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Friday, 22 February 2013


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Walker Evans comment when asked "Do you think it's possible for the camera to lie?"
"It certainly is. It almost always does."
"Is it all right for the camera to lie?"
"No, I don't think it's all right for anythng or anybody to lie. But it's beyond control. I just feel that honesty exists relatively in people here and there."

(Walker Evans at Work, P.238.)

This is a very significant issue, especially today in the era of digital processing and modification. It is not only an issue re mis-information for the viewer, but an significant legal issue as well. The day when a picture of a criminal suspect in an identifiable location at an identifiable time could be considered valid evidence, is no longer so simple. Without thorough provenence from taker to courtroom, any photo can be challenged as false. In any case where the photo is intended to show a real situation, this matters. Where the image is intended solely as art, its another question. If I label an image, taken on a winter's day in Wisconsin, as "Arctic Sunset", does the mis-attribution really matter? As long as i am not trying to use it to show that I have been to the Arctic, I can claim that this ismy interpretation of what an arctic sunset would look like, and besides, I'm selling it as an art object, not a documentary one. If the buyer goes North, and finds that real arctic sunsets don't look like that, can I be sued for misrepresentation? After all, art objects are usually not considered as documentary (some exceptions). Clearly context and intent matter in making the judgment. It might take a 'sea lawyer' to figure it all out. Is a puzzlement. Thanks. Better than a crossword puzzle.

An interesting article and you blog comments too. What ever his motivation, misrepresenting the details, especially the decription about the real person, need to be condemned. The journalistic landscape is overblown with gun related violence stories, so the photographer's comments panders to the media world. For my own photos I will document the names of people, plus when and where it was taken. Descriptors about the persons are not noted as they are not relevant. In most cases I use people as props in the photos but they are the subject.

I read the comments posted about this photo via the link and was somewhat amazed that a number of people thought the photo's subject and his professors should have reached out to the photographer for comment prior to publishing their comments. They implied some sort of "unfairness" to the photographer through this. I posted a comment in reply to one of those people asking the question from the other perspective: did Mr. Pellegrin ask Mr. Keller or the professors permission to inaccurately caption the photos and misrepresent Mr. Keller's background before he submitted the pictures and accompanying text--publishing them, in effect--for WPP/POY? Apparently not or the linked post wouldn't exist as Mr. Keller and his professors would have corrected Mr. Pellegrin on his errors. Although, Mr. Pellegrin might then have submitted the photo, captions, and descriptions anyway... It's odd that a documentary photographer got the facts wrong on the subject he was documenting. If anyone asked me, I'd pull the awards.

I think Paolo Pellegrin needs to consider a career change. Maybe he could find a job on Wall Street, where his lack of professional ethics wouldn't be out of place.

I believe in the power of fiction and I greatly admire storytellers who can tell a great story that is so good, it's more believable (and simply better) than a "true story". But (and this is a big but), journalists don't get to have it both ways. They have to either become fictionalists and declare that their work is now fiction, or they have to stick to telling a story that's based on what really happened.

These things I've just said are obvious to most of us when we are talking about the written word and writers who break these conventions usually face sanctions. I don't see why it's any different for photographers. If we want to use our skill to portray "how it is" or "how we saw" it, that portrayal has to be founded on what was really there.

Readers should make sure to read the article's comments section and from there link to the photographer's response, which I do feel should have been solicited before the article was written. His explanation does make the situation less black and white, but is still in my opinion a weak apologia. He is smart enough to know what perception he was creating and that he was creating an image from one reality to comment on a different reality, and that he was not giving a viewer enough context to know the difference.

This is indeed unfortunate, disquieting and... in a word, disgusting. But to be expected, particularly in an era when the courts proclaimed it perfectly legal that a major network can literally lie and make up its news reports without repercussion or admission of any kind. The burden of proof is no longer on the "professionals" who procure and disseminate our news (whatever the forum), it is on the public who must consume and sift through the plethora of (mis)information.

Welcome to the wild west show anew, where fact and fiction merge and meld with bright shiny prizes for best in show(manship)!

