Paolo Pellegrin and His Subject At Odds Over Photograph

Pellegrin-Shane-Keller

© Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

In response to allegations that he staged a photograph and plagiarized captions for his prize-winning story about the underside of Rochester, New York, Paolo Pellegrin has defended the work in a statement distributed by Magnum, his agency. The full text of the statement is below.

On the BagNews Notes blog, Pellegrin was accused of staging the photo shown above and plagiarizing the captions for the story, which recently won prizes in both the World Press Photo and POYi competitions. In the POYi competition, Pellegrin was named Freelance Photographer of the Year for a portfolio of images that included the Rochester story, called “The Crescent. Rochester USA 2012.” The Crescent is a section of Rochester where crime rates are high.

The subject of the photograph in question, Shane Keller, told PDN that he raised questions about the photograph in an e-mail to Loret Steinberg, a professor Keller had while studying photography at RIT. Steinberg approached Michael Shaw, editor of the BagNews Notes blog, who posted an article that quoted extensively from Keller’s original e-mail.

Keller told PDN today that it is not clear that the photo was staged. Pellegrin had asked him to pose for portraits with firearms, and Keller agreed to do that. Keller went on to say that he’s not sure he was in the act of posing for the portraits when Pellegrin took the photograph above.

“It looks like he happened to be there, in the right place, at the right moment. It looks like spot news photograph,” says Keller, who now lives in Dover, Pennsylvania. “It’s in a gray area, where if we don’t view it as a portrait photograph, then it’s on the gray line: Would it be considered a staged photograph?”

Brett Carlsen, a friend and former RIT classmate, was on the scene as Pellegrin’s assistant. He told PDN that Pellegrin had asked Carlsen to help him find gun owners to photograph in Rochester. “He was trying to find the underbelly of Rochester. He wanted to look at gun culture, and [photograph] gun owners,” Carlsen says.

Carlsen knew that Keller had guns, and called him up to ask on Pellegrin’s behalf if they could come over to take pictures. After shooting some portraits against a wall in Keller’s apartment, Pellegrin asked if he could photograph them at a shooting range where Keller was a member.

Keller says he agreed, and that Pellegrin asked if he could take more portraits once they entered the garage attached to Keller’s residence. According to Carlsen, when they entered the garage, “The light caught [Keller], Paolo told me to get out of the way, and he started taking pictures.”

Keller believes the photograph misrepresents him, and he would like to see it removed from the series.

“What bothered me more [then the question of whether it was staged] was my being associated with the Rochester Crescent. I lived in a nice and safe neighborhood. That photograph goes with a story talking about the gang and drug violence. It’s associating me with these problems in Rochester, when in reality I had nothing to do with that situation. It paints me in a bad light. I don’t look at a photograph of person with a firearm and assume they’re a bad person, but in a collection of other photographs about violence and drug issues, it paints me in a bad light.”

But Carlsen sees it differently. He acknowledged that Keller doesn’t live in a violent, crime-ridden area, but he lives a few minutes’ drive away, Carlsen says. Pellegrin’s images, he continues, “Shows that people keep guns to keep violence out of their homes. From an ethics standpoint, I think it fits. I don’t see a problem. Those  guns are in [Keller's] house to keep other people in the story out of his house.”

Pellegrin did not respond directly to a request for an interview, but the statement he provided through Magnum is reproduced below:

I’m sorry that Michael Shaw, Loret Steinberg and Shane Keller don’t like
my pictures from Rochester.  It’s not uncommon for people living in a
community to disagree with an outsider’s take. We all know that.  They
find my work “heavy handed.”  I found many of the things I witnessed in
Rochester shocking.  Part of a documentary photographer’s job is
sometimes revealing things that local elites would rather not have
discussed quite so openly.  In my experience, it was particularly true
in Rochester that certain portions of the population were disinclined to
have an open conversation about race, poverty and crime.

Shane doesn’t like the caption of the portrait I made of him.  (He does
acknowledge, however, that this picture was a portrait, and I’ve never
indicated otherwise.)  Here is the caption for that picture:
“Rochester, NY, USA.  A former US Marine corps sniper with his weapon.”
Shane agrees that he is a former Marine and that he is standing with his
weapon in Rochester.  My firm recollection is that Shane described
himself that day as a sniper.  He may have misspoken; I may have
misunderstood; or he may have used the word “sniper” in a manner that
was not meant to imply formal status as a Marine Corps Sniper (he spoke
for a long time about sniping).  In any event, if Shane was not actually
a Sniper in the Marine Corps the caption should be changed to read
“Rochester, NY, USA.  A former US Marine Corps member with his weapon.”

