Giovanni Troilo has been stripped of his ‘Contemporary Issues’ World Press Photo win, which is a surprise development. The original award drew considerable criticism, when the the public learnt that the entire series of images had been staged. At the same time, the mayor of Charleroi (Belgium) and other residents complained that the Troilo’s winning series, ‘La Ville Noir – The Dark Heart of Europe‘ provided a highly distorted representation of their town and that it was ‘unrecognisable’. Lots of personal opinion coming up – please let me know yours!
Despite the controversy, World Press Photo stated that Troilo would retain the award on the basis that he did not “stage pictures to show something that would otherwise have not taken place.” This strikes me as rather like giving an award for ‘Battlefield Commander of the Year’ to someone who greatly impressed with his command abilities…. in a re-enactment!
Surely the whole point of photojournalism and press activities is to tackle what is seen and heard: real human history as it unfolds? It is this fleeting moment/real-time dimension that presents acute challenges for photographers to overcome. The problem with asserting that the pictures would ‘otherwise have taken place’ is that this is one monumental and entirely unsustainable piece of guesswork. How could we possibly know whether they would occur, how they would occur, or how we would perceive them? I feel less uncomfortable with a previously ‘integrity case’, where Adnan Hajj cloned extra fire smoke into the sky above Beirut after Israeli air strikes, because at least it really was Beirut. And there really was fire. And bombing. And smoke. With Troilo’s series, we have no reference point whatsoever. I wrote an article about the truth in photography only a few weeks ago, which outlines some of the ethical quagmires that are part and parcel of photojournalism and photography in general.
But this is not the end of it! It turns out that in addition to being staged, some of the images were not even shot in Cherleroi, but in Brussels, 50km away. It was this revelation that resulted in the disqualification. While I believe it is the appropriate outcome, I feel it is a weak argument against the validity of the images if the underlying premise of staged photographs is acceptable in the realm of press photography in the first place! How can it possibly matter where the images were staged, because we are dealing with fabrication from the very beginning? I can think of only one image in the entire series that gives a clear indication of the location (shown above), whereas the remainder could have been shot almost anywhere on planet earth. If the basic premise of staged photographs is accepted, we are acknowledging that actual real time events matter less than the ‘story’s message’. If so, surely the exact location is surely immaterial if the story is relevant and meaningful to the town in question? I am playing devil’s advocate a little here, because the whole affair feels quite absurd to me. At an intellectual level, I feel the second ‘verdict’ (in response to actual location) only highlights the fact that WPP made a mistake by accepting a staged series in the first place. Were this a conceptual piece outside of ‘press’ work, none of this would matter one iota.
So where does this leave us?
Some people like the images. Some people think that the fanfare associated with the disqualification is nothing more than a reflection of the joy some take in seeing others fail, but I believe this is overly dismissive – after all, the overwhelming majority of press award winners do not draw this sort of criticism and on a personal level I am usually blown away by many of the leading entries each year. To me, this case raises not only the spectre of photojournalism opening itself up to staged photography, but a specific genre which has already reached almost total dominance elsewhere in photography.
I don’t know if any of you have visited Les Rencontres d’Arles, which is a huge photography festival in the south of France, but if you do you will find dozens of ‘projects’ that look almost identical to the Troilo’s Charleroi series (I saw a dozen during one screening by one photography institution that so irritated my hosts that they walked out). There will be a few naked scenes, because these are mandatory. There will be guns, possibly hunting guns and some dead animals. There will be people standing in woodland (usually naked), quite possibly at night. There may be a blurry photo of a strange face or eerie looking passing animal, usually lit by flash. Car headlights and/or flashlights are often used. Most of the portraits will involve dead pan (often awkward) expressions standing straight on the the camera. Drug or alcohol abuse is useful as a final touch. The plague of such photographs of this kind is so overwhelming in volume and their commonality so astonishing, that you could swap 50% of the images from each series between series and it would make no material difference to anything.
It seems that a formula is being applied, which involves shoehorning as many ‘eye hooks’ into your 10-12 image limit as possible: boiled down, it is nothing more than sex, drugs and violence and reverse engineering applied to making photographs. The irony is that many critics regard such work as ‘progressive’ and ‘freed from the shackles of earlier genres’, but is it free of anything when it is all essentially the same? It reminds me of the ‘Postmodernism Generator‘ both in the terms of the meaningfulness of output and its underlying value. I am not criticising this sort of photography because it is formulaic and repetitive. I am criticising it because purports to be progressive, cutting edge and ‘challenging traditional boundaries’. I do not believe that it is any of these things, but instead just applies a newer formula for institutional acceptance that relies upon shock factor in lieu of the older ‘aesthetic’ The King is dead, all hail the King! I think my discomfort is that I rarely see the photographer in such images and feel irked when ‘meaningfulness’ is ‘manufactured’. In contrast, I feel that this series works wonderfully because its a faithful manifestation of a concept that requires staged photographs to fulfil.
The WPP Mission Statement is emblazoned on their website in capitals: “WE EXIST TO INSPIRE UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD THROUGH QUALITY PHOTOJOURNALISM” and it seems this is something they are going to review.
According to World Press Photo Managing Director, Lars Boering the organisation is going dig deep and reevaluate a great deal:
“In the past week, there has been a lot of discussion about this story, and the prize has been labeled controversial by many… We have checks and controls in place, of course, but the contest simply does not work without trust. We now have a clear case of misleading information and this changes the way the story is perceived. A rule has now been broken and a line has been crossed…
…Based on the mixture of reactions we’ve received over the past week, it is clear to me that the debate taking place about the definitions of press photography, photojournalism and documentary photography is necessary, and it will have implications for the professional ethics of practitioners. We find ourselves right in the middle of this debate, and we aim to use this as a learning experience, to give focus to the discussion and bring it to the next level. In order to do this, we are organizing a discussion about image integrity that will take place during the Awards Days in Amsterdam and we also plan to hold a debate about ethics in the profession during the same event at the end of April...”
The new winner is Mads Nissen, with ‘Jon and Alex‘, a story about two young gay men living in Russia, where homophobia is both commonplace and extreme. A worthy winner in my opinion.