Paolo Pellegrin's response is at least as interesting

I think the problems with misrepresentation (which his photo appears to be), is that it casts a shadow on all photojournalism, and people can then view photographers with suspicion.
My rule-of-thumb is, the more accurate the description, the more accurate the photo has to be - If someone titles a photo "Blackingstone Rock, Dartmoor, taken from the southwest" I expect to be able to go there and see it myself, whereas if it is just titled "Rock" my expectations are different.

"I also realized that to tell more fully the story of gun violence in
Rochester, as exemplified by what I was seeing in the Crescent, I wanted
to make some portraits of gun aficionados."
-Paolo Pellegrin

Wow! Uhmmmm.... why didn't he just snap a few more photos of all that gun violence he was personally witnessing in the Crescent- instead of taking "portraits" of gun aficionados on its periphery?

That photo (more action than portrait) suggests a variety of interpretations: man defending hearth, home and family; vigilante gathering up posse; meth dealer guarding lab...

Misleading presentation compounded by lame explanation.

To me this is reminiscent of facts in "true" Movies, such as Lincoln, where 2 CT Representatives voted against ratifying the amendment, where in fact all 4 voted for ratification.

A current CT Rep called out the screenwriter who's comment basically said well I changed their name so did not malign them and ultimately it was representative of the overall situation therefore OK.

Kudos for telling the truth. I don't know when "truth" and "accuracy" became situational but it sure bugs me.


Art is a lie that helps us see the truth.

People cheat in contests, however trivial the contest or the reward. Old guys, young guys, professionals, amateurs, pre-amateurs.

People cheat in contests.

Just wanted you to know that I am not the Michael Shaw who wrote "When Reality Isn't Enough", though I thank you for the link. I am a member of NPPI and "reality enhancement" can often be a thorny issue for photojournalists as well. Good read; thanks, Michael.

You must read Pellegrin's response: https://nppa.org/node/36604

It appears from Pellegrins response that he misunderstood the service role of the person in the picture. That was the only mistake. The shot is titled with the series-name and the details of the picture separately in quote-marks - the details do not state it was made in any specific area of Rochester.

The background-text should never have been published so that's a mistake by the competition organisers and/or a missed "Not for Publication, Info Only" stamp by Magnum. It would however, be interesting to discuss the ethics of not supplying sources for background info, as that data obviously affects the use to which a story is put. I'd say the text is more of a problem than the picture or the titling of it.

Dear Mike,

Having read the article and Pellegrin's response, I'm calling bullshit on the photographer. Taking the three complaints in order of import…

1) I will give him a pass on misidentifying the subject of the photograph. It could be a simple mistake and this kind of thing does happen, and, honestly, if you're not a Marine, you don't care. It's the same way that sometimes captions get it wrong whether someone is an instructor or professor at the University or whether they have a doctorate or not. Matters greatly to the people within academia, of minor importance when else. So, it was sloppy of him not to get it right, but it's a forgivable sin.

2) Now, as the location. You know, if he had simply said, "Oops, I got it wrong, I didn't take careful notes and it was in with a whole bunch of other work from that project, and I just assumed." I'd believe him. Mind you, if he were a cub reporter on a newspaper he'd still get a severe dressing down for it, but they'd most likely give him another chance and tell him if he couldn't learn to get his facts straight, he should be looking for a different career.

But he doesn't do that. Instead he weasels like mad. He tells us that he didn't really know where he was going (dear sir, that's part of your job as a traveling photojournalist), and that it didn't really matter because he didn't specifically identify the photo location as being within The Crescent (except, as Mike said, there's the implication clearly created by presentation in context) and that The Crescent isn't really precisely defined (except that's just an attempt to muddy the waters and besides he wasn't anywhere close).

He sounds like he's running for office and has been caught in a lie. He's going for obfuscation and confusion, not clarity. Sorry, he's not a politician running for office, he's a journalist. He doesn't get the play that game. He doth protest way, way too much.

3) And then there's the real biggie, the captions. That is plain and simple plagiarism. It's really clear-cut and there is no judgment call involved. You just don't get to do that in journalism, It's a capital crime. And what does he have to say on that? Nothing. Sorry, that won't wash. If he wrote the captions, then he's guilty of plagiarism. If somebody else wrote them, then they are. Whichever way, the finger needs to be pointed: This is a firing offense.

