the spotlight of scrutiny on them? To what degree are the offending practices simply standard practices that are only revealed on special occasions when outside parties have a reason to look into them?
Since yesterday I've been included in a large private conversation (initiated by Michael Shaw of BagNews) between more than forty photo media professionals regarding the kerfuffle. Several participants in that conversation have questioned whether there should be press photo awards at all. After all, it brings unwelcome as well as welcome attention to a photographer's work, and occasionally (when a winner is disgraced) gives the whole profession a black eye.
True, it does seem to happen with depressing regularity: a photo wins a prize, the photo thereby receives extra scrutiny, and the methods or the ethics of the photographer are exposed and called into question; people then discuss the matter—what the photographer's transgressions were, exactly, and whether he or she overstepped the proper boundaries of journalism.
Funny, but, to me—and I'm an outsider, remember—this is a good reason to have press photo contests. It's really their second best and second most desirable function (the first being to call added attention to especially outstanding work, of course). I'm starting to think contests do a whole lot of good precisely because then the winners are submitted to this higher level of scrutiny. The rest of us then get a "snapshot" read on the current state of photojournalistic practice—we get to see how a small sampling of work holds up under the microscope. And we find out which lines are getting blurred, which boundaries getting pushed, and we get to discuss what we think of it—whether we think it's significant or not, a transgression or not, etc. That's exactly what we're doing now, here, and what the broader photo community is doing.
That's valuable. It's a bit like the function of the press itself in relation to society, only in microcosm, related only to photojournalism itself.
Certainly, when it's agreed that a prizewinner has cheated, it sends a message to the rest of the profession: there are standards; others, down the road, might be watching; don't fudge. Mr. Pellegrin got caught fudging, is all (in this one instance). In a story about gun violence in an area called the Crescent, he posed a friend of one of his photo student guide's with a gun in a setting of his own choosing many miles from the Crescent, miscaptioned it, and called it reportage. Not quite.
If there were never any controversies, then I'd say maybe we could do away with contests. Otherwise, it seems to me we still need them. More glory to those who pass muster.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Speed: "The argument is that contests are bad because they sometimes expose cheaters. The corollary would be that reporting the news is bad because it sometimes exposes cheaters, crooks, liars, philanderers and thieves."
Mike replies: That's my thought, but see Jim Richardson's comment under the first post for a different take on contests.
Burt: "This is a tricky subject, no doubt. I actually started thinking about what good or bad was being done with the World Press Photo awards when they were posted on the NY Times Lens blog several days ago. I was immediately struck by the processed nature of a lot of the photos, and it honestly made me wonder if these journalists were in it to report on a story or to win an award.
"Cut to the other day and the flap over the Pellegrin photo, and the situation has only gotten stickier. Looking beyond the argument between BagNews and Pellegrin, I wonder if the question you present here isn't the most important of all. Do these awards themselves cause photographers to act unethically in hopes of winning an award? Certainly not all the photographers involved are compromised, but some must have questionable motives. Any time you start to see the level of word mincing/semantics being picked apart in the BagNews/Pellegrin situation I think one knows in their heart that something is amiss, even if you can explain your way out of it with Bill Clinton-esque wording.
"As for the awards themselves—do they instigate this ethically questionable behavior, or do they bring about a beneficial level of scrutiny that would actually help prevent this type of thing? Of course the answer isn't clear, and I'm sure it's a bit of both. Perhaps those who give the awards should consider a method for selecting candidates' work that would reduce the desire for photojournalists to go out an behave unethically? Maybe individuals/magazines etc. shouldn't be able to submit their own work for consideration? Perhaps those giving the awards should be responsible, or submissions should be generated by a group of impartial, non-involved photographers. I'm not sure, but there's got to be a better way, no?"
Bob Keefer: "As a career journalist—writer, not photographer—what I think this tawdry episode illustrates is the sad arrogance of many members of the national media. The process works like this: Decide what the story is, usually based on reading other, more-local journalists' work. Fly in. Do a few interviews and take a few photos, all to illustrate the story you've already mapped out in advance. Fly home and enter contests."