Shane also points out that I took his portrait.  This is true, and his
account of how we were introduced by Brett, who was assisting me, is
also substantially accurate.  I had been spending the majority of my
time riding along with the Rochester police in the Crescent and
otherwise interacting with the community there.  I approached the work
through a combination of reportage, portraiture, and even landscapes.  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.  Like any journalist, I
worked with my assistant to locate such people, and Shane was one of the
people we located.  I think his portrait, and even his reaction to it,
add an interesting dimension to the story.  Shane thinks he and his guns
have nothing to do with the violence in the Crescent; I disagree.  (For
what it’s worth, there is no firm agreement in Rochester as to what
constitutes the “Crescent;” it sometimes seems to be a conceptual
designation as much as  a geographical one.  I actually didn’t know
where precisely Brett had driven me to meet Shane, which is one of the
reasons I captioned the picture simply, “Rochester.”)

I have no idea why Shaw et al. appear to think there is something wrong
with making a portrait, or that making a portrait is not “authentic”.
As photojournalists, we make portraits all the time.  Are my portraits
from Gaza any less “authentic” because they’re portraits?  Of course
not.  It’s ridiculous.

There is one element of the Bag News Notes story that is worthy of
discussion in the face of a changing photojournalistic landscape,
however:  The relationship between my captions, such as, “Rochester, NY,
USA.  A former US Marine corps sniper with his weapon,” and the
background text about the story that accompanies them.  Traditionally,
when photographers like me produced work freelance, our agencies – in my
case, Magnum – would distribute the photographs to publications with a
background or “distro” text and a series of captions.  The captions were
meant for publication; the distro text was for editors, who, if they
took the work, would assign a writer to produce a text that would
accompany the captioned pictures.

In Rochester, I produced the work directly as part of a collaborative,
freelance project with a number of my colleagues, and the work ended up
winning awards without ever having been mediated by the English-language
press.  (Some of the work did appear in Zeit in Germany, although
Shane’s picture did not.)  Thus, my photo captions are accompanied on
the World Press Photo and POYi sites by the kind of background text that
ordinarily would not be published. (Zeit, for instance, didn’t publish
it.)  This distinction between captions and background information is,
in my mind, quite important.

My picture captions are my authored work, based on my individual work in
the field, and I stand fully behind them.  (If a small correction
sometimes needs to be made — like clarifying that Shane was a Marine
but not a sniper in the Marine Corps — so be it.)

The background text, which traditionally would be for internal uses, and
not for the public, is something I gathered from various sources in
Rochester and from the internet, including the New York Times.  Factual
background sentences like, “The Crescent is home to 27 percent of the
city’s residents and 80 percent of the city’s homicides” are frequently
repeated in the neighborhoods I was working in; I believe I first
encountered the statement in connection with the House of Mercy and the
amazing Sister Grace, with whom I spent a considerable amount of time.
(The sentence is on House of Mercy’s facebook page, for instance.)  I
confirmed my background information in various interviews with the
Rochester police, the House of Mercy, and many others – but that doesn’t
change the fact that it was intended as background information, i.e.,
the starting point for someone else’s authored work.  I’m a
photographer, and I produced a body of photographic work.

Looking at the presentation on the World Press Photo and POYi sites, I
do regret the formulation, “where these pictures were taken” in the
background text in relation to Shane’s picture.  Shane’s picture is not
captioned the Crescent, and I wouldn’t have captioned it the Crescent,
because I wasn’t sure it was taken there (as stated above:  I wasn’t
sure exactly where in Rochester Brett had driven me to meet Shane).  I
captioned the picture “Rochester, NY, USA.”  But the juxtaposition with
the background text is confusing and should be fixed.  The story is
about the Crescent, and I continue to believe that Shane’s picture tells
an important part of the story about Rochester, guns, and gun violence
(whether Shane agrees or not), but I don’t want there to be any
confusion.  For purposes of clarity, I don’t have any problem with the
picture itself, how it was made, or its inclusion in my story.

One final thought:  Neither Shaw, Steinberg nor Keller ever attempted to
contact me.  They do not quote Brett, anyone in the Crescent, the police
officers I spent so much time with, etc.  It seems somewhat strange to
me that while mounting a purported journalistic high horse they
themselves did not follow the basic tenets of fair and professional
journalism.

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8 Responses to “Paolo Pellegrin and His Subject At Odds Over Photograph”

  1. Paolo Pellegrin and His Subject At Odds Over Photograph | The Click Says:

    [...] Link: PDN Pulse » Blog Archive » Paolo Pellegrin and His Subject At Odds Over Photograph [...]

  2. Paolo Pellegrin’s Reply | Chris Barrett's blog Says:

    [...] …a second version of the reply http://pdnpulse.com/2013/02/paolo-pellegrin-and-his-subject-at-odds-over-photograph.html [...]

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  6. PDN Pulse » Blog Archive » World Press Hits Pellegrin with Wet Noodle (And Other Contest Scandals) Says:

    [...] student and the friend of his fixer, to pose for portraits at a local shooting range. The subject, Shane Keller, told PDN Pulse that as he walked to his car with the gun, Pellegrin took advantage of the harsh light in the [...]

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  8. Hiram Miggs Says:

    The photographer pictured and captioned the subject as if he were a lowlife living in a dangerous crime-ridden area. The photographer’s “explanation” was dishonest as well. The photographer is a liar, and this among other claimed “documentary” photos was staged and dishonestly described and captioned.