If he were working for any reputable newspaper in the country, unless he were very senior in status, he'd be fired on the spot. If he had sufficient stature, the editor and publisher might not fire him (because that's the way the real world works) but they would put him on a very short leash … Until the matter became public, and then they would have to fire him.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

This comes across not as an issue of journalistic ethics but an example of the great American stereotype: the paranoid conspiracy theorist. The only error is in calling Shane a former sniper which is not much different to getting his age wrong. If you remove the word sniper form the title the context doesn't change at all. He is still a former marine and current gun enthusiast which is why Pellegrin photographed him.

Shane was included in the essay because he is part of the local gun culture and Pellegrin believes that there is a link between the gun culture and the crime problem. Pellegrin may be wrong, but he has every right to make the argument. The background chosen for the photograph may have an emotional impact but it doesn't attempt to place Shane in the Crescent.

The biggest breach of journalistic ethics would appear to be by Michael Shaw who has levelled accusations of fraud and plagiarism at Pellegrin without bothering to check any of the facts with him. This episode displays much the same thought process that distinguish the opponents of evolution; namely that any discrepancy, no matter how small, proves the whole thing fake. Simply because you read a photograph in a particular way doesn't mean that this has anything to do with the photographer's intent. Rarely will you have as much information as the photographer so in most cases you will be starting with your own assumptions rather than any solid facts. The gap between assumption and truth is very large.

It's really interesting to compare the Bag News article with the response. I can see both sides and probably come down someplace in the middle of it all.

Also, the whole discussion online about this incident has made me think about Avedon's Beekeeper and its place in the American West project.

Also a pertinent read: http://jimcolton.com/blog/2013/2/22/photo-contest-bashing-must-be-that-time-of-year

I was here in Rochester for that Magnum tour. What a pompous bunch of arrogant asshats... the whole lot of them. Treated their hosts with contempt, drank way too much, screwed too many college girls. And worst of all? Lame, predictable pictures and ho-hum results.

Kind of like having a movie crew come to town only not as classy.

The main benefit was showing students that their heroes really are human, with glaring flaws and not-so-mythical abilities.

Am I alone in thinking that the picture in question is just, at best, well... nothing special at all ?

In my own practice as a street photographer, I usually include in the caption the time and the spot on the street I shot a picture from. Come to think of it, maybe I should also include which direction I'm facing. I fancy that someday long after I'm gone and provided that somehow some of my (captioned) images survive, a re-photographer can stand on the same spot I stood decades before and see how things have changed. To me one of the foremost utilities of photographs is as a document, a strict record of what happened where and when; if it's truly good, then it could also be a piece of art.

The photograph clearly seeks to emphasize the violent nature of Rochester by showing a guy standing around armed to the teeth. The fact is that the only reason he is standing there with a gun is because the photographer asked him to bring his gun out and stand there. This is not merely a portrait as the photographer claims but a manipulation of the truth. All other arguments aside, this is not honest journalism. For shame Mr. Pellegrin.

This is not photojournalism. But the caption of the photo below is a "photographer's statement" subject to verification.

A fleet of cannery vessels fishing in the South China Sea (West Philippines Sea) on a moonless night SW of Morong, Bataan.

This photo could have been shot on any isolated beach in Western Luzon. Any photo of a starlit night sky above the sea taken from a featureless beach is generic. Even if the constellations are well resolved, there is much latitude as to whence the shot was taken (more if panoramic). One has to take the photographer's word for it. As for the description of the photo's content, I took my friend's—who owns a beach house there—word for it.

This photo was taken with a fixed lens point-and-shoot (F/1.9, 28mm-e, 8S, ISO 400, Custom WB on Raw file). Here's a star trail shot taken from the same spot but angled a few degrees south and upward.

My "gut" reaction to this "photo", without having read the story, nor having read the comments, was that the word "Reality" in the header gave me pause, as I thought that the subject looked "posed" (is a "pose" "reality"?), and the shadows seemed "shady" to me.

Frank, re: "I was here in Rochester for that Magnum tour. What a pompous bunch of arrogant asshats... the whole lot of them. Treated their hosts with contempt, drank way too much, screwed too many college girls."

