I'm feeling the need to change the subject this morning, but before we do, I thought I might mention one more thing. As I was reading more about Shaw-Pellegrin yesterday, it occurred to me that maybe the contest organizers need to make it more clear exactly what it is they're rewarding...good photographs, or good journalism?
There does seem to be a disconnect between the two, frequently. I've found the same thing in my infrequent attempts at "photo essays": there are some pictures you get along the way that are good pictures; and then there are some pictures that are needed in order to tell the story accurately, but that aren't good pictures. No matter how good you are, nobody can tell a story in pictures honestly in which every picture is as good as the best one.
It's always seemed to me that this is a very major tension in photography...almost all photography. You can make it look good, or you can make it true to the subject, but, very often, you can't do both at the same time.
I even have a name for those aesthetically drab 'n' dispiriting but accurate and informative frames: "record shots." And I've always conceived that about half my shooting consists of record shots, meant to record a memory: I was here. I did this. I was with this person. I saw this. That sort of thing. Sometimes the record shots do turn out to be good photographs too, and I love it when that happens. But it's relatively rare.
Despite my fealty in principle to the ideal of honesty in photographs, I almost always fall on the side of good pictures. Those are the ones that move me, that I care about.
Of course, I'm not trying to be a journalist, nor am I charged with being one. I'm just an amateur, doing what I want to do. That's the way I like it. Saves me from having to worry too much about this sort of thing.
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MM: "'Maybe the contest organizers need to make it more clear exactly what it is they're rewarding...good photographs, or good journalism?'
"Very interesting observation. I see corollaries in the fields I work with: publication design (readability and larger type vs. smaller type that is treated more as a graphic element than as the main point of the publication); interior architecture (day-to-day livability vs. the kind of visual drama that photographs well); signage design (practicality, prominence, and clarity vs. the kind of subtle/spare/elegant stylishness that looks beautiful on a wall); and website design (fast-loading, structurally simple pages vs. stylish but complex and slower-loading pages). We won't get started on vehicles—or industrial design of things like cameras—but in all of these cases one can see how prominent industry awards may reward something other than what many end-users might assume the awards would be 'about.'
"As you note, there is no consistently 'right' approach, not even within a single individual (a guy may care what his car looks like but not his apartment, while his spouse may feel the opposite). But there's no doubt that awards usually reward one kind of excellence in a way that many end-users actually may not care too much about. Online commentary and discussions like this can help the public figure out which kind of excellence the award is honoring—and how that relates to what each individual thinks is important."
Michel Hardy-Vallée: "Whenever I read about photo-reportage controversies like the current one, I can't help but go back to the famous 2009 Paris Match award-winning (then award-losing, as soon as they revealed the hoax in the acceptance speech) faux-cumentary essay 'Mention Rien' ('graded nil') on the poverty and precarity of French students.
"The premise is simple: by respecting all the codes of 'concerned' photojournalism, the two students convincingly submitted to a major news contest a reportage that was 100% staged. The captions under the portraits describe the situation of students having to forage to eat, share cramped spaces, work many odd jobs, prostitute themselves, or live in dire conditions, in order to be able to continue their studies.
"They won the prize because photojournalism is essentially constructed on a trust contract: the only guarantee for the veracity of the images is ultimately the photographer's word (Ctein addressed that below). But there's a Borgesian paradox as well: you cannot distinguish a staged image from a non-staged one just by looking at it.
"In other words, they destroyed the idea that photos have essentially any intrinsic truth-value, and showed that whatever truth-value they have must be governed by a practice of interpretation (which obviously can be fooled).
"It is nevertheless an interesting, and I would say touching work, even when you are well aware of the forgery. On the one hand, these guys know their aesthetics, and if you're sensitive to that kind of style, you can only admire their eye. On the other hand, student poverty is a reality, and most people experience dire straits during the course of their studies, especially if they happen to fall outside of the ideal life style enshrined in official policies: students living at home or benefitting from parental support, allowing them to work little and spend time on their studies.
"Student loans are calculated on a purported parental contribution, not on an actual one, so if your parents are rich bastards, the government considers they support you and won't provide loans.
"The set of imaginary characters the two fauxtographers have devised is a fine collection of problem cases, and the verisimilitude is polished: their troubles are not too extreme, despite being beyond what anyone would consider an ideal situation, and their distress is at the same time counterbalanced by a will to get by and not linger pathetically on their misery.
"It's a great work of fiction. And unlike the case at hand, there has been no sidestepping of all the ethical and ideological issues their action involved. These are people who wanted to wreck the system, but at the same time they reinforced the power of storytelling beyond its truth-value. They took full credit for the controversy, and never attempted to have their cake and eat it too."
robert e: "'...What it is they're rewarding...good photographs, or good journalism?'
"Apparently more the former. After some reading and listening on WPP's website it's pretty clear that the priority is to find 'dramatic,' 'powerful,' 'beautiful,' 'poetic' images and series that 'reach out and grab' and 'pull you in.' This seems consistent with the stated purpose of the contest, which is to promote the 'inspirational role of photojournalism.'
"I think the Nature prize winner is a perfect example of great photographs being great journalism, and even good science. But that, I suppose, is not very surprising given what nature photography entails vs. documenting human news.
"On a meta level, the most disturbing winner for me—even more so than Pellegrin's infamous staged shot, though there are important similarities—is Xiaoqun Zheng's second prize in the Nature category. This series simply and shockingly takes familiar tropes from photojournalism about incarcerated humans and applies it to animals in zoos. It of course raises questions about our treatment of both humans and animals, but to my mind it also raises questions about the practice and conventions of the craft, and about what it is we're looking at, looking for, and honoring with contests like these.
"I also found interesting the Nature jury chair's account of demanding the Raw file of an eventual winning image to verify that its striking colors were not the result of post processing, and his comment about 'documentary' pretensions."