I wish a magnum photographer could have covered this behind the scenes of the coverage. Arrogant photographers screwing too many college girls sounds more interesting than what they actually shot. heh

All journalists manipulate the truth to certain degree. They have a view point and seek to tell the story in that light. Choice of subject material, perspective, time of day etc etc all influence the viewer or reader.

I have seen how this works many years ago in the West Bank. Sitting and watching a scene unfold and seeing how the various journalists chose to represent it was very illuminating. In the clip below and Italian journalist exposes the same sort of behaviour.


This piece also looks at the ethics and methods of modern reportage.


Back to the original story. From my own position as an editorial photographer who has only done a bit of soft news Pellegin was very sloppy in his captioning a cardinal sin. He chose to illustrate the story using the photo of a gun enthusiast to show part of the problem in Rochester. The subject objected. Tough. I think Pellegrin's choice to include the picture was valid. Gun ownership is a problem in the US, although American citizens might not like the point it is how outsiders see the subject and Pellegin's perspective on the issue is valid.

As to the claims about plagarism, well that is not what happened. Background briefing and research notes are not supposed to be published. Somebody somewhere dropped a gooley and I don't think it was Pellerin reading his rebuttal.

Pellegrin as far as I am concerned, and it is only my opinion for what it is worth, made 2 mistakes. The mistakes were one using a memeber of the photography program as a subject for the story and two the caption. Shaw is making a mountain out of a molehill. Two mistakes, the captioning and the release of the notes, do not make a conspiracy to deceive and fraud. Pellegrin's scalp for journalistic malpractice would be a nice trophy Shaw and would really enhance his academic reputation especially if media ethics is his speciality.

The lesson is in day of the internet is make sure your captions are 100% accurate and make sure that the outlet understands what is and isn't to be published.

In reading the published comments in this section, I was excited to have read "Max Pasion"'s post about including "...time and spot on the street...(fancying) that someday long after (he's) gone...a "Rephotographer" can stand on the same spot.....and see how things have changed..." One of my current fun projects is being that "Rephotographer" for some century-old local postcards I recently stumbled across. I had an interesting moment while backing-up to re-frame a shot, and I slammed against a large tree. I had a mental image at that moment of having blundered into the original photographer's 1900's tripod setup, and wondered if that tree was, as a sapling, the original photographer's location monument. It was kind of spooky because it felt like someone had slapped me on the back. Quite a visceral moment. I am disappointed to say that of the "Re-photographs" I have taken so far, I see more "decay" in building condition and general architecture than I see "improvement".

"The gap between assumption and truth is very large."

Couldn't of said it better, Paul. So what are we to assume of someone who would use a portrait (if one can call it that) of a photo student actually involved in the project as an illustration of the very violence he himself states to have witnessed on the streets? And what are we to assume about someone who would make direct assumptions (some might call them paranoid conspiracy theories) without the research and fact checking necessary to explain and support said "argument." This was supposed to be "journalism," not gut feelings, not pet theories- not personal assumptions...

This post contains spoilers!

This reminds me a bit of Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried. The book is a collection of Vietnam War recollections, and O'Brien a Vietnam War veteran.

Most, if not all of the stories are first person and it is presented as a memoir. Late in the book, though, O'Brien reveals that he's making most of it up, because his stories are more "true" than the actual stories he brought back with him. When I first read the book in high school, I was pretty infuriated by the whole thing. On my two subsequent readings though, I find O'Brien's case not only more plausible, but I've basically come around. The stories all come out of the totality of his experiences in Vietnam. If a fabrication can reveal more of the truth of those experiences than any of his 100% *accurate* stories could, then who's to say they have no value. Plus, at least he's honest about it, if not up front.

It seems to me you were on pretty solid ground. Maybe you couldn't get a picture of a boat in Ocean City that communicated what it is like on a boat in Ocean City as well as your Potomac shot did. Your series isn't about Ocean City as much as it is about your perception and point of view of Ocean City, and that boat picture likely showed how you viewed that facet of the experience better than any other.

Pellegrin's a different story on this issue, as far as I'm concerned.

When I read the title of Mike's post I first thought he would address the color manipulation in many of the contest winning pictures.

Phil's comment above on storytellers brings a question to me: is there anyone out there doing just that? producing whole photo series in the documentary style, but which constructs a fictional story and is clearly labeled as such? if not, there should be. I might even attempt such a project myself, if I find enough actors for it---doing it with unaware subjects might be more fun from an artistic standpoint, but it may be construed as libel and thus legally sketchy.

POYi Frackas I awoke at 4:00 this morning, unable to go to sleep, and read yet another of the stories about Paolo Pelligrin, the POYi contest, and the subsequent interrogation of the facts, motives and ethics that has swept across the world of photojournalism in its wake. As someone who has spent most of their career in (or close to) photojournalism, has done rather large documentary projects, and served as a judge on the POY contest (not the POYi), I found much to turn away from, on all sides.
But I feel compelled to write this morning on another tack, less about the specifics of this case and more about the general culture current today.
It must be said, I believe, that photojournalism, the field itself, is not on a very good trajectory. Its course over the last twenty years or so has been (again, in my opinion) away from its basic, logical goals and its methods distorted by ever growing culture of contests.
If we understand that money corrupts politics, then we must also be ready to acknowledge the ways in which contests are toxic to the essential goals of photojournalism. Contests have become the currency of photojournalism. They are the true reward structure, the goal, and now the very medium through which the photojournalism speaks. That business of talking to ourselves more than we talk to the public is one of the most disheartening of the injurious consequences of the contest culture.
Much was revealed in this fracas. The various facts of this story, buried down deep and of a strictly procedural nature, were illuminating. The bit about the "plagiarism" is one of those; it reveals something we should pay attention to. When contest season comes around (like NBA basketball, does it ever stop?) the many interns of major news organizations and photographer agencies are sent scurrying to put together contest entries. Lots of them. I can fully believe that one of those assistants at Magnum, faced with this daunting task, the need to give context to this set of pictures for purposes of the contest, simply cut and paste pertinent information from a very good source, the New York Times. (It was, after all, just a contest entry.)
But the reaction to this fact is also informative. Because what was really just pasted in background information, meant to give the harried judges of the contest some way understanding what they were looking at, is now taken as "plagiarism." Using it in a contest entry is now equated with publishing it in a news outlet. The contest is no longer just a contest, it has become primary media. It is the publishing platform. The contest has become the journalism itself, the primary place where work is presented to the public, and therefore subject to the exacting standards of public journalism. Though shalt not cut and paste, even in the cloistered realm of a set of contest judges sitting around looking at tens of thousands of contest entries. Who was meant to read that stuff besides the judges?
What is revealed here is a profession profoundly self-absorbed in introspection. (Even, in some cases, to the point of inquisition.) We are talking to ourselves. The audience is us.
I have personally seen this before. Once, when judging the POY contest at the University of Missouri, an ethical question arose about give the prize to a famous, highly regarded photographer. Questions of propriety had been raised, little different in either fact of principal, from this case. The majority of the judges felt that if there was even the hint of impropriety, anything at all that could reflect poorly on the contest, we must throw the entry out. For the good of the contest. But that would have (inevitably) tarnished the reputation of a fine photographer. Several of us objected. We felt we had to hear from the photographer. It took some time, phone calls were placed trying to track the photographer down while we waited. (And continued to argue amongst ourselves.)
When the answers came back much was explained. It was complicated, the real world had thrown up many surprises (dealing with the subjects in documentaries is often a bit messy) but in the end we found that the pictures showed what they purported to show, were not untrue, the story had merit, it had shone a light on important social trends, and had had substantial effect. The vote was not unanimous. but the prize went to the photographer.
It is one of the better things I have ever done in my career. And it is one of the reasons I get a little prickly when I hear the cry of the mob. Can we please just hear everything before we reach for the pitchforks.
But it had another effect on me: I've tended to shy away from contests. LIke all things the reasons are complicated. Sometimes I just didn't have any good pictures, and sometimes I wasn't brave enough to enter the fray. But I've also let my photography take me in directions that most of the contests just don't recognize, and so the question was often moot.
In the end my feelings about the contest culture itself are just as complicated. On the one had I am incredibly grateful for the boost that the original World Understanding Contest awards gave to my career. And I sometimes wonder where my career would have gone if my one real shot at the Pulitzer had not fallen short. So I'm grateful.
On the other hand, I've witnessed, over the last twenty years or so, a disheartening narrowing of the field of photojournalism, the very subject matter in question being funneled ever more narrowly into the province of war, pestilence and social upheaval, to the point that most people would say that that is its essential definition. And with the reign of contests, and the fantastic rewards they bring to photographers, legions of photojournalists have been unleashed on the world, all looking for plight and the afflicted.
Meanwhile really important stories facing all of mankind go unreported, or at least unrewarded by the major complex of contests. This is a sad fate.
So I walk away from this whole conflagration of ethical fires, unable to work up a good sense of indignation against any side, or against any party (mostly), just disheartened by a field mired down and going astray.

"Am I alone in thinking that the picture in question is just, at best, well... nothing special at all ?" - I'd just like to second Richard Bellavance's comment. I might accept this if it had been a one chance "critical moment", but we are told it is a "portrait". Can someone enlighten me as to what qualities make this a prizewinner? The composition perhaps?

I actually laughed out loud at cteins comments about the holiness of journalistic integrity. That is very, very naive in my opinion. I base that statement on misrepresentation of events I was involved in from the age of sixteen to a few years ago, covering areas of 'news' from the anti-nuclear protests in UK (mainly by a US tv broadcast crew, but also domestic news), through the anti Poll-tax movement and events during my (British) military service (during the time of Gulf-war-1, the deployments in former-Yugoslavia, and later).

Working journalists have deadlines, a company 'line' to follow and advertisers to satisfy - all of these things make reporting a matter of opinion, not fact. Stuff which can't be made to fit, in the time available, is frequently ignored.

Fresh reporting is, in my experience, unusual. (Which is *not* to say that the story in question by Magnum is any good, I haven't seen it except for the minor picture at the head of the blog here.)

Not directly pertaining to photography, more to eye witness testimony, but worth a watch anyway.


American people is divided between weapons lovers and oppositors.
That's it. Hide truth, hide, hide and dishonour the oppositors and any of their arguments whenever possible.
This reminds to me the widespread campaign against scientist speaking of climate change.
No, I don't mean there's a plot against magnum photographers; I mean it's a well diffused and seasoned way, in the USA, to cope with problems: deny and attack who brings them up.
Even for very intelligent people as Ctein, who says he's read the anwer by Pellegrin, and then writes in a way it looks like he hasn't read it at all.

I am so frightfully honest I am always disappointed when I see major league players fall. Not in their personal lives, I have no starry eyed expectations of perfection in all areas of ones life, but certainly do in the one area they have built their careers on.
I am reminded of a recent opportunity that presented itself where a major travel magazine asked to use one of my pics in a series they were doing for an "on-line" version of their magazine. Of course I was trilled and the photo credit would have been fun to champion with friends etc. When the publication went live I was notified and when I noticed that while my pic was of a place that shared the subject of the story in name only (A couple thousand miles separated the locations.)I immediately contacted the mag and they removed the photo.
I would have never considered any other approach.
So I remain naive and un-recognized:-)

Remember the two french students who wone the Grand Prix du Photoreportage Etudiant in 2009. At the award ceremony they revealed that their entry was all set up.
This sort of thing is always possible when a contest has requirements that can not be established simply from looking a the content of the images or images.

The usual press scenario all to present these days post > retract > and sorta apologize if advantageous to the circulation(in this case it is an advantage to the photographer)

ps all my images are lies http://www.etrouko.com/

I don't think it's wholly correct to say that a reporter's (leaving aside the critique/reportage debate) obligations are limited to being accurate.
Issues of tone, style and context contribute to the overall message of an article. When the message (not just the disputed facts) does serious harm to someone's career it could have implications for the writer in future defamation proceedings (based on innuendo) depending on the jurisdiction in question. Hence, while there is technically no obligation on the reporter to do so, it is generally in the reporter's own interest to check the facts with the subject of the article.

Whether this article by itself will qualify as defamatory based on innuendo is difficult to judge (without even knowing which jurisdiction any hypothetical claim would be bought). I can only note at this stage that the entire article is not confined to the facts and does imply that Pellegrin did not show integrity or authenticity. In such circumstances, Shaw et al. would have been well advised to contact Pellegrin before publishing the